Why Are You Doing This?
It started with an Instagram Story. Yes, not even a post, a story. “Bucket List”, it was called. It listed about a dozen challenges, run a marathon, visit another country, go skydiving, see Paris, etc. The usual suspects. One lazy Spring morning I scratched off 3-4 items from a dozen or more challenges and hit post. Just like that it was gone from my mind. A fair amount of life experience I thought, for almost 33 years old.
I get a reply from my BRF, and lover of life, Amy. “Gotta scratch more off from that list!”
“Let’s go skydiving!” I say in a reply.
I honestly meant it as much as I might mean moving to Alaska when I get sick of the humidity. But I won’t say I didn’t imagine it. I’ve seen the pictures of someone out in the middle of a clear blue sky, floating like Harry Potter without his trusty firebolt. The world far below them. An unreal contrast with fragile human bodies balanced in the middle of an oxygenated landscape.
But it was still that same feeling you get with anything else out of reach. Someday. Not now, when I’m a full time working parent, with responsibilities, deadlines, and your #basic 9-5 working mom dreams. I have time for post-work margaritas, but something truly wild would have to wait for retirement or, at the very least, a mid life crisis.
But still, the thought would float into my mind. “Skydive.” Even the name itself sounds laughably obtuse. As if gravity isn’t hurling you at a 120 miles an hour towards a hard concrete resting place. “Dive” as if the sky was some urban swimming pool you were casually lowering yourself into on a hot summer day.
But there was something about saying it out loud that made it more real. It quietly slipped into my brain.
Turning 33 isn’t a milestone in any culture. It’s not a number with any cultural significance. I wasn’t having some crisis of faith or in the midst of some fight or flight. I wasn’t breaking out of an ordinary life. If you know me at all, you know I love adventure. I’m game for wild adventure races where I run a trail race in the middle of the night.
But running a night trail race is not skydiving. But there I was, about 10 days out from my 33 birthday when I was finalizing plans to skydive on July 8 with my friend Amy. She’s had a connection to Skydive OC for years and the plans were quickly settled.
Although “settled” is probably a harsh word for it. It was more like, I allowed the momentum of the moment to continue. I was pumped up by the craziness of it. It sounded wild and I loved living in the obsurdity of the choice.
Five days and counting and I was finalizing “jump” heights. I signed up for 8k. Amy told me that would be a quick “freefall” height via Snapchat. I open another tab and google “good freefall heights for skydiving.” Yep, that’s how a person gets to an open door in an airplane over 10,000 feet over the ground. By googling it.
None of the planning felt real until I laid into bed the night before. My friend Melissa and I were going to head to Assateague early in the morning. We signed up for a 50 mile race in the dessert next year in Antelope Canyon.
I laid out my shoes, socks, running clothes. Packed toiletries next, filled up the car with gas, brought a change of clothes. Once I laid into bed, quietly closing my eyes, they flicked back open again.
Shit. I’m jumping out of a plane tomorrow.
Did You Sign the Waivers Yet?
The day started with an early morning drive out to Assateague. We arrived around 7 and hit the sand. The beach was completed deserted, for miles at a time. I made it four long, slow miles out and we turned to head back.
After eight miles in, I walked slowly back to my car to grab my gear. Looking up the sky, I tried to imagine myself hovering above the ground, like some of kind of uncoordinated angel. We grabbed lunch at a small beachside grill. After eight long sandy miles, I was starving. But my stomach was in knots. I can’t remember any part of the conversation I had with Melissa over breakfast.
I get a text from Amy to meet at the DZ. DZ, I think to myself, as if deciphering an ancient language. Drop Zone, I realize. DROP zone. I repeat in my mind. A place where your fragile, weak body is going to be hurled into like you’re a sack of old potatoes. We drive the 10 minutes from Assateague over to Skydive OC.
The “DZ” was made up of an airport hanger, a couple small industrial buildings, and a small, traditional looking airport with a few small airplanes. I check in and begin signing waiver after waiver. I’ll spare you the gory details, but needless to say I saw my life quietly flashing before my eyes in that small room. Melissa peaks over at my waiver, “you doing okay?” she asks. I reread the same sentences over and over.
There’s a lot of nervous, excited energy around the hanger. “See, regular people here,” Melissa tells me. “Young, so full of life, with such purpose,” I joke back, with my traditional Eeyore sense of humor.
We have a bit of time before we need to be back, so we head to Green Turtle for lunch. Having lunch before skydiving seems absurd to me. But I’m barely holding it together with paperclips by this point, so I continue inching forward anyway despite my anxiety.
1:15 pm hits, and it’s time to head back to the DZ. When I get back into the small waiting room, this time I need to get into gear. I done the most attractive, giant futuristic jumper in the back room.
