Life Skills

LAAnniversary

Yesterday marks one month since I arrived in LA. You might be wondering off of which fantastic, far off cliff I fell, since I haven’t touched this blog, or any other writing, for most of that entire time.

I don’t know what happened. I was on a roll – writing every day, on a fantastic road trip, reuniting with the cutest dog on the planet (who has now started agility training, and gotten even cuter). I was in love, again, with the world out of which I had temporarily removed myself while chillaxing on Orcas in September. It felt fantastic. And then I got to LA.

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My goal, when I got here, was to spend these couple months doing absolutely everything and anything I could get my hands on, before a normal work schedule started again, and I had to restrict my museums and bookstores and flea markets to normal work people hours. I would spend this time transitioning to Los Angeles. But the truth is, I’ve done almost nothing.

I haven’t been to LACMA, or the Tar Pits, though I drove by them the other day while looking at apartments. I haven’t been to MOCA, or the beach, or on a Universal Studio Tour. I haven’t been to any of the fabulous bookstores I so looked forward to patronizing. I haven’t gone to see a live show be taped, or hit Disneyland, or the Santa Monica Pier. I’ve yet to make it to the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American Heritage Museum; I haven’t gone to the Chinese Theater, the bar at the Standard, or a black-tie movie premier. And I’m not best friends with Chelsea Handler…yet.

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I am living, temporarily, right smack dab in Hollywood, a block off Hollywood and Highland. It’s insane. It’s overstimulating. It’s fantastic, partly because I know it’s short term. I can walk to Runyon Canyon in ten minutes, but it takes 20 because Spanky has to stop and pee on every tree, light post, or meter box between here and there. On the way, we walk by the Magic Castle. Actually, everywhere we go except Starbucks, we walk by the Magic Castle.

From the top of the Canyon, which I hike to in my boots to support my old-lady ankles and with a backpack so I have water for me, water and a bowl for the dog, an inhaler, a phone, my keys, and a headlamp and an extra layer and whatever other paraphernalia one may need should an earthquake strike and strand me, I can see downtown, and Century City, and the Hollywood sign across the freeway in Griffith Park. I mention the paraphernalia because in Runyon, one is surrounded by people skipping uphill in tennis shoes, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a script in the other. I’m not one of them.

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On mornings when I go to work at a café, I usually walk to Tiago, which I found online. It’s right on Hollywood Boulevard, set back from the street and sporting a large, dog-friendly patio. To get there, Spanky and I walk by the Magic Castle; by the ASC Clubhouse; by Author Services, which always has an ear-pieced, Secret-Service-esque security guard by the parking entrance, as much to keep people in as to keep them out, and the ABLE (Association for a Better Living and Education) building (Hollywood is rife with Scientology buildings – if I disappear, it will likely be because they’ve taken me); and down a block or two on the Walk of Fame. I try not to let Spanky pee on any stars of people I like, and he has mostly complied.

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Every weekend that I’ve been here, someone has been in from out of town. The first weekend, it was a friend of my older sister’s, and we met for dinner at a tapas restaurant on Melrose. The following weekend, it was a former roommate in town for a conference. We went to a Thai restaurant, called Jitlada, that some locals had recommended to her in the past, and it turns out to be very well known, and more importantly, delicious. The next morning, we had breakfast at Huckleberry in Santa Monica. I joked about how I was going to have to learn to keep myself together when seeing famous people. I was mimicking what potential ridiculousness may befall me if I failed while I untied Spanky from outside the back door, where he had been patiently waiting for us, and when we got back to the car, my friend turned to me and said, “while you were telling me that story, Don Cheadle got into his car right behind you.”

A week later, a friend from Dallas was on a pre-planned trip to visit friends who live in Burbank. We went for a hike up to the observatory in Griffith Park before going to lunch at the Alcove in Los Feliz, which I have trouble pronouncing, because I speak even bad Spanish. An actress I recognized but can’t place by name came over to pet Spanky and tell me how well behaved he was. I confessed he was actually just exhausted. Sunday morning, I met my friend for brunch at the Commissary, a rooftop greenhouse restaurant in the Line Hotel referred to as Roy Choi’s latest installment. Apparently, he’s the bomb, as was this place.

