I used to fly hang-gliders, last time probably 20-25 years ago. There are two sorts of rising air: ridge lift in which an incoming wind hits the side of a mountain and rises. This frequently has turbulence caused by that same wind tumbling over the mountains on the other side of the valley and usable ridge lift depends very much on wind speed. Too strong: unflyable, too weak, not enough lift. The trick is to stay aloft long enough to pick up the second type of rising air: thermals. Once located, one can get powerful lift, Problem with that is thin air and it’s damn cold.
In a few places, a coastal cliff faces the wind and there’s nothing upwind to create turbulence. Wind speeds of 60+ are flyable and one can fly back and forth for hours. The lift from a vertical launch can be 2500-feet/minute and it’s an awesome jolt to step off a 3000-foot cliff and be 5000 up in a few seconds.
I’m with a group of pilots bound for the top of a cliff on some island in Polynesia. Looks a lot like Diamond Head in Hawaii. As we’re schlepping our gear, we’re joined by a group of ‘natives’. No idea who they are and even the locals don’t seem to speak their language nor do they speak English. They range from mid-life to pre-teen. All have painted faces a la Melanesians. Each has the same particular symbol painted on his cheek (no females seem to be in the crowd). As we start up the back of the cliff, they drop back and watch. One smiles and we exchange thumbs-up.
We all set up and launch. I find a thermal and am soon sitting about 3500′ above the beach. Normally, one kind of ‘sloshes around’ in a thermal to ‘feel out’ the configuration and find maximum lift, then ‘cores the thermal’, ascending in ever-rising circles. Instead, I decided to trace in the air the pattern I saw painted on the cheeks of the natives.
Wham! I am instantly lifted to about 20,000 in a matter of seconds. Aside from the thin air and extreme cold, it scares the living shit out of me (almost literally). I think, “Hey, if you’re looking for my limits, you just exceeded them about 15000-feet ago”. It – whatever IT is – relented and stopped the elevator. I cranked the kite 90° vertical and dropped like a rock until I got back down to about 5000 feet. Catching my breath, I headed for the tip of the island, which had a small fishing shack and bar. Figured I deserved a beer. Once I started descending, the natives had followed my progress in crowds, VERY excited. I was tired, still trembling. I landed the glider and collapsed, gasping for breath, then walked over to the shack and was handed a beer.
The natives talked excitedly to an old man sitting aside, watching the world go by. He caught my eye and motioned to come sit beside him. I plopped myself down and offered him a swig. He sipped a bit of beer, obviously as a gesture of courtesy. This man had no paint on his face, but I saw the mysterious symbol on his upper left chest. He leaned back and looked intently at me, then called out to someone in a language I cannot identify – and I’m a linguist. A woman came up bearing a black goo. He painted the symbol on my upper left chest, to match his decoration. A second woman provided a paste which he plastered over the symbol. By signs, he indicated I was not to wash off the paste until after 5 days.
That symbol, which I cannot identify and will never forget does not appear on my body. But if there’s something deeper than the bone, flesh and skin that I’m familiar with, the symbol is there for all to see who know how to look deeper.
I think of the Lakota Sioux blessing/farewell “Mitake Oyasin”. It literally means ‘All My Relations” but the idiomatic meaning is “We Are All Related”. I can’t really say what the native symbol means, but it connects me to every human on earth. And probably all who have ever lived or will live; and probably all living things since Day One. I am blood-brother to the first bug oozing out of the primordial slime; and to the Dalai Lama; to you and probably to the rocks that lie underfoot.
We are born alone. We die alone. In between, we can only learn to appreciate life – and each other.
The late Richie Havens sang;
We are all alone
Each one his own
We are all alone… together.
With all that solitude, remember to be Alone Together