by Nina Lukow
I am not a daredevil. I am not an adrenaline junkie. In fact, I wouldn’t even call myself mildly athletic, seeing as the last time I played a sport was in eighth grade, when I ended my athletic career in tears from a volleyball hitting me in the face. I’ve generally been known to tuck away in a library and wander through labyrinths of shelves, or make a cup of tea and spend a lazy day writing on a computer. Yet, when one of my housemates told me he had reserved a spot to go skydiving near the Chesapeake Bay, I found myself asking: “Can I join?”
I had just returned from a five-week trip to Switzerland and I was buzzed with the need for adventure. Had it been any other summer, I most likely would have given him a wave, turned away and said, “No thanks.” But after hiking Alpine trails on my own and fending for myself in a foreign country, I thought (without much further thought), why not? I would go, a scared, nervous wreck, and come back a fearless, passing-for-kick-butt adventurer. And faster than you could pull the string to deploy a parachute, I was added to the reservation.
Rather than becoming kick-butt, I wanted to kick myself in the butt the night before the dive for agreeing to go. I had researched skydiving accidents and videos the entire day before which was, of course, stupid. The scariest part about skydiving? The hype leading up to it. Not the jump itself, not the stomach drop you fear, but all the worst possible scenarios your own mind conjures up. It didn’t help that when we arrived at the skydiving facility, a rinky-dink space located in a dinkier stripmall, the welcome sign that greeted us stated: “Skydiving—Everything will probably be all right!” And it also didn’t help that we were handed thick packets of legal waivers to sign, indicating in bold multiple times that “this is a sport that can result in permanent disfigurement, severe injuries, and death,” or “By signing this document, you understand that there is the possibility of death,” or my personal favorite, “There’s no such thing as a perfect instructor, parachute, or airplane.” Sign your name on the dotted line, date it, and go off and have a blast!
My instructor was a teaser. He would say, “I’m going to call you Esmeralda because I don’t want to know your name. It’s like pets—if you don’t know its name, you won’t miss it as much.” It was to alleviate the tension, because I was clearly the most nervous of the bunch. I welcomed his jokes. He kept them coming, all the way through the plane ride, where he remarked that he had eaten Chipotle for lunch and hoped he didn’t have to pass gas on the way down. I’m not usually one for fart jokes, but 10,000 feet up the air, about to jump out of a plane, I would have laughed at anything.
The airplane we rode up in looked like an itty-bitty scrap of metal to me, probably built a decade before I was born. Did I want to go up in that airplane? No. I thought I would die before I had even jumped. But in we went, crammed up against the sides with our knees pressed into our chests. I was told that the twenty minute ride up to the diving location was the most nerve-racking part of skydiving, but I was strangely calm. I breathed in and out sharply, set my mind in a state of almost aggressive determination, and told myself to admire how pretty the York River was from the plane.
Right before I jumped with my instructor, just as he was harnessing us together and leaning out the window (and me with him) to find the opportune jumping spot, he told me that it had gotten a little too cloudy and the ride down would be a bit windy. Before I could process this and convince myself I was going to die, he yelled in my ear, “All right, go go go, get your feet on the stepping platform!” I swung my legs over and out of the plane, staring at the an abyss of grey below me. There was no land to be seen. I was staring at a thick layer of clouds. I think I heard him shout, “Ready, set, go!” in my ear, but I mostly felt him rock back and forth three times before rolling over and plunging headfirst into the overcast sky.
I had convinced myself the scariest part of the jump would be the initial moments of free fall, when I would have the most ultimate stomach drop in the history of stomach drops. But from the moment we dived head first, there was nothing. No stomach drop. No fear. No words or shouts, even. It all evaporated as my body went into tingling sensory overload, and the only thought I remember having during those fifty seconds of freefall was “I’m touching a cloud. I’m passing through a cloud.” I flew through that cold, wet, and condensed cloud at 120 miles per hour and it was impossible not to feel awe.
We pierced through the cloud and emerged into a landscape that unrolled every which way around us. The York River snaked towards the Chesapeake Bay like a vine on a wall. With gushes of wind pressing against me and majestic sights, I couldn’t speak, whoop, yell, think; I just plummeted toward the earth without a single thought. That is may be the most exciting and extraordinary part of skydiving: a pristine, pure mind.
I’m doing my best trying to describe the freefall, which is fifty seconds but seems to last only ten. My instructor deployed the parachute after those precious fifty seconds, and wham we were drifting down and could better appreciate the views. My instructor tried to initiate some conversations with me, but after I could only murmur a breathy “Oh wow…oh, wow…” he gave up and encouraged me to keep on looking at Mother Nature. Parachuting down takes six to eight minutes, so the whole jump lasted less than ten minutes. We landed nice and soft, lifting our legs to land on our butts. And then? I won’t deny it, I tied my jumpsuit around my waist and fist-pumped the air to feel like a character out of Top Gun.
Many skydive once to conquer fears. Which is important, and I did conquer my fears. But I want to skydive again. Again and again. For that sensory overload, for the speechlessness, for the ability to feel weightless. And you should too; because when you look back up at the sky, you can point to it and say, “I’ve been there.”
Nina is a twenty year-old English major who, thank you very much, is not only studying English to become an English teacher (although she has thought deeply about it; she just resents the assumption). When not wildly scheming her future plans or making ridiculous amounts of To Do lists, you can probably find her cooking badly in the kitchen or watching British television. If you asked who her role models are, she would most likely shake her head and insist she couldn’t decide before blurting out Emma Thompson, Tina Fey, and her older sister. She doesn’t know what she wants to pursue for a career, but she does know all the words to the “The Nanny” theme song.