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For Thanksgiving, I had the joy of being reunited with the OG Travel Companion, whose sister lives in Sherman Oaks. They went on and amazing cheese-shop trip that became a picnic for us at the Getty.  Note to readers: you won’t last long in the exhibits if you have a lunch of wine and cheese. But your stomach will be joyful. Prioritize accordingly.

Between these things, I’ve gone to a Moth Story Slam, and to hear Noah Gunderson at El Rey. I’ve hiked in Franklin Canyon with the dog, and had lunch at the Larchmont – thrilling in part because a famous person was there, but more so because I was dining with a friend whom I adore and haven’t had the joy of a solid lunch with in almost twenty years. Come to think of it, that’s the third or fourth time in a month I’ve had that pleasure: sharing a meal with someone who’s known me almost as long as I’ve known myself, and sometimes better. Maybe I have been doing something after all.

Transition is an amazing thing. An amazing, exhausting, thing. It isn’t a hibernation. It isn’t a caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. You don’t go into a cocoon and emerge beautiful, powerful, and able to fly. It is a piece-meal business, changing your life. It happens bit by bit, in unnoticeable ways. You dig in. That’s it. You just dig in.

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Goodbye

When Gratitude Is Not Enough

This is Spanky.

He’s my dog. I wasn’t a dog person growing up; in fact, I was terrified of them. But one by one, a select few canines nuzzled their ways into my heart, until at last this girl took me past the point of no return:

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This is Bree. She belongs to my brother in law, and now my sister, who says Bree is 50% of the reason she dated her husband to begin with. Bree is exceptionally well-behaved and gentle, and she has that rabbit-like fur of an Aussie, which she is. She sets the bar unbelievably high for anybody looking for her own dog. Six years ago, after yet another vacation from which I returned home to Texas missing Bree, I finally realized it was at last time for me to find my own dog. Also, it seemed like a smart thing to do after three or four break-ins.
Finding a dog is a difficult task, because the dog you play with on short visits isn’t always the dog you live with after a year. I knew I didn’t want a puppy. I knew I didn’t want a lap dog. I wanted a dog to walk with, hike with, and occasionally cuddle. So after following a street dog with no training and apparently no hearing from the pound to the SPCA, I realized that was more than I could take on, and, based on an online picture on Petfinders.com, asked to visit with Spanky.

Spanky jumped on me the minute I took him out to the pen. I don’t like jumping dogs, but his jump was filled with love. It was more like a stand-up-and-hug. He licked me, which I also don’t like, but again, it was more of a ‘thank you for taking me out for a bit’ appreciation lick. And then, like a sweet crazy puppy, despite being over a year old, he ran crazy lengths of the pen, keeping pace with the lab in the pen next door. He was so thoroughly engrossed in his pace that he ran smack into a pole with the side of his head, and fell down dazed. WHAT WAS NOT TO LOVE?!?!?!

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Mange, heartworm, giardia and hookworm. The fact that he followed me everywhere, including into the bathroom. Getting up at 5:30 to make sure he got enough good exercise before I went to work. I was terrified. I thought I’d made a huge mistake. Do you know how long dogs live? A REALLY LONG TIME. Thank god Bree’s mom told me to give it at least a month or two. By month three, I was in love with him. I took him to training (to train me). I took him to bars with decks, where he would tactically lied anywhere a waitress would have to pet him to pass. I took him to the dog park, where I learned why people laughed when I said I wasn’t planning on changing his name. (If you don’t get it, go to a public place, and yell, “Spanky,” to something 50 yards away.)

Fast forward five or six years, and here I am planning to travel around the world. It’s easy to figure out where to store your stuff while you explore other continents. It’s easy to map an itinerary (especially when you aren’t big on planning, so your ‘itinerary’ is really “let me pick some countries and figure the rest out later).” It’s not that difficult to figure out where to store your car. But finding someone you trust to watch your dog is no small task.

