His name is Grady. He looks young enough to be our son, although a brief conversation reveals a lot of life experience. He’s standing on the ridge of Big Walker Mountain looking down at Mechanicsville, and it is a long way down. Behind him, my Beloved and a guy named Wayne are holding his wing on the ground, so that Grady will launch when he’s ready. Above us all, a guy named Larry circles his hang glider, and higher still, another para-glider is past caring whether he sweeps over the ridge or not. Larry’s wife is bantering with him on the radio, while she chain smokes clove cigarettes and their dog, Patch, gives me the meaningful look that says “Scratch my ears, and we’ll both feel better.”
We did not intend to spend the afternoon with hang gliders on Big Walker Mountain. We intended to sit in the rock-strewn meadow that was, several years ago, a launch site. We have a lot to think about, and a high meadow is a pretty good place to do some thinking. If you cross Robinson Tract Mountain, then dogleg to the right, you’ll cross Big Walker on a narrow road that has only been paved a couple of years. At the top, a pull-out marks the head of a trail that leads to the old launch site and then along the ridge.
As we sat in companionable silence, drinking in the view, listening to crickets and watching bees in the grass, a para-glider came along the ridge in front of us. It rose up out of the trees in majestic silence, its pilot sitting on the air, moving up and down the wind like a hawk on a thermal. He waved; we watched until our necks hurt.
A bit later, we hiked along the ridge to a high point, then climbed down to a newly-mown road. We intended to walk back to the car, but a man in a pickup truck, who turned out to be the guy who owns the place, came along behind us and said, “Go watch them fly!” He sped off with a grin. We turned and followed the road further along the ridge. Soon it ended in a wide, grassy launch site, where Larry was crouched under his wing and Patch, the low-slung dog, waddled up to greet us.
Hang gliders and para-gliders are a friendly bunch. It wasn’t just that they tolerated a couple of sightseers; they automatically assumed we wanted to know everything about hang gliding and para-gliding, which we did. One of the fliers owns the whole swath of mountain from the ridge down to his house in the valley, where half-a-dozen wind socks mark a landing area. He had just ferried Grady back up after his first flight of the day. Now Grady was hauling his wing out of a pickup truck, while retirement-age Wayne told us that he’d been flying off this ridge for two years. Tommy, another unlikely-looking hang glider, told us he’d given up trout fishing and deer hunting to jump off ridges. He looked like he’d never see 60 again, either.
While we talked, Larry finished clipping on his radio, his GPS, and his altimeter, then he took his position at the top of the launch. As the wind swept up the mountainside, Larry ran down it; the wind caught his glider, and he was gone, whirling out into the sky. I wanted to applaud. Larry’s wife pointed upward; a para-glider soared over the ridge, a thousand feet above us.
“He doesn’t have to worry,” Grady said, “Up that high, but down here, the wind goes over the ridge like a wave. It creates a lot of turbulence.” He looked a little nervous. “I qualified out west, but today is my first time flying without anybody’s voice in my ear telling me what to do.”
He moved into position. The wind caught his wing before he got his harness fastened, and the men, including my Beloved, moved in to grab it. It was a beautiful bundle of maroon and orange nylon, light as a feather.
“Did you go to Virginia Tech?” Hank asked, as Grady untangled his lines and stepped back into his harness. He looked up and grinned. “Mountaineer all the way,” he said. “I bought this one because I liked the colors.”
Grady snapped the last buckle and gathered the lines in his hands. The men holding the wing stepped back. The wind, which had been steady and strong, suddenly dropped. Patch sat down and yawned. Tommy grinned at us. Grady squirmed.
What was the longest hang-glider flight, in miles? Over 400. What was the longest flight, in hours? 30. What’s the biggest airborne danger? Low flying Air Force training flights. What’s Larry’s longest flight? 80 miles. Everyone piled on the trivia while Grady watched the trees with increasing trepidation.
Then, as suddenly as it had dropped, the wind came back. Grady grabbed his lines as the wing filled, and in one fluid motion, he lifted into the air and swept away. The sun shone through the wing, making the colors glow like a sunset. We decided it was time to hike back, so we patted Patch goodbye; behind us we heard Larry’s wife exclaiming, “Grady’s soaring! Look! Grady’s soaring!”