Come Fly With Me!

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.


 

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Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 9:17 pm  Comments (15)  
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  1. I used to go visit Carmello at Galveston Fish and Shrimp and get shrimp right off the boat. Carmello was from Italy and, after I hadn’t been there for a year or two, I stopped by and he said “Bob..where-a-the-hell have you been?” I said “I moved” and he retorted “Well-a-you could come and-a -visit!”

    I never went to the Texas City Dike though. I suspect from your piece it was necessary after the construction of the sea wall or, perhaps more importantly, the ship channel. Seems kinda cool. Nice post.

    symonsez,

    Actually, the dike pre-dates the ship channel. As I understand it, there were periods of time (particularly after storms) when the port of Texas City took up the slack for Galveston. They dredged a channel into Texas City, but silting was a continual problem. The currents around Bolivar and Pelican shoals really caused problems, and the dike was meant to keep the channel clear of sediment. I’m not sure how effective it was at first, as the 1915 construction was timber, but once they brought in the granite blocks, things improved.

    They’re still doing some work, hoisting granite blocks around out at the very end. I was interested to see them using a Manitowoc crane. I suppose they developed some expertise in such things up around the Great Lakes.

    Nothing beats shrimp off the boat. If you get back this way, Topwater Grill in San Leon has reopened, and I’ll put their oysters and shrimp up against anyone’s.

    Glad you enjoyed the post. I surely did enjoy the day!

    Linda

  2. We’ve had lovely days here too, but I’ve spent most of them inside at work. Hopefully Dr. M & I will get out and DO something tomorrow.

    I do take issue with one thing – last year was our first summer in a house (we’ve always lived in apartments) and our garden was such a joy. It felt like a risk to us, not comfortable. And I LOVED our homegrown tomatoes :)

    Bug,

    Oh, I think Ms. Dillard was being a little metaphorical about those tomatoes – that always stops me, too. If I could raise tomatoes you can bet I would be. After years of equating summer with fresh sweet corn and tomatoes eaten out of one hand with a salt shaker in the other, I don’t think I’ll ever lose that taste! A garden is one of the few reasons I can think a house might be better than an apartment.

    Glad to hear winter’s broken a bit for you, too. It’s such a relief to be able to just walk out the door without having to do an inventory of clothing layers. Enjoy the weekend!

    Linda

  3. Woo hoo! What a great day — and how wonderful to begin with one plan, have a perfectly congenial decision to do something entirely different and then discover something so beautiful and inspiring! As always, your words ring true, with thoughts of choosing risk over the mundane, freedom over constriction, action over fear.

    I think one of the things that makes a difference, though, is that you and Andy didn’t venture into things foolishly. You learned. You approached things wisely, with knowledge. Yes, the risk is always there. You can die doing that — sure. You can lose your shirt on your business? Yeah — but who can’t? At least you go in with wisdom, which goes a long way in preventing death or shirtlessness!

    Your foray into sports photography is mighty fine! Some nice images here, and great colors. What a wonderful day! And blue skies to you!

    jeanie,

    It was a great day. Now that I think about it, I’m sure sailing helped make such days more possible for me, with all those lessons in flexibility. You start off in one direction, the wind shifts and you say, “Well, let’s trim the sails and head off over there.” And you have just as much fun.

    To say “I learned” is true, but there’s a lot packed into that phrase. Sailing made me physically stronger. I discovered uses for the algebra and geometry I’d never had use for. I learned a new vocabulary and a new language. I learned the customs of the sea, how to provision for self-sufficiency, the workings of diesel engines and how to judge weather by watching water and sky.

    All that took time. When I think of the hours and hours I spent on the water I don’t regret a single one, because one of the first lessons I learned was: everything counts. There’s always something more to learn, and if you don’t pay attention, you might miss it.

    You know as well as I do that writing’s the same way. You can buy every book ever written about sailing and buy yourself the prettiest, best-equipped boat in the world, but if you don’t sail, you won’t learn to sail. I love reading Annie Dillard on writing, and I love the journals you make, but if I don’t write in them…

    I like that you brought up business, too. Writing probably won’t lead to death, but shirtlessness? Got to watch that one!

    Linda

  4. Thanks for an exhilarating post, Linda! Just the action photos alone are exciting enough, but your writing and what you convey through your encounter with Andy McAvin is highly motivational. Of course, “Blue Skies” is a great finish to anything, definitely more “joie de vivre” than “Break A Leg” (whoever thought of that one?).

    Your photos are just the most powerful illustrations of the invigorating effects of blue skies. Like what we’re gong through right now, minus 24C and with windchill, minus 32C, but we’re having the brightest sunshine and blue skies. That certainly dissipates the misery of winter chills.