And this is where the saint enters. Here is the saint; we’ll call her Santa Barbara, with Spanky:

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Now, I’ve been sharing only the good parts of Spanky. The bad parts, I created. Somewhere in the process of quitting my job, giving up my paycheck, putting everything I own in storage, and hitting the road, I became anxious. Spanky picked up on this, and decided (chow/German Shepherd mix that he is) that he would now be the alpha. He absorbed my anxiety, and to defend us both, became inexplicably aggressive at odd moments. The dog who used to follow toddlers around licking crumbs from their sticky palms would now nip random people who were kind enough to hold open a door for us. In Oregon, where one is not allowed to pump one’s own gas, I had to exit the car to give the poor station attendant instructions and my credit card, less he lose a hand by putting it through the car window.

The more aggressive Spanky became, the more nervous I got, and the more nervous I got, the more aggressive Spanky became. To make matters worse, two different, seemingly fool-proof plans for dog care during my trip had fallen through. I couldn’t buy a plane ticket until I knew where my dog was to be housed, and my options were running low. A fantastically brave and generous friend in Denver offered to give it a try. I assured her that his behavior was actually much better in my absence, and added in extra funding for a trainer, which I researched before bringing him to town. And then I left.

I left with a flood of relief. Spanky wasn’t relieved, though, he was abandoned, which didn’t do much for his behavior. Turns out he didn’t like kids running around, and my friend and her husband have two of them, and they have friends, as all kids should. So my friend, we’ll call her Santa Menor, came up with the brilliant idea of taking Spanky to stay with her mother in Alabama. Her mother had lost a dog six months earlier, and wasn’t fully ready to commit to another dog of her own. But a foster suited her just fine. So Santa Menor put Spanky in the car and drove from Denver to Huntsville, Alabama, to deliver him to his new home.

I know, right?! I have the most amazing friends.

Santa Barbara was just what Spanky needed. She was firm with him. She acknowledged his fear, but didn’t give in to the poor behavior it produced. She gave him boundaries, and she gave him love. She gave him what every dog needs, what I had given him for the first four years of our time together, and then allowed to slowly dissolve: she gave him an alpha. She re-trained him to be a dog with an owner, not a dog fending for his person. And then she moved him to Denver. What dog wouldn’t love that? (And let’s be honest: what dog’s person wouldn’t love not having to drive the extra two days to Alabama to re-claim her pup?)

Spanky hiking with Santa Barbara's son

Spanky hiking with Santa Barbara’s son

Last week, after a year of separation, I went to Denver to get my dog. I knew he would remember me, because dogs don’t forget a smell. But I wasn’t sure he would remember me happily, so I prepared myself for the worst. I prepared myself to leave Spanky with Santa Barbara if that was better for him.

As I approached the door, he growled at me.

“Hi, Bubba,” I said, softly, using the pet name I had given him about five minutes after we came home for the first time.

He growled once more.

“It’s me, Bear.” Because why should a pet have only one pet name?

He cocked his head to the side as Santa Barbara unlocked the security door and let me in. I stood still, and took a long, deep breath. “Hi, Bubba,” I said again, kneeling down in front of him.

And then he got it. He knew me. His tail started wagging and he rubbed his very furry body against my legs, coating my black pants in his sweet tan hair. He nuzzled his nose between my legs and tried to crawl under them, even though I was kneeling. His attempt to shove his entire body into a place where there is no space ended with him body-flopping onto the floor, then rolling over so I could scratch his tummy.

Before this moment, I had never met Santa Barbara. She had had my dog for a year, loving him, training him, walking him, picking up his poop and taking him to the vet to update his shots, and I had never met her. So I got up to give her a hug and say hello, and Spanky looked up at us, and you could tell he felt slightly guilty. We moved into the living room and sat on the couch, and he went back and forth between me and the Saint, until he managed to wedge himself so that she had one end of him and I had the other, positioned perfectly for scratching.

Things went on like this for a couple of days, Spanky happy to see me, then even happier to return to his other person and get snuggled. He gleefully followed her into her room and onto her bed at night, but would be waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I came from the basement guest room in the morning.

