It was Saturday. A friend and I had planned to go into Houston for a concert, but we hadn’t planned on such a change in the weather. It was beautiful, warm and sunny, and we had a choice to make. We could spend the day tending to chores and then drive into Houston, spend a few hours sitting inside a community center and drive back home in the midst of Saturday night traffic. On the other hand, we could find something to do in the sunshine and fresh breezes of the afternoon.
It was an easy choice. Just after lunch we set out, with no destination in mind and no real idea of what we wanted to do.
Halfway to Galveston, I asked, “Have you been to the Texas City Dike?” My friend hadn’t. Neither had I. I’d passed it innumerable times while sailing to and from Galveston and listened to plenty of fishermen extol its virtues, but it doesn’t make the news much, except for occasional summertime drownings, and I’d never found reason to go.
Suddenly it seemed unforgiveable we’d never been there, or to Boyd’s One Stop, by reputation home to the liveliest bait and freshest table shrimp in six counties. So, we turned toward the water, stopped by Boyd’s for a little refreshment and headed out to the dike.
Originally constructed in 1915 to keep the Texas City Harbor from silting in, the Dike increasingly functioned as a pleasure pier until it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The rebuilt five-mile-long dike is a wonder, and not simply for the engineering and labor that brought it back in only two years. Thanks to the storm, there aren’t any piers, bait stands or restaurants on the dike. For that matter, there aren’t any gift shops, carnival rides or vendors working out of the back of their cars. Today you’re limited to the dike itself: a road, a few picnic shelters, some porta-potties and boat ramps. It’s very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place, and the fact that you’re expected to amuse yourself gives the dike a distinctly old-fashioned feel.
Once we’d driven the five-mile stretch of dike both ways, we turned onto the three-mile-long levee which runs to the north. Apart from a few bicyclists, we seemed to be alone, until we noticed a small cluster of cars pulled off to the side of the road. Not knowing we’d stumbled across one of the area’s favored destinations for windsports, we got out and took a look around. There wasn’t enough wind for kite-boarders or wind-surfers, but that meant conditions were right for the powered paragliders. One fellow who was preparing to fly appeared friendly enough, so I pulled my camera out of the back seat and decided to try a little sports photography.
When our paraglider took off, his flight seemed effortless, and with good reason. A little post-trip sleuthing revealed we’d been watching Andy McAvin, founder of Tx Fly Sports. Established in 1999, it’s the oldest powered paragliding school in the state and has graduated hundreds of students. Andy himself has flown and taught the sport around the world.
Browsing his site, I was surprised to discover Andy and I have something in common. I began sailing in 1987, and by 1990 was beginning my own boat-related business. His first powered paragliding experiences took place in 1997, and two years later he established his school. It must have been an equally significant career change for Andy, who previously had established himself as an actor and voice-over actor in Broadway productions, touring companies, animations and tv commercials.
What goes up will come down, of course, whether you’re talking about stage curtains or paragliders, and watching Andy land was pure pleasure. It was easy, controlled and seemingly effortless. Of course, having over four thousand flights and several thousand hours of experience can’t hurt – especially when combined with continuing significant attention to detail.
Accidents do occur, of course. One of the most dramatic, which involved a pilot plunging into the waters off Galveston, has been described by Beery Miller and Maj. Dean Cherer, both members of Texas WingNuts, the Houston area powered paragliding club. Other local mishaps have ranged in severity from scraped knees to injured ankles and wrists, as well as a few hands damaged by contact with a prop.
But on our warm Saturday afternoon, there were no incidents. There was only sunshine, light breezes and the pleasure of watching someone who knows what he’s doing, do it.
Once he’d landed, we drifted back to the car and drove on. Only later, my curiosity aroused, did I do a Google search for “Texas City paragliders”. That led me to the Texas WingNuts’ website and their message board. A post from someone who’d been flying at the levee Saturday afternoon caught my eye and I replied, thinking it would be nice to send along any decent photos I’d taken to the person we’d watched.
That person turned out to be Andy, of course, who no doubt has more than enough photos of his participation in the sport. Still, he liked the pictures, and I liked the complimentary close of his emails. There was no “cheers” or “ciao”, no “regards”, no “yours truly”. His emails ended with what surely is the hope and joy of every powered paraglider, the short and simple expression, Blue Skies.
In an increasingly constricted world, in a world filled with people determined to eliminate every risk, every joy, every gesture of freedom, spontaneity and independence in their pursuit of some mythical “security”, the self-reliance, attention to detail, sense of responsibility, physical conditioning and pure joie de vivre represented by those like Andy is enormously refreshing.
Whether Andy has heard it himself I can’t say, but I have no doubt some of his students have heard the plaintive cry: “You could die doing that!” I heard that same protest when I began offshore sailing, just as a friend heard it when he announced his intention to hike through South America.
Of course a glider could crash. Certainly a boat could sink or a hiker be murdered. On the other hand, any of us could choke on a peanut and die. I could step off a curb and be hit by an out-of-control car. I could be mugged while taking out the trash or shot dead in a grocery store. Even staying inside the house, protected from all the dangers of the big, wide world, I could be confronted by a home invader or slip in the shower and crack open my skull.
As my more anxiety-ridden friends like to remind me, anything can happen. But most of the time, it doesn’t and even if it does, I wonder – could giving in to fear ever be worth missing the blue skies of life?
“There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end,” says Annie Dillard. “It is all so self-conscious , so apparently moral. But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous, more extravagant and bright. We are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
And if we find ourselves slogging along, eyes to the ground, oblivious to birds and breeze alike, perhaps we also should be raising our eyes to those beautiful blue skies. Maybe it’s time to fly.