Listening is exactly what I am doing. My 32-foot-wide purple and yellow wing is laid out in a huge horseshoe shape just up-slope. With my back down-slope, I run a few steps backwards and pull it up off the ground. As it arcs overhead, I pivot and run downhill. Problem is, I keep running out from under the center, spilling air out from one side of the wing. On my fourth launch attempt, it sighs and collapses again as White hollers over the radio, "Run left, pull right. Feel the center, stay under the center."
I have worked my way so far down the slope on the aborted launches that he can't prompt me without a radio. I follow his advice and correct my center until I am lifted into the air so subtly that I continue to churn my legs like Wily Coyote. The earth falls away as the glide carries me 50 feet above the ground. With knees in the breeze and hands on the controls of my wing, I sit back in the harness and savor a descending sled-ride of about a mile.
White guides me: "Make a soft right turn. Not so hard. Okay. Pull a little left turn. Good. Head for that orange traffic cone down there. Remember, get out of your seat way early and flare about six feet off the ground and hold that flare down until your wing stops."
About four minutes later, having descended 200 feet per minute, I land in the crunchy, forgiving cinders at the bottom of the slope. I pivot and face my wing as it drapes itself across the sere landscape, big as a haystack tarp. I relish some familiar thoughts while gathering the lines, bunching the canopy into a rosette.
If the earth were reduced to a sphere the size of an orange, the relative thickness of the atmosphere would be a single layer of cling wrap on that orange. Ever since humans began to learn to navigate that ocean-like layer of air, our appetite for flight has grown stronger. Spending time up there under a fabric canopy is the easiest way to understand this glorious quest.
I have more than 200 skydives and didn't think that paragliding would delight me so. Once, about 50 jumps ago, as I pulled my reserve chute handle, I could see where I'd die in a few seconds if the reserve malfunctioned. Skydivers act with the zeal that dogma demands of disciples. Paragliding, on the other hand, is cerebral; it has little to do with brazenness.
"This sport is 10 percent skill. The rest is meteorology," White insists.
White's other students, stately as herons, glide off the top of the cinder cone. The sun backlights their wings. One yeehaw inspires the whole gaggle like a cough in church. With the last airborne and descending, White drives ponderously down a two-track gully in his 3/4-ton crew cab Chevy to meet us. He walks around to his students and debriefs them. He understands the power of praise, and he commands the students' full attention as he critiques their flight.
Our group comprises two thirty-something Web designers from France, with whom he speaks a clipped French, a 52-year-old COO of a dotcom relocation company, the 26-year-old owner of a carpet cleaning business, a carpenter and me. We are all in serious stages of obsession with unencumbered human flight.
As we drive back up the hill, White pulls over, excitedly pointing out our wake of dust. It has been blowing uphill and settling on us as we ride in the bed of the pickup. In a matter of 10 minutes, the upslope winds have kicked up to a good 12 mph. Too sporty for rookies. But White can fly in these conditions. He parks on a bench a third of the way up the slope and invites us to climb out and pay attention.
Within two minutes he has unfolded his glider and buckled into his harness and helmet. He barks out the preflight checklist, looks over his shoulder a few times, and with his back to the wind he lifts the leading edge of the wing overhead and pirouettes 180 degrees. The wind lifts him vertically and a little backward and he rotates his arms forward to the "I surrender" position, his hands on the control lines at ear level. He hovers 10 feet off the ground like a hawk over a gopher hole. With subtle weight shifts and manipulations of the control lines he descends to tiptoes and dances a figure eight around us as easily as though he were suspended from a celestial swing set over which he exerts control. He evangelizes from his lofty pulpit. "Practice is the mother of skill," he croons from 30 feet above us. "Practice kiting and ground handling skills at the park. Great chick magnet," he says. The single French guys arch Gallic eyebrows.
White incessantly teaches us to read the atmosphere, and the micrometeorology of mountains, valleys, coastlines and the desert. Standing in a restaurant parking lot, or gazing out the post office window, he draws all eyes up to the "Great river of air we are learning to navigate," as he says. Every day with Dixon White begins with a discussion of weather data gleaned from the links on his Web site (www.paraglide.com) that helps us build a model for what the atmosphere is likely to provide that day.