The Singular Experience of Falling Through a Cloud
Skydiving means something.
Two weeks ago, I fell through a puffy, white cloud while holding onto my friends’ hands and laughing. We were laughing and spinning and the sun was shining and we plunged into the puffy whiteness, which turned to damp gray coolness for a few seconds before the green fields of earth popped into view below our smiling faces in an instant. Have you ever fallen through a cloud? Physically, it feels like nothing substantial. Psychically, existentially, philosophically, it feels like you are winning some kind of jackpot. It’s a living cartoon, it’s a caveman’s dream. It’s a change in temperature and lighting for a brief moment. It rushes up at you like it’s going to kill you, but welcomes you in and you slice through it like a neutrino through whipped-cream.
There are spouses and mothers and co-workers who don’t get it. There is the generally derogatory term “whuffo” (as in “whuffo you jump outta that airplane?”) that skydivers use as a shortcut for people who look at our community with ignorant incredulity. It’s fine…I mean, part of the fun of jumping is the astonishment and even derision you get from outsiders. Skydivers are borderline iconoclasts pretty much down to a person, and I think we all like a little bit of that negative attention. The thing of it is, though, it’s not just about the fun part, there is actual, bona-fide, real meaning in jumping.
you step out into a sweet rush of air and you are free…
Wake up at early, eat fast, pack your shit and get on the road. The dropzone is an hour and a half away. Your spouse is still asleep and gives you a crackly “love you, be safe” before you head out the door. It’s Saturday, 7:15am, and the roads of Northern California (yet to be darkened by traffic) still feel like ribbons of opportunity. You arrive at a dusty airport in the middle of orchards as far as you can see. Hi-fives and hugs to your friends (some of whom are groggily pulling themselves out of trailers or tents at the airport; sure signs of the deeply afflicted and affected). Setup your camp chair and scatter your gear on a blanket while you examine the various windsocks and try to figure out who is actually ready to get the day started. Maybe you hook up with a group doing a formation, maybe you decide to get one, solo “clear-your-head-jump” out of the way before tangling up with anyone else in the big sky. Scrunch on the legs of your jumpsuit, tie the arms around your waist and take your jump ticket to the window to get on the first load.
You hear: “GEAR CALL — LOAD ONE!” over the loudspeaker.
Now you power up the AAD for the day, pull your suit up the rest of the way, preflight your rig’s various handles, straps, pins and flaps, step into the leg loops and cinch it all up. You touch your three handles obsessively...the reassuring soft ball of the main pilot chute anchors itself in your mind.
A few minutes later the PA system blares: “TAXIWAY CALL-LOAD ONE!”
…and you shuffle off to the roaring airplane with a bunch of other colorful freaks. After 15 minutes of nervous tension on the way up to altitude, the door comes open and you get a taste of that rarefied atmosphere at 13,500 feet…the positively delicious abyss of space drawing you towards it, literally a light at the end of the jump-plane’s tunnel-ish fuselage. You inch towards the light as people launch themselves out and down, feeling the plane buoy a bit with each bailout. Peering out first, looking straight down at the airport runway miles below, you step out into a sweet rush of air and you are free…free of all encumbrances, free of gravity (an obvious illusion), free of ground, free of thoughts. The plane falls away above you, an abstract mother-beast that you can never swim back to.
Jumping is telling someone “I love you”.
Jumping out is one of the few decisions in life you get to make that are truly binary. Jumping is telling someone “I love you”. You can’t take it back and it has intrinsic value for that reason. Each decision to jump is one-and-only. You step off that metal ledge and you have no choice but to figure your shit out on the way down, in the moment…in the second-to-second existence of freefall, no matter what happens. What is it about these decisions? What is it about making a decision that you cannot undo? It could kill you one of these days, but today, for 4 to 5 exquisite runs, it will give you 50 seconds of darting around like an elated bird just let out of its cage for the first time and the chance to experience a point-of-no-return each time.
When you SCUBA dive, you enter the water and descend slowly…you can always swim back up. When you hop on a motorcycle for a twisty ride through the mountains you can always pull over, turn back, slow down. When you drink too much you are slowly, step-by-step, digging yourself in deeper with each cocktail; an incremental kind of dive. But when you jump, you throw yourself headlong into the well of wind and gravity with no way out but your main canopy and (hopefully not, but possibly) your reserve. Jumping off of anything, really, is binary…the high-diving board is binary and for that reason, it is seductive. A skydive though, is 50 seconds of moment-to-moment-ness. It’s certain death every time unless you manage it properly (which is pretty easy most of the time). It’s a nearly excruciatingly fun sensory experience that is kicked off by that singular, binary decision.
You step to the edge and then you get to gleefully hop over it.
While you’re in the air, there is no fear, there is no falling, there is only being suspended on the wind, your laughing friends around you, falling through a cloud. Where else can you get that?