Sunday, December 11, 2011

Skydiving

It should come as no surprise that I love birthdays. Anticipating them, planning for them, and celebrating them. Rather than dread my 30th birthday, I began to grow increasingly excited about the milestone (which helped me forget the crease on my forehead that just won't go away and the fact that I no longer get carded at bars and restaurants). No birthday is ordinary, but entering into a new decade is especially extraordinary.

Therefore, I was not all that disappointed when we learned that the half-marathon we were planning on running that day was sold out. In July. (My biggest regret was that I wouldn't get to make a shirt that said "Happy Birthday to Me!" on the front and "You just got passed by a 30-year-old" on the back.)

As fate would have it, I received a very important e-mail the very next week. That day's Groupon was for a discounted tandem skydive. That was it! I would skydive on my 30th birthday!

Even though I don't call it a bucket list, I suppose I do have a list of things I've always wanted to do. In the past few years, I have been able cross riding a mechanical bull off that list, as well as running a marathon and going to Prince Edward Island, Canada. That Groupon was divine intervention in my quest to put a check in the box next to skydiving.

So the plan was made. Despite the fact that everything was paid for months in advance and our reservation was set for several weeks, the reality that we would be jumping out of an airplane didn't sink in for Jon until we were en route. I think he doubted my resolve. One would think he would know by now that his wife is pretty stubborn and when she sets her mind on something, consider it done. And done.

In uncharacteristic fashion, we left for the jumping facility quite early, most likely motivated by the dream I had the week prior in which we didn't leave in time and missed our reservation. It was a good thing we did leave early. Road construction, an accident, and the fact that we were driving to the middle of nowhere caused us to arrive right on time. The weather on "the best day of the year" was beautiful, sunny and unseasonably warm. It was important to me that we jump on my actual birthday, and apparently Mother Nature agreed.

Immediately after our arrival, we were directed to the bathrooms. They were evidently quite used to brand-new skydivers. After taking care of that necessity, we were ushered into a room to watch a video--seemingly hosted by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, circa 1985--that warned us of the dangers of jumping out of an airplane and made us promise not to sue if we died. Encouraging.

After signing the waiver, we were sent to the bathrooms again. But from then on, everything was laid-back and fun. Seriously. We were put at ease immediately when we met our instructor. He kept telling us how much fun we were going to have, and it was obvious that he loved his job. Once again, we were shown glimpses of a secret, underground community that we never knew existed, as all of the other skydivers present were just as easy-going.

Our instructor first told us that all we need to do was be BAD. This acronym stands for breathe (apparently some people forget), arch, and don't touch the tandem instructor. We then lay on the floor to practice the arch and then crawled in the airplane simulator to practice jumping out. Training done.

We then put on jumpsuits before our tandem guides hooked up the harnesses. I opted to get a video (thanks for convincing me, Mom) and had to go outside for my "interview" next to the skydiving facility's official vehicle.

Reassuring
I had expended all my nervous energy worrying about the weather and whether or not we would arrive on time, which masked my actual fears of jumping out of an airplane. I knew that it would be an awesome experience...but I also knew that moment right before jumping would freak me out. It turns out the seven-minute plane ride to an elevation of 14,500 feet was the worst part.

I really don't mind flying all that much, but sitting on the floor of a tiny plane, directly across from a clear plexiglass door was enough to make my stomach start to do flip-flops. During the ride to the drop zone, our tandem guides attached our harnesses to theirs, in a way that "didn't quite seem legal" (their words, not mine). As promised, the plane rose and then dipped, bringing us to our feet. What happened after that occurred extremely quickly...thank goodness.

The benefit of doing a tandem jump is that you don't have a choice--you're jumping whether you're ready or not
Suddenly, we were hurtling through space. We were told on the ground that if we screamed, that would help us remember to breathe. I took that advice to heart and pretty much screamed the entire freefall. It was such a surreal experience with the wind pounding in my ears and whipping at my face. It sounds totally cliché, but I felt so alive.

Look, Mom, I'm flying!
Suddenly I noticed my videographer right up in my face, and like he warned, he began making faces and giving the thumbs-up sign, which I, of course, returned. I'm pretty sure his helmet-cam was set to take rapid-fire pictures every second or so because I have an exorbitant amount of pictures of me with essentially the same look on my face...which I will title "Exuberance."

The videographer titled this look "big, goofy grin"
On the ground, we were told that we would have no idea how high we were, how fast we were falling, or how long we were in the air. All true. Our freefall only lasted 60 seconds, but it seemed so much longer. Since we did a tandem jump, we got to experience all of the fun of skydiving but none of the responsibility. I was 100% confident in my instructor and his ability to pull the cord on the parachute at the exact right moment and land us on the ground in the exact right spot. My confidence was well-founded. All of a sudden--after being told to hold on to my harness--we were sucked up in the air by the parachute.

Yup, still screaming
And then we floated. It truly was the tranquil experience I expected. That rush of wind immediately stopped and everything grew very quiet. My instructor let me guide the parachute and we spun in a couple of circles before he grabbed the reigns to steer us to our landing area. As I told him in the air, he has the coolest job ever. He acknowledged how lucky he is in that he gets paid to do what others have to pay for.

We landed safely on the ground shortly before Jon and his tandem guide. After getting unhooked from the parachute and harness, I finished my "interview" with the videographer and reunited with Jon. Awesome doesn't even begin to cover the experience. For once in my life, words fail me. My 30th was definitely a birthday I will never forget.

"We can't believe we jumped out of an airplane!"

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