“If you’re down, I’m down” – Jeremy Estrada’s reply to my suggestion of going Skydiving. We were somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas, standing above a waterfall, discussing Basejumping – the illegal and dangerous sport of throwing yourself off a cliff with a parachute strapped your back. Since we didn’t have the parachute or a big enough adrenaline addiction to jump off a cliff there and then, we figured we should go jump out of an airplane thirteen thousand feet up. Go figure.
I finished my internship at Pixar Animation Studios, where both Jeremy and I worked over the summer. Bay Area Skydiving was recommended to us by Jeff Jensen, and we were accompanied by coworkers and one of my roommates. We all had our reasons for going – the thrill-seekers, adrenaline-junkies, fear-facers and freedom-chasers were all represented in the car ride over to Byron. The skydiving organization calls an aircraft hanger their home, and it’s full of activity as skydivers move in and out and parachutes are packed for the jump. I called ahead and made a reservation, but that seemed to be unnecessary – they have enough instructors and flights that, upon arrival, you easily become part of the list of waiting jumpers. They provide some comfortable couches and a big television, screening videos and pictures of the previous jumps of the day to keep you occupied while you wait. We waited for about an hour – which was just enough to let the nerves settle and allow you to focus on what you’re about to do.
I was paired up with a friendly and professional instructor called Victor. I was handed a very attractive purple jumpsuit, and although I enviously watched my friend step into his dark green suit, at this point I bet any color would be attractive, as long as you get to step into that superman suit you’ll be wearing on the way down! I went through a simple lesson in the arch you need to form with your body while falling, and received instructions on the procedure for exiting the aircraft. Victor was extremely professional, and he was describing the actions you go through without deliberating on possible emotions or sensations you might encounter during the experience. I, for one, didn’t want a spoiler! Everyone gathered around, and the call came over the intercom – “Load 12, load 12, 5 minute call!”.
Right about now your whole chest feels like it’s being filled with rushing warm blood as your mind starts informing your subconscious that you will be boarding that plane to throw yourself out of it. The reply, in the form of sensations throughout your chest and abdomen, might be likened to butterflies before a big rollercoaster or when receiving an award for your achievements, but there’s a whole different edge to it. It’s a very pure and clean feeling of anticipation. You have to remind yourself that breathing is a necessary facet of life, and good thing to keep on doing despite the anticipation in your chest!
Victor stepped into the plane just ahead of me, and we nudged up against each other on the little benches, facing the rear of the plane. We were flying up in a PAC 750XL, with 14 skydivers and a pilot. Around 4000 feet they opened the door to let two jumpers out. These two were working on their canopy techniques – canopy being the time during which you have your parachute open – and subsequently did not go up far enough for a significant freedall. I don’t think I was quite ready to see what it looks like when someone jumps out of an airplane. The one moment the two folks were standing there looking down, the next moment a strange sucking-like sound was followed by their disappearance from the plane. You’re moving so fast, and you fall so quickly, that a skydiver literally disappears as he jumps out. Seeing this fueled the anticipation of my own jump, another nine thousand vertical feet ahead.
I was second to last in the airplane, and my instructor walked us forward to the edge of the door. Looking down is a completely unrealistic experience. Nothing in your conscious or subconscious understand what is going on. I experienced a certain amount of disbelief that this is actually happening. My body was simply following the instructions of my jumpmaster behind me. He scooted up to the door, and I grabbed my harness and curled my feet around the bottom of the fuselage. Hanging in the slipstream, with the wind gusting into my face and absolutely nothing below me except two and a half miles of air, I came the closest to what I believe to be the Buddhist idea of “living in the now”. At this point, seconds before a jump, your body suspended from your jumpmaster, you experience an absolute clarity, a lack of thought so profound and beautiful that you can very easily be completely lost in that moment. I don’t remember feeling particularly excited or scared. Even the anticipation of the moment was left behind by now, cast aside somewhere on the floor of the airplane in the crouched walk to the open door.
The jumpmaster leaned my neck back into the arch position, ready for the jump, and my body felt as if my heart was racing with pure adrenaline. His last words to me, shouted against the rush of air past the wings, penetrated my mind – “If it’s all black as you fall, it’s probably because your eyes are closed!”. In retrospect, these words are hilarious, but at that moment it was the perfectly calm, obvious, professional comment to purge the last fears and doubts from you. The strange battle between absolute excitement and pure calm reached it’s climax as he rocked off the jump.
“Ready, Set, GO!”
I was brutally ripped from my reverie on the similarities of Skydiving and Oriental philosophy. There is nothing, absolutely *nothing*, that can come *close* to the feeling of that moment. My stomach went straight up to somewhere right below my eyes, and I was gripping onto my harness with all my senses screaming at me. For a moment I felt real fear as I accelerated to one hundred and seventy six feet per second over the course of an infinitely long three seconds. The only action I could force my reeling body to take was to keep my eyes wide open as the earth tumbled below me.
As quickly as the jump started, it evened out, and as we reached terminal velocity my senses dropped their assault on my conscious, and I was immersed in an experience unlike anything I have come across in life. A feeling of immense peace, an absolute clarity and presence came to me as I was streaking to the ground at one hundred and twenty miles an hour. I looked up and saw Mount Diablo and the Bay Area in the distance, and became aware of the air rushing past my ears, and for a moment that deeply-ingrained rational mind of bullshit and idiocy attempted to intrude on the experience, reminding me that, rationally speaking, I should be scared witless at this point. I looked back down at the ground, almost in a challenge to these thoughts, and brushed aside all fear, purging my Self from all doubt and disbelief, and in a moment of intense passion, opened my mouth and yelled in awe and wonder at the beauty of the moment.
They say that the adrenaline of the first jump stays with you for weeks. What they mean when they say “adrenaline” is not the wide-eyed, heart-pumping image that it conjures up. It’s the clarity and peace of the experience that stays with you. The words I put down here pale in comparison with the actual experience, but in a frail attempt to convey what it felt like, I will describe it as “Beautiful”. It is, most definitely, a beautiful experience. The freedom of free fall cannot be compared to anything else. Jeremy and I discussed these sensations afterward, and he aptly summarized it by pointing out how skydiving allows you to experience, very directly, the peace and immediacy you can achieve by living without any fear.
As the parachute opened, nine thousand vertical feet of air later, the third part of the experience started. I had some discomfort from the harness as I hung off my instructor, but the quiet and floating sensation was pure bliss. I was laughing, telling my jumpmaster that that was the greatest experience of my life. There’s a certain tone in your voice that is only there when you’re truly passionate about something, and I heard my voice drowned in it. You might expect it to be a frightening experience to be hanging off a parachute, nothing below your feet and a lot of time to think about it, but it’s a very pleasant experience. There’s no concept of that “standing on a ledge” feeling. It must be some ancient feeling, some primordial immediacy, that you experience in these moments of flight. My jumpmaster handed me the parachute controls, and I steered us around the sky. My days of powerkiting made this very enjoyable, since a parachute and a foil kite steers exactly the same way. Swooping across the sky, turning tight circles downwards, I became aware of my body again, settling back into a now much more comfortable skin.
We had a very smooth landing, giving a couple of quick steps to come to a standstill as the parachute slowly collapsed to the ground. My jumpmaster deftly unhooked my harness, and a strange unfamiliarity with the ground greeted me. There’s a certain amount of disbelief that you’ve been living your whole life with your feet planted on the ground, now staring up at you from right below your feet.
The rest of the day we all had sensations of calm and beauty, and we spoke of it endlessly until, blissfully carefree, I fell into my bed, dead tired and ready to do it again next weekend.
Next time, be there with me.