I took him on a long walk the first morning, then left for most of the day. When I returned, he was surprised to see me all over again, and repeated his routine of passing between Santa Barbara and I, maximizing his petting opportunities. On the second day, I took him on half as long a walk, to the same groomer where I had dropped him off a year earlier and not returned. He was understandably over-excited when I showed up three hours later to get him, and only slightly confused when I put him into a car he hadn’t seen in over a year to drive him home. On morning three, I went to spin class. I would leave his exercising to Santa Barbara, because today would be the last time she would walk him.

When I returned from spin, I began to load the car. Spanky never likes this activity. He is sure that something is happening and he will be left behind. Here he is the second year I had him, when I packed the car to drive us both up to Washington State, and he got in it more than an hour before we were to leave, and refused to get out, despite the fact that the car wasn’t fully packed, I wasn’t in it, and it was almost 100 degrees out. He isn’t always the most astute dog, but he is far from dumb.

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Santa Barbara took him to the dog park while I finished packing up and took a shower. When they returned, there was nothing left to do but say goodbye. And say thank you again, knowing it would never be enough. What do you say, what do you do, when basic declarations of gratitude are not enough? I could buy Santa Barbara dinner for a year, a five star vacation, a personal masseur, and none of these things would aptly express how grateful I am for what she gave me – the freedom to see the world because I knew Spanky was in good hands – and what she gave Spanky – his freedom to once again, just be a cool little dude of a dog. So Santa Barbara, this post’s for you. Because when gratitude is not enough, all that is left is blog.

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Life Skills

This Time, That Way

From the house where I’m staying, I can see the sound. I’m about 100 yards from the beach. This past weekend, following my nephew down there to be his steadying arm while he placed his two-year-old feet on logs like a novice on the balance beam, I realized how seldom I go down to the water, despite it being so close to home. Literally, so close to my house. But the next day, seated on the deck with my feet on the railing, the sun waning, and a book in my lap, I realized why: because it’s so fantastic when you walk out the door, it’s hard to understand the need to go the extra 100 yards.

The same is true while hiking. The trip around Mountain Lake, just under four miles of trail that crosses a damn, a number of bridges, has one manageable switchback and a million magnificent trees, is so pleasant, so wonderfully beautiful, familiar, and yummy smelling – in rain and sun – that it’s hard to bother with any other trail, say the one up to Twin Lakes, or down to Cascade Falls and across to Sunrise Rock.

I swore when I came back to the states that I would make everything familiar unfamiliar, do normal things anew, to keep my love affair with the world alive. Settling into my month of doing nothing, I’ve discovered just how difficult that is to do when the status quo is so damned blissful. But what are we missing by not pushing ourselves a little farther? How will we know, if we don’t try?

The hobgoblin of all that pleasantness is complacency. It’s not just that the deck is pleasant, or the trip around Mountain Lake, nice. They are each so much more wonderful than one can imagine, experiences that make one feel truly lucky to be a part of them, even when they have been done over and again for decades. It becomes a challenge to push for a different fantastic, blessed experience. When something seems so wonderful as it is, even when experienced over and over again, how do we convince ourselves that there is something out there, easily attainable, that is even MORE fantastic? If we raise the bar, we run the risk of not meeting it, even when all signs point to the hurdle being, in this circumstance, low. Do we have to feign dissatisfaction? Dare we risk disappointment by choosing to call even the good status-quo, not good enough?

I say yes, risk it. Risk it often. The world is capable of constant surprise, if we just give it the chance. The Mountain Lake trail is the best, but when the bridge was out for a month, I started going to Twin Lakes, and you know what? Even better. Better because different. Slightly longer, in the woods with a wider, more foot-sure path, and then the prize of the lakes at the end. A steady, gradual up, followed by a steady, gradual return. A different set of people hiking it.

A wider path

A wider, more foot-sure path

Go to the beach. You can hear the waves from the house, but you can hear them better from the shore. You can smell the ions flushing through their crest, shallow and gentle though it may be. Relax into the repetitive motion of failing to skip a rock, and eventually, it will surprise you by bouncing up off the surface and jumping a few times before plopping down below.