    Your post also reminds me of Philippe Petit, walking on a wire hung between the NYC Twin Towers. When asked why he did it, his reply was simple: “There’s no why… life should be lived on the edge.”

    Thanks for pulling us a bit closer to the virtual edge.

    Arti,

    In an interview I can’t find just now, Petit spoke of exhilaration as the perfect balance of joy and fear. That makes sense to me, although I think I prefer to take my exhilaration in smaller doses. But I understand the compulsion, the experience he referred to when he said “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. If I see a wire, I have to walk”. In some ways, Petit the juggler is as interesting to me as Petit the wire-walker. He was learning to discipline his compulsion during those days as a street juggler, too, and I suspect some of those lessons served him well.

    As for the blue skies – there’s nothing like them in the world. Sometimes we have a perfect combination of clear skies, warming temperatures and rising air. The ospreys and pelicans especially seem to love riding the thermals, rising higher and higher into the sky until they disappear from sight into that beautiful blue. Despite what happened to poor Icarus, who wouldn’t want to follow?

    I do hope you get to experience your blue with a bit of warmth soon!

    Linda

  5. The photos are absolutely wonderful, Linda! I do hope we’ll be seeing more of your photography, along with your ever delightful writing.

    I’m amazed at that image of the Texas Dike. I knew nothing about this before seeing your post today. Looks like it’s worth a visit in the future.

    And about risk taking, all that you say is so true…

    Andrew,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos – it tickled me that some of the colors were as strong and vibrant as your photos from Chile.

    The dike isn’t the only thing in the area of interest to a photographer. If you’d like to be stunned by some photographs from the Houston Ship Channel, take a look at the work of Lou Vest, a Houston Ship Pilot. He goes under the name of OneEighteen on Flickr, and his collection of maritime photos is unbelievable. He was kind enough to allow me use of one of his photographs in a magazine piece, and I’ve kept up with his work ever since.

    There’s a lot of world out there to see. Changing lenses or changing perspective never hurts, no matter how risky it feels.

    Linda

  6. What a treat to have your photos! Especially the close-ups showing Andy’s big smile! Nice stuff. I can nearly feel the warmth of the sun but definitely the freedom delivered in all that “blue sky”!

    I would surely love the drive back and forth along the dike. Geez, how cool is that? That’s the kind of engineering I adore, that which seems positive in all respects. (Have I ever mentioned that I work with mining engineers? Although after the week I had last week, I can only shake my head in that regard. That’s another story).

    Anyway, I loved this. Please pop in with your pictures anytime, too. Of course your writing is visual, but it’s fun to see what you’re looking at, as well.
    And what are you doing this Saturday afternoon? I wonder.

    I’m going outdoors. Check out the neighborhood. Look for any green shoots. There must be some somewhere!

    oh,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. Whatever their virtues, they clearly prove that even a klutzy photographer can get some good images. Taking photographs for me is rather like re-living Christmas. I never know what’s in the camera-box until I get home and open it up. When I found that header image I nearly died – I couldn’t have planned and executed that for the world. ;-)

    You would love the dike, and the various revetments constructed along the intracoastal waterway to keep the Gulf from doing her erosive worst. They really are marvels. People aren’t always happy with the Corps of Engineers, and the pushing and pulling that goes on daily – especially among groups concerned with fishing rights, environmental issues and wetlands reconstruction – can be tough. But there’s no question that the engineers have performed extraordinarily well in many, many ways.

    Beyond that, what’s not to like about watching guys manipulate huge cranes in ways that make the machinery look like the Corps de Ballet? When they cleared the boat wreckage in the marinas after Ike, it was an absolute wonder to behold.

    I hope you found some green to go with your blue today. I’ve sighted narcissus already, and the redbuds are ready to pop – it won’t be long!

    Linda

  7. Linda,
    Loved the photos. What a lovely way to spend the day.

    The past few days have been beautiful here – a little breezy but seventies and sunny. Who could ask for more in February? My daughter-in-law even sent a photo of blue skies in Chicago. Maybe that wacky groundhog was right.
    Bella

    Bella,

    I hear there’s more nastiness up your direction, but change is coming. Because I spend so much time outdoors I do tend to appreciate clouds more than some, but I’ll admit there’s something about that deep, clear blue that’s heart-lifting.

    The power of suggestion seems to be at work around here. I woke up this morning with a song running though my mind. What could it be but Willie’s rendition of Blue Skies?

    When we make the turn into spring here it’s hard to remember other folks are still contending with the tail end of winter. I hope the worst is over for you.

    Linda

  8. You know me enough by now, Linda, to hear a hearty “AMEN, Preach it!” First off, I loved “the fact that you’re expected to amuse yourself gives the dike a distinctly old-fashioned feel.” HA! I think we’re raising generations of kids who have no clue about what to do with nothing else but themselves and Mother Nature. So sad.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this sport as you’ve shown/described it. Having lived along the coastline of CA for 12 years and seeing the hang-gliders, I have always hankered to ‘fly’ like that. Maybe before I kick the bucket I’ll figure out how to do it without breaking a leg, though even that might be worth it. With all the wind here in The Netherlands, surely there is something similar I can do, just to say I did it and experience the thrill. In the meantime, if I could see it as you did and get such fabulous pictures, I’d die and go to heaven almost as quickly!

    Ginnie,

    You always pick out the best, hidden parts! It’s true – the dike did feel old-fashioned – so much so that I had a sudden hankering for fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs and chocolate chip cookies. Box lunches – the staple of trips and outings of every sort.

    There’s so much external stimulation these days that kids can hit the eye-rolling stage pretty quickly. Adults, too. I’ve tried to think back, and I don’t remember seeing anyone texting, playing a hand-held game or talking on a cell phone the whole time we were there. Lovely.

    The sport itself is amazing. I’ve had time now to look at some videos and photos, and be amazed. Look at this photo from Peru that was sent to me. Icarus would be so jealous!

    As for you – all you have to do is type “paragliding Netherlands” into your favorite search engine, and off you go! For example, this. Why not?

    Linda

  9. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about – flying off in search of a dream. I’ll say Amen to that. I know I’m one of those that gets hung up in all the little details of life, letting them stand in my way far too often.

    This is a great story, and the visuals were marvelous too.

    Becca,

    It’s a wonderful example of that intuitive planning we were talking about. I haven’t a clue why I felt so strongly that my friend and I needed to mess about in the afternoon rather than the evening, but I did. And it was well worth it.

    You know the story of my first sailing trip, of course. I’d never been on a sailboat in my life, but by the end of the evening I was setting up lessons. I had to do it. I wasn’t at all clear that I’d end up sailing the Pacific, quitting a job and starting a business as a direct result, but that’s what happened.

    In fact, I never – never! – would have predicted most of my life. That’s really quite nice, because it means I can’t say now what will be happening in five years, or ten. There still are some surprises out there!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the read. I thought you would, but I decided to let you find it on your own. ;-)

    Linda

  10. Hi Linda,
    I really appreciated your analogy of changing course from the planned agenda. So hard for some folks – and so liberating. Surprises are wonderful!
    Did this tempt you to fly, I wonder?

    This also got me thinking about your Annie Dillard quote and “anxiety ridden” folks and being brave enough to step off the path…

    My real question, however, is where did you learn to swim? You must know how to swim to be safe going out in the boat, right? Deep water is something that makes me very, very nervous. I feel much safer over 1000 feet of air than I would over 1000 feet of water. I don’t know why!

    And the lovely farewell of “blue skies” put the tune of Blue Skies by Irving Berlin running though my mind, which was quite pleasant, so I had to listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing it on youtube. It also reminded me of the tv show (which I loved) Sky King, and his airplane Songbird. So many nice things to think about on this cold and snowy night. Thanks!

    qu,

    What an absolute delight to see you! I stop by your place now and then just to admire those photos of tt again. How can we keep from smiling in the face of that radiance?

    This was such a fun day – you would have enjoyed it. Did it tempt me to fly? Well, not in the sense that I was overcome with a desire to do that, as I was with sailing. But to experience it, to have the opportunity to know what it’s like? Yes, of course.

    Swimming!? Oh, my. I do swim, although I started out badly. In grade school I was sent to the Y for lessons. I was so desperately shy that, when I was placed in the intermediate class in error and told to jump into the deep end of the pool, I did. After they fished me out from the drain, I was hesitant for a while. But eventually I learned. I began to take joy in it when I had the chance to sail in the Virgin Islands and was introduced to diving. I’m too claustrophobic for scuba, but I loved snorkeling.

    It’s interesting – you say deep water makes you nervous, but deep water is a sailor’s friend. Trouble and shallow water go together. My friends who were in Phuket during the tsunami saved themselves and their boat because they were able to pull anchor and get to deep water in time to avoid damage. And more than a few sailors have lost their boats to the rocks and beaches of the Texas coast – they didn’t stay in deep enough water.

    Isn’t “Blue Skies” wonderful? It won’t be long until the real songbirds will be finding their way north. I hope your skies are blue, and filled with them!

    Linda

  11. As my homeboy Bruce says, “Windows are for cheaters.”

    A beautiful post with words and pictures that celebrates really living in a world in which we’re going to die anyway. I’m sure watching sitcoms and eating Hamburger Helper for years on end appears on many a death certificate.

    Claudia,

    After I’ve posted an entry, I often keep thinking about what I’ve said. One thing that strikes me here is that all these paragliding-sailing-swimming-diving-flying stories are important and useful because of what they tell us about everyday life.

