Once upon a time, there came a gloomy weekend forecast — warm, but cloudy and drizzly — so a friend suggested we go into Houston for a concert. After Saturday fooled the forecasters by dawning sunny and bright, we began to reconsider our plans. We could spend the morning tending to chores, drive into Houston in ghastly traffic, spend a couple of hours listening to music, and then drive home in the company of more or less sober fellow citizens. Or, we could stay home and find something to do in the afternoon sunshine.
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 said, “Have you been to the Texas City Dike?” My friend hadn’t. Neither had I, despite regularly passing it while sailing to and from Galveston. I’d heard plenty of fishermen extol its virtues, but apart from summertime drownings it rarely made the news, so I’d never found a reason to go.
Clearly, that needed to change. We turned toward the water, stopping first at Boyd’s: a distinctly down-home place reputed to have the liveliest bait, the freshest table shrimp, and the tastiest Cajun Po’boys in six counties. After a little refreshment, we 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 its structures were 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 trunks 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 to its end, we turned around and headed back to Boyd’s. Along the way, we decided to turn onto the three-mile-long levee which extends to the north. Apart from a few bicyclists and a birder or two, we saw few people until we noticed a small cluster of cars parked at the side of the road.
Not yet aware that we’d stumbled across one of our area’s favored destinations for windsports, we got out to see what was happening. There wasn’t enough wind for kite-boarders or wind-surfers, but conditions apparently were right for powered paragliders. One man preparing to fly seemed friendly enough, so I pulled my camera from the back seat and decided to try a little sports photography.
As he took off, his flight seemed effortless, and with good reason. Post-trip sleuthing revealed we’d been watching Andy McAvin, founder of TxFlySports. 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 a Broadway actor and voice-over actor for touring companies, animations and tv commercials.
What goes up inevitably comes down, and watching Andy land was pure pleasure. The landing was easy, controlled, and seemingly effortless. Of course, four thousand or so flights and several thousand hours of experience helped to make that easy landing possible.
Powered paraglider accidents do occur, of course. One of the most recent, involving a collision between a Cessna Caravan cargo hauler and a paramotor pilot took place just outside Houston. 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 propeller.
But on our warm Saturday afternoon, there were no incidents. There was only sunshine, a light breeze, 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. Later, an online search for ‘Texas City powered paragliders’ led me to the Texas WingNuts website and 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 ‘someone’ 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,’ and no ‘yours truly.’ His emails ended with what surely must be 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 people like Andy is enormously refreshing.
I have no doubt that both Andy and 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 an aircraft of any sort 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, avoiding all the dangers of the big, wide world, isn’t foolproof. 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 did, I wonder: could giving in to fear ever be worth missing the blue skies of life?
Annie Dillard has her own way of putting it:
There always is the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. 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.
I don’t have a thing against a good tomato, but 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. It might be time to fly.