“Have you done this before”, the man asks who’s folding down the sleeves of my jump suit. “No, I haven’t.” And then I laugh some crazy laugh, that I’m positive shows how close I am to breaking.
I’m then fitted into the harness. It’s TIGHT. I stretch awkwardly into it, walking back into the small waiting room.
Amy is talking with the owners again. She’s casual and confidant.
She sees me and smiles this HUGE smile: “You look AWESOME,” she beams. I’m living for her confidence in my ability to do this.
“You look like you’re on the verge of tears.”
It’s not inaccurate. Crying in front of other people is up there with my list of things I never want to do, especially in this moment. I smile and I don’t think I can speak any words, knowing I’m close to breaking.
We walk down the steps towards an area with some picnic tables and the entry to where we’ll board the plane. It’s tense, with people sitting waiting for others to land or waiting to go up themselves.
My tandem partner in this escapade will be Chris. He’s got a thick Australian accent and easily jokes with me. We wait for a while on the tarmac as our plane gets back. It slowly circles around on the hot day. Amy and her husband Chad talk with Chris. I stare, unseeing, into the day. It’s perfect, blue sky, clear.
Before we know it, we’re walking over to the “plane.” It’s unlike any plane I’m used to. A small, cropduster plane. I literally crawl in and sit towards the back. Chris sits behind me. He talks me through the plane for the jump 4, maybe 5 times. I’m very grateful because each time I seem to completely forget and need to start over.
I can see out the windows on either side and we slowly lift and circle up. The day is a totally clear blue sky, so I can see as far as Cape May. Chris points this out to me and makes small talk. He takes me through some deep breathing exercises. It helps.
Amy, Chad, and Chris all have altimeters on their wrists. They check it like they’re checking the time. When we reach 10k feet, Chad asks, “Do you want me to open the door?” I realize he means, open the door to the airplane, 10k feet off the ground. I don’t think my body will physically move towards it.
He reaches towards the small door and air comes rushing in. Chad climbs out onto the wing of the plane, then Amy next. Chris and I scoot ourselves towards the open door. I’m basically hanging out of the plane now, and its’ very real. I’m in an open door of a plane, 10k feet above Assateague and I’m going to jump. I don’t remember seeing Chad or Amy at this point, but we hang there for what feels like an eternity and then I’m catapulted into the sky.
We’re tumbling through the air and it feels like I’m falling, it’s only a few seconds before we steady ourselves. Once we steady, it feels like… pure bliss. I’m floating above the ground and you have enough time as you hang there, free falling, to see the ocean, Ocean City, Assateague below us.
My face is in this HUGE uncontrollable smile. It might be a smile, it might be the 120 mile an hour winds, but I’m elated. It’s loud, wind rushing into your face, but freeing. There’s this HUGE expanse of open sky, ocean in front of you. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Amy, she gets closer and I can almost make eye contact with her. She’s smiling this crazy smile too and she reaches out and she connects with Chris. I’m trying to look up at her and smile. There’s something about seeing one of your best friends at 8-10k feet above the ground that is just wild and amazing.
The freefall was probably 30-40 seconds, but it doesn’t feel short. There is a huge jolt and it takes me time to realize that was our parachute opening. It’s the material hitting the air that makes me realize this. Then, once the canopy opens, it’s quiet.
I can see down way below houses and backyards. Out onto the ocean and Assateague, a large expanse of open ocean. Chris puts my hands up to straps that control the canopy and asks, “Do you like rollercoasters.” I’m like, “Sure.” It’s all I can manage, but I’m loving every minute. I steer us through a quick loop and I can suddenly feel the descent. He takes back control of the parachute and steers us towards the ground.
I can see two small people on the ground that quickly get closer and I suddenly get a waive of motion sickness. I’m prone to it, but it’s as if my brain had finally realized it was plummeting towards earth. I was afraid of a crazy hard landing, but we gently land standing up right. Chris unhooks us and I can feel my knees buckle towards the ground into the grass.
Amy and Chad had already landed and were walking towards us. I’m getting to my feet and I bend over to catch my breathe. I hear Amy let out this laugh and I’m smiling too. My body is full of a mix of pure joy, adrenaline, motion sickness, and happiness like I haven’t felt before.
SO, What Was It Like?
I know a lot of people who haven’t been skydiving will ask me what it was like. It was nothing like I imagined it would be like. I could start with myth busters. I didn’t feel like I was falling, except tumbling out of the plane and right before landing. It felt like I was floating, flying above the ground. I didn’t feel that drop in my stomach, like I do on roller coasters. It was smooth, beautiful. The worst part of it all wasn’t the fall, it was the anticipation. It was looking out from an airplane, 10k feet above the ground.
Special thank you to SkyDive OC for stellar service and a fun ride! And of course to Amy and Chad for documenting my first tandem for me. Some great videos below: