A dream becomes reality

Or, how I spent my summer vacation
soaring over a California beach


Like many people, I have always dreamed of flying. I've had lucid dreams in which I've controlled my flight, soaring wherever I wanted to go. And I wanted to bring that experience, one way or another, into my waking life.

A few years ago, I took up powered paragliding, a sport not exactly geared toward petite, middle-aged females. The motor was half my weight and extremely cumbersome. The smell of gas and requisite tinkering wasn't exactly my cup of tea, either.

So I eventually sold the motor and took up straight paragliding – just me and a harness and a soft wing, about 30 by 8 feet, elliptical in shape, towed into the air up to 3,000 feet by a winch hooked to the back of a car on a dusty rural road.

Since I didn't take much to thermals – they're kind of bumpy and scary, I think – I still hadn't found what I was looking for, despite the peaceful floating and beautiful views from way up high. Once you're up, unless you catch a bunch of those scary thermals, you must come down all too soon.

So my dream was to take up beach soaring, where the gentle breezes from the ocean keep you aloft all day long, if you like.

Ahhh, but I live in Kansas.

My sister, who lives in the Bay Area in California, invited my other sister and I to go to a beautiful mountain resort where they've stayed several times for vacations. Here was a golden opportunity.

I arranged to stay a few days longer and found a beach paragliding instructor on the Internet. I watched the YouTube videos again where I'd seen guys soaring on faraway beaches and hoped I could soar on those breezes, too.

As it happened, I got the most amazing instructor, Hugh Murphy – an expert and fabulous teacher, endlessly patient and very clear, just one little skill at a time.

First we went for a 40-minute tandem ride, during which we swooped back and forth across the beach, coming in really close to the cliffs and dunes, so you could practically touch them and pick some iceplants. Pelicans and seagulls flew beside us and dolphins played in the waves below. During that first flight, I asked a lot of questions about handling the wing over this kind of terrain.

Then all afternoon, I was kiting and learning how to work with the wind on the dunes. Flying on the Sand City/Monterey beach is very different from flying in Kansas or Colorado. Those gentle breezes? Much stronger than I anticipated, but since they're constant, they're manageable.

Every once in a while as I was kiting, with the wing in the air and facing the ocean, he'd guide me from behind up to a high point and then gently push me off and say, "OK, it's all you, just grab your brakes at some point and do what feels right," and I'd be flying down to the beach below.

Day 2 of beach soaring was incredible. I did what I dreamed for so long! I flew along the cliffs and dunes back and forth by myself many times.

Hugh was on the radio most of the time, telling me, "Left ... a little right ... OK, begin that 180 back ... when you get to me (standing on a high bluff), weight-shift a hard left ... stay lined up right over where the beach meets the dunes ... ." For long stretches, he'd just be quiet and let me fly and figure it out for myself.

Aside from one minor splat into the side of a dune and all its line-tangling vegetation, and adding to my bruise collection a bit, the afternoon was a dream come true. But since I didn't have the time to learn the finer intricacies of the sport, I opted for another 40-minute tandem ride, this time with my camera.

The tandem wing is about three times larger than my wing, so it's like driving a big truck. Hugh let me take over for a good portion of the flight, and it was really fun feeling that kind of power. I actually liked it better because my movements had to be much stronger and deliberate, whereas on my wing, every little motion made a difference.

For a lot of the afternoon, one of Hugh's former students, Scott Baruti, was on the beach flying. An expert now, he swoops along the beach dragging a toe in the sand, touching the sides of the cliffs and dunes, back and forth, up and down, sweeping across the sand like a kid on a giant swing set.

Sometimes he'd hover a couple of feet above Hugh, and they'd carry on a conversation just as though he was standing on the sand beside him; and then he'd say, “OK, bye,” and just swoop away and be gone. It was like seeing the YouTube videos I've been watching all these years, right there in front of me.

Only this time, I was living it.

A version of this column first appeared in the Salina Journal.