Enjoy a wild ride on the Oregon Coast — if you dare.
Gear Up For: Paragliding on the beach
Get Out To: Oregon Coast
With Side Excursions To: Explore Cape Lookout State Park; see cheese made and eat samples at the Tillamook Cheese Factory; visit nearby Cannon Beach and Seaside
Perfect For: Daredevils and risk-takers with a competitive spirit, general lust-for-lifers and bucket-listers
My paragliding instructor was a philosophizing German named Maren Ludwig. As she prepared to send me careening down a beach along the Pacific Ocean, she told me the glider was my dance partner and I should move with it. As I look back on it now, I bet if she had ever seen me dance she would have unstrapped me from the paraglider’s harness and told me to try something that involved a level of coordination I could handle, like standing or sitting or breathing.
Alas, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. We faced each other as Ludwig held the paraglider’s lines to help get the glider aloft. Air filled the glider, pulled the lines tight, and lifted it into the sky. That upward motion tugged at my core, by which I mean my groin, by which I mean: What kind of dance is this?
Ludwig told me to waltz a few steps backward, pirouette 180 degrees, and do a lizard run down the dune.
Well ... she didn’t say lizard run. But that’s what I call it.
When I was in college and my friends and I had spent a long evening, um, studying at the library, we sometimes would “lizard run” on the way home. To lizard run, you first find an empty parking lot. Then you throw your arms far out behind you, bend over at the waist, and run. Why we called that a lizard run is lost to history, but that’s exactly what the instructor told me to do to take off when paragliding.
The main difference between paragliding and lizard running is that I was sober when I was paragliding — whoops, I mean, hadn’t been studying at the library.
The lizard run in college revealed the perils of youthful freedom manifesting themselves in a dark parking lot. The lizard run on the beach in Oregon revealed what I imagine running on the moon would be like while someone was simultaneously giving me an atomic wedgie and pulling my arms clean out of their sockets.
As I lizard ran down the beach I felt, um, how to put it ... epically stupid. Ludwig had told me not to fight the glider because I would lose. She told me I should go where it took me instead of trying to force it to go where I wanted to. I followed her instructions, and as a result I ran like I was in a hurricane. I started to wonder if I was being pranked when I realized my feet were no longer on the ground.
I soared, and so did my confidence. I caught enough air that my fellow paragliding students behind me applauded. I can’t remember the last time anyone who isn’t one of my daughters cheered for me for anything. I was light, I was free, I was flying, I was — WHAM! — facedown on the beach. The consequence of not fighting the glider was that when it turned down and to the left and slammed to the ground, so did I.
Painful as that first attempt at flying was, in a way, it was exactly what I had signed up for. I spent a weekend in May in pursuit of speed and adrenaline alongside a group of action-sport athletes, adventurists, and fellow journalists at a camp on the coast of Oregon that had been transformed into a “pop-up five-star campground” and dubbed Hotel Tacoma (after the pickup) for the Toyota-conceived occasion. I ate a lot, they drank a lot, and we all crashed a lot. We all wanted to be the Road Runner. But we performed like Wile E. Coyote. Or I did, at least.
I took it as a sign of the weekend’s awesomeness that there were three ambulances on site at all times. Nobody ever needed them — except for me when I sliced my finger open shooting a bow and arrow. I could have used them at the beach, too. Like an unattended baby rolling off of a bed, I kept landing on my ribs. One of my many crashes was impressive enough that a fellow newbie using my phone to record me seemed genuinely thrilled to have captured it. He was so excited for me to see it that he didn’t notice I couldn’t catch my breath.
We did far more lizard running than paragliding, but we kept trying and lauding each other’s attempts, hapless though they might have been. Louie Vito’s raspy voice was the loudest in cheering everyone on. He is an Olympic snowboarder, and he was genuinely happy whenever anyone got airborne. But he also told Ludwig he wanted to beat my air. Let me say that more explicitly: The professional snowboarder, who spends his entire life trying to fly high, was openly jealous of how much higher I got than he did.
Full disclosure: It wasn’t very high. But that’s not the point. The point is I got higher than the Olympian, and that drove him a little crazy. His burning and publicly declared desire to out-air me turned the paragliding lesson into a discussion about the meaning of success, of what we should strive for, and what we should be content with.
As Ludwig walked backward on the sand, holding Vito’s paraglider lines, she told him being jealous was no way to live his life. Vito strutted across the dunes, the cocky walk of an athlete who doesn’t care how high he jumps, as long as it’s higher than everybody else. She told him he shouldn’t compare himself to others; he should try to be the best Louie Vito he could be without regard to anybody else’s accomplishments. His eyes rolled so far into the back of his head they popped back up in the front.
He told Ludwig that he wanted to win in snowboarding and Monopoly and eating contests, and he’d race you to the bathroom, and he dang sure wasn’t going to let anybody get higher than he did. Important note: He didn’t wish I went lower. He wished he went higher. Wait — I did mention that I got more air than he did, right?
Ludwig pressed her point until she had him completely strapped in and it was his turn to lizard run again. He waltzed, he pirouetted, he ran — alas, as hard as he tried, he couldn’t touch my air that time or on any other attempt.
The next morning, I managed to roll out of bed, pack my things, and make it to breakfast, all of which took twice as long as normal because every step sent searing pain across my ribs and back. My inner thigh looked like it had been hit with a whip. But that precious sensation of floating, of defying gravity, of feeling untethered, made it worth it.
I told Vito about my pain, and he seemed to think it was worth it, too, because he told everybody who would listen that I got higher than he did. I let him do so without interruption. They all laughed as I recounted how badly I broke myself.
It’s funny how funny pain is when it’s somebody else’s. But even I had to laugh at the cartoon physics that played in my head as I imagined what I must have looked like gliding through the sky, then plummeting to earth like Wile E. Coyote.
Discover Paragliding: training locations in Astoria, Seaside, and Tillamook County, Oregon.
From the April 2018 issue.