    There was a time in my life when I never would have stopped the car, pulled out my camera and started shooting photos of a perfect stranger. In fact, though I can’t remember the exact circumstances, I remember a time nearly forty years ago when I stood at the entrance of a room filled with strangers and pretended I was Sophia Loren acting the role of a confident woman, just to make myself go into the room and do whatever it was I had to do. It’s so strange that I can’t remember anything else about that day – I’d love to know the what, where and whys of it!

    Fear comes in a variety of forms, that’s for sure, and learning how to control it makes “really living” more possible.

    You made me laugh with that Hamburger Helper reference. I remember my HH days. ;-)

    Linda

  12. Blue skies, indeed, Linda!
    A lovely post as usual, and the photographs are bright and sunny, love them.

    Damyanti,

    There are lots and lots of folks around here who are ready for bright and sunny. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words – I’m glad you enjoyed the pics!

    Linda

  13. I love this post, Linda. What exhilarating photos, accompanied by a much-needed reminder that a safe and well-planned life is just a little too much like death. There’ll be plenty of time for that. Thank you!

    bronxboy,

    It was a wonderful day, and I surprised myself with the photos, for sure. I’m glad you enjoyed them.

    It was a common expression when I was younger – “I died a thousand deaths”. Nothing wrong with that, as I think it’s true to experience. All of us die “little deaths”, sometimes on a daily basis. That’s part of what makes your blog so compelling – your ability to describe those “little deaths” of awkwardness, embarassment, and so on.

    But since that’s a part of reality for all of us, it seems like a few experiences of reborn wonder, delight, engagement and excitement deserve to be part of the package, too. I suspect that’s part of what makes something as simple as watching a paraglider so enjoyable.

    Linda

  14. Do I ever know the “anything” can happen scenario. Back in ’63 when I was stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital I’d been invited to a party. A WAVE and I had to work late that night so when we left the hospital grounds through the back gate it was dark and rainy.

    As we were walking my mother’s voice said, “A gentleman always walks on the outside of the lady.” I remember putting my hands on Carol’s shoulders and moving her from my left side to the right. The next thing I remember was lying in a puddle of water with lights flashing all around me.

    A car, driven by a young Marine, had been forced off the road up onto the sidewalk and Voila! guess who was there? The car was doing almost 30 mph, the Marine said, when it hit me. I broke both my legs and had a severe concussion. I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital. Because I had moved Carol she only received a glancing blow to her hip and a massive bruise but nothing more serious.

    I was very fortunate to be alive and the incident also impacted my life by making me realize on what a fragile string we hang and you’d better do what you want before it’s too late to do anything at all.

    Richard,

    Thank goodness you both were all right – although in your case, “all right” certainly was a relative term. From what I know of your later sailing career and so on, it sounds as though you made a full recovery. It couldn’t have been easy. One broken leg’s enough, let alone two.

    It’s interesting that you “heard” that bit of advice from your mother. When I had my one serious auto accident – rear-ended on a Houston freeway by some guy going about 100 mph – all I remember is going back and forth across the freeway while hearing my dad say “Steer into the skid”. It was his mantra when he was teaching me to drive on ice. I did what he said, and never spun out. It was an amazing experience. Did you get to tell your mom about it? My dad was already gone, so I didn’t get to tell him how he may have saved my life. Perhaps he knew, anyway.

    Isn’t it amazing how quickly things change? One minute we’re just walking along, not really thinking of anything at all, and the next minute we’re flat out in a street, wondering what happened. Here’s hoping that kind of “adventure” is over with – you don’t need one more of those!

    Linda

  15. What a wonderful and uplifting post ! Blue skies in colours and symbol. I have been several times to Houston but never have I heard about the TX City Dike. It really looks like a place well worth visiting. I like to think that it was rebuilt after Hurricane Ike. Especially today when this terrible disaster, a tsunami, hit Japan´s coasts. Men´s perseverance and resilience. Hope for the future. Thank you Linda for another beautiful writing.

    Isa,

    Aren’t those skies the most wonderful blue? We tend to have them in spring and fall, when frontal passages lower the humidity and blow away the pollution. They cheer me, always.

    The Dike is high on some people’s list, invisible to others. And, there’s the fact that Texas City, filled with petro-chemical plants, isn’t exactly a tourist destination. But if you love seeing sky, water, birds and families doing nothing more complicated than enjoying themselves, you’d love it.

    It’s worth remembering, too, that Texas City was the scene of its own terrible disaster, in 1947. A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded, sending its own tsunami along the coast and resulting in hundreds of deaths. One thing lead to another, until it became the deadliest industrial accident in US history.

    The people of Texas City did pesevere, and they were resiliant. It’s worth remembering in these terrible days.

    Linda


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