Don’t judge. Don’t call yourself lazy, or complacent, or unwilling. It’s ok to appreciate all that you are, and all that you have, and still seek more. Because it isn’t more – it is different that we seek. This time, go THAT way, the way you haven’t gone before. Seek, and ye shall find your different.

Trunk across the path of life: a new opportunity to duck and keep going.

Trunk across the path of life: a new opportunity to duck and keep going.

Life Skills, Moving, Traveling, United States

The Unfamiliar Familiar

Before returning to the states, I spent a decent amount of time contemplating how to keep my love affair with the world going, even after I returned “home.” I remain loathe to give up the joy of new sights, tastes, and sounds. Mostly, I crave the feeling of openness and curiosity that being surrounded by the unfamiliar breeds in me.

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

 

A million self help books and the magazine rack at your local grocery will tell you that the key to any good love affair is to make the familiar new and exciting. Since the only thing I loathe more than giving up my travels is a self help book, I’m challenged with viewing this amazing island that covers under 58 square miles, on which I’ve been spending time for 38 years, with new eyes. It’s the equivalent of a being 40 years in to an uneventful marriage with the world’s most peaceful, beautiful spouse, whose calm can lull you into doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

While contemplating this (which, you may have figured out by now if you are following me on Facebook, resulted in buying a plane ticket to Spain for a month), I remembered a time when I created something totally unfamiliar out of my favorite hiking spot on the island, almost by accident. Sort of.

 

On Thanksgiving weekend 2007,  I ran away from Texas to refamiliarize myself with the smell of trees and the feel of air that hasn’t been sucking cement. My second day on Orcas, I headed to Mountain Lake, a four-mile trail I know like the back of my hand, since I’ve been traveling it almost as long as I’ve known how to walk.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

It was 4:30 when I parked my car and headed out on the pine-covered path. Just over one mile later, I realized how quickly I was losing light. I took a moment to think about what I was doing. The brook that runs down from Twin Lakes in the wet seasons, barely trickling by August, poured vigorously beneath the little wooden bridge on which I stood. While contemplating the pros and cons of continuing in the fading light, I inhaled air that froze the hair inside my nostrils. The weather forecasted an early snow.

 

On the pro side: completing the lake loop. I hate not finishing things. In the last 25 years, I’ve failed to finish only one book. Actually, I didn’t fail; I refused to finish it because it was so unbearably bad it constantly made me think of all the other books I could be reading. The disappointment – by an author whose work I had devoured voraciously for years – was so depressing, I donated the book to the library so I wouldn’t have to look at it on my shelf.

 

Also on the pro side: No predators (unless the squirrels had gone rabid since summer). Trail I know blindfolded. How cold could it REALLY get near a lake that doesn’t freeze? Potential for adventure.

 

The cons? Potential for frostbite, but a finger or pinky-toe lost for the sake of adventure seems a small price to pay.

 

Note to self: creating an adventure of the familiar should take place within bounds of reason. Like any adventure, there is a risk-reward equation at play. When the territory is this familiar and the adventure seems this….risky, the equation may be out of balance. Dark +potential for snow + no headlamp….

 

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Not surprisingly, something went awry. Another mile or two down the path, my pace slowing to a shuffle as I became unable to see my feet, I suddenly found myself off the trail and trapped in place by a fallen tree trunk that appeared out of nowhere. I started to panic, almost peed my pants, and came back to my senses quickly enough to remember how blissfully short my cons list had been. I would be safe enough by daylight, as long as I didn’t get bored to insanity, since it was pitch black, freezing cold, and more than twelve hours until the sun rose again.

 

In one of the more embarrassing and least adventuresome episodes of my life, I committed to two hard and fast rules of being lost in cold, dark woods: (1) don’t wander (it makes you harder to find) and (2) move constantly to keep your blood flowing. For the visually oriented, picture Jane Fonda aerobic warm up steps in fleece pants, long-sleeved shirt, gortex shell, and running shoes.

 

To these rules, I added a Hail Mary: I yelled for help. Meekly at first, and then with more force, though I felt ridiculous since I wasn’t injured or near death. I modified my cry by turning it into a request, addressing the recipient as, “Mr Park Ranger,” and adding, “please,” to the plea that he come to my assistance. It sounded completely bizarre – almost as if I were hearing someone else doing it, and I wanted to go to her aid.

 

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Miraculously, the state park service had funded a ranger this particular winter, and when he came back from town, he saw my car and came after me with a flashlight and headlamp. He was none-too-happy about it, and I couldn’t have been more the opposite, which made for a chirpy monologue on the way back to my car, and a one-sided hug once I arrived.

 

So I can’t advocate adventure in the familiar, but even in the ‘know-em-like-the-back-of-your-hand’ places, there is endless possibility for the unfamiliar. Rather than stick with the same lake loop, last week I hiked on a trail I haven’t touched in ten years. I went to dinner at a brew pub that’s been around for two years, and I’ve yet to set foot in it. It isn’t simple familiarity that ruins us – it’s invariable patterning of our lives that blinds us to things that may be always here, and never noticed.  If we just change our trail, we can open our minds and hearts as widely as if we traveled the world.

 

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Tourist, Traveling

Leap of Faith

A guy should really buy you a stiff drink before he pulls you onto his lap and straps on a harness.

That’s what I’m thinking a few minutes before jumping out of a perfectly good plane. I don’t say it, because let’s face it, though I may have four points of 1500-pound web and metal connection to Tyler, the instructor,  I don’t really know him well enough to be quite that…forward. Despite the fact that I am also sitting on his lap, and in addition to my ass, my life is in his hands.

Moments later he leans forward, taps the pilot on the shoulder, and hollers into my ear, “you ready?”

Fear has prevented me from changing the expression on my face from the frozen smile I had when we took off, so I nod.  At this point, I’ve made the live-or-die decision to go ahead with this business. Matters are really out of my hands on the whole ‘parachute opening’ thing. Now, I’m worried about puking during the jump, which would be fine for me because I’m wearing goggles, and on the bottom, but I’m sure that wouldn’t work out well for Tyler.

Things you don’t think about in advance: of course the plane door opens upward, like on a DeLorean. Otherwise, in 120 knots-per-hour it would come smashing back on my legs, which are now dangling out the hole in the plane’s hull. I’m trying to rest them, ladylike, on the step above the landing gear, but they are just blowing to the side, so I leave it be.

“Chest out,” Tyler says into my ear. “Lean forward,” almost like he’s teaching me to dive. And just like learning to dive, the anticipation is the worst part. With a little lean and a slight push, we’re gone.

There is a moment of tumble, of inertia and movement, and then there: below me is a postcard of wine country. It’s chilly and windy. My mouth is open; when I gave velocity a smirk, it took a gaping grin and pulled all the moisture from my tongue and teeth. I kick my legs out behind me, trying to hit Tyler in the butt just like I was instructed, and let my arms fly out  at my sides. The fall is free and gleeful, and loud with the rush of sky blowing past my ears. You can’t help but yelp, or yip, or yahoo, and so I do. Freely, and gleefully. The fear is left back on the plane with the pilot, coming in for a safe landing on the little air strip far below us.

Then Tyler taps my shoulder again, and again asks, “you ready?” and with that, there is a tug. I hear a flap of fabric against the wind, the sound of a luffing sail, and then the chute snaps taut above us and things become quiet. The vineyards line up below for inspection, organizing the hills into orderly view. Tuscan mansions, wine valley bungalows, trailers and the makeshift labor camps of early pickers speckle the landscape.

Tyler gives me a choice between being still and doing some loops and turns. “Loops and turns,” I shout back in the wind. “Loops and turns!” After two turns, I shout again, “actually, no loops and turns!” I (or more like Tyler) narrowly escape the puking scenario and we return to our graceful float, featherlike. We watch the earth rise to meet us for a five-minute eternity. And then, “lift your feet in front of you,” and here the ground is, right in front of the hangar from which we took off, landing pad of a lifetime, and we walk right in.

Tyler and I, right after walking right back down to the ground

Tyler and I, right after walking right back down to the ground