Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Crazy? Jumping Out of a Plane Crazy!

I've been a little scared of heights for as long as I recall. I'll experience a fight or flight response even during a movie's 10th-floor-straight-to-the-ground shot. (Watching the movie Vertigo on a big screen is an experience, let me just say.) So I've long wondered if I'd ever have the guts to jump out of a plane.

Hey, don't look at me like that: I'm not claiming that it makes the least bit of sense.

Earlier this year, for whatever reason, my wonder started to turn a bit more serious until last month, when I decided that I'd thought and wondered and fretted far too much and for far too long: I either went ahead and did it or I was a pu... er, I mean, a wuss.

So this morning, after several previous attempts were cancelled due to bad weather, I was off to Raeford Parachute Center in Raeford, NC. The area reminded me of where I grew up in rural Indiana. Quiet and peaceful (except for the meth labs and the Oxycontin robberies, of course ;-).

I got to the center experiencing a mixture of excitement and anxiety, which is pretty much the norm, I'd expect. As my tandem instructor, Tico, put it, he really wouldn't want to jump with somebody who didn't have enough sense to be at least a little nervous.

The training and prep were fairly uneventful. We were first shown a video that went on at some length about relinquishing our legal rights should we suddenly find ourselves paralyzed or splattered across someone's tobacco field. And that's fine: should I die in a skydiving accident that is due to someone else's negligence, I plan to haunt his ass to the point that he thinks the movie Poltergeist is a whimsical comedy.

Generally speaking, though, I was pretty cool up to the point of squeezing into the plane.

This was a tiny prop job carrying 18 people, if I remember correctly: there was a pilot (or I had faith that there was), six tandem teams, four photographers, and one solo skydiver. As one of the instructors said, we were so close that, in some cultures, we'd be considered married. Being squeezed in like that with the hot, stagnant air combined with the gas fumes was anything but pleasant; fortunately, however, my instructor and I were to be the 2nd tandem team out of the plane, so we were right next to the door. And it only took a couple of minutes before the plane started taxiing for takeoff, at which point the wind took care of the heat and fumes problems and I was able to relax again.

I relaxed until the first tandem team fell out of the plane, I should specify.

I've spent the better part of the afternoon telling people that I "jumped out out of a plane," but that's really not accurate. No, it really is more an act of falling. Once the first team was away, my instructor told me to slide off the bench, get my ass on the floor, scootch my way up to the door, and hang my legs over the side. At which point, I have to say that I started having second thoughts.




But there were four tandem teams behind us, so even if I'd somehow been able to convince Tico to bag the jump, it would have been a major inconvenience to move out of everyone else's way. Plus, I really didn't like the idea that I'd be the subject of object lessons and general derision at the training center for years to come. So I decided that I'd best just go with it.

Things progressed somewhat quickly from that point.

Tico told me to lean my head back, and the next thing I knew, we were out of the plane and freefalling.

My next admission is that I experienced a second or two of "What the *#&%$#@ are you doing??!!" but quickly realized that everything was out of my control for the foreseeable future. With that understood, I was able to relax and started enjoying the hell out of the ride. And it was incredible. Absolutely incredible. We'd been warned to not look down -- either look at the cameraman or at the horizon -- however, to the best of my recollection, that was the only bit of advice that I ignored: the views from 2.5 miles up are far too beautiful to ignore.

I could go on and on about the experience of freefalling, the feeling of the canopy deploying, sensation of flying, etc. And while I had a photographer recording things, I really wish I could have taken my own pictures so I might have captured the beautiful red-tailed hawk floating below us as we were approaching the drop zone. Just an incredible experience all around. The only questions in my mind now are when I do it again and if I tandem again or graduate up to accelerated freefall.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Leisurely Stroll Through Raleigh

When I mentioned back in May that Raleigh has a surprising trail system, I wasn't exaggerating.

This morning, I grabbed my camera and a bottle of water, drove over to the NC Museum of Art, and set out on the Reedy Creek Trail. What I thought was going to be a quick walk turned into a 10-mile adventure, but in a good way.

When I hit the end of Reedy Creek, I was surprised to find that I still had plenty of energy despite the 95-degree temps, so I decided to keep going, making my way down the Gorman Street Connector Trail and over to the Rocky Branch Trail, which took me onto the North Carolina State University (Go Wolfpack!) campus. At the end of Rocky Branch Trail, I opted to continue on for another mile or so to hit central campus.

Very nice day.

For most of the walk, especially on the Reedy Creek Trail, you'd never know that you were on an urban trail. Consider:

Unfortunately, it was after this photo that the batteries in my camera died, so I had nothing left to take a picture of the NCSU bell tower; hopefully, Google Maps' Street View will suffice. The tower, by the way, was struck by lightning and damaged back on May 5 during a hellacious thunderstorm.

And the tower marked the end of the first half of my journey. Instead of turning around, however, I decided to delay the return trip for a stop at Schoolkids Records right across the street from the bell tower. I walked in expecting to buy Sonic Youth's new release, The Eternal. I walked out 20 minutes later (sweating like a pig and probably stinking like one, too; but the record store guys were kind enough not to say anything... they work next to a head shop, so I'm guessing that they deal with stinky customers on a regular basis) with that CD plus eight used ones, including many from some of the heroes of the Triangle music scene over the last 40 years, including Arrogance (where Don Dixon got his start), Superchunk, and Sorry About Dresden (which is, of course, just a fantastic name for a rock band, in a sick sort of way, that is).

After hitting the record store, I stopped in at East Village Bar & Grill for two pints of Guinness (just days after telling someone that I don't drink Guinness anymore; I guess I lied). Quite tasty and I do like that bar; however, they must have the filthiest bathroom in the city... not Trainspotting bad, but bad nonetheless; the smell of urine combined with the hot and humid and stagnant air makes it seem like you're in an outhouse. But I was out of there soon enough, with the Guinness providing exactly the type of sustenance all hiking enthusiasts recommend for the last few miles of the hike back to the museum and my hotter than hell car.

Next weekend's adventure? Entirely dependent upon the weather.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What Is Wrong with People?

Wednesday night, I was fortunate enough to be able to see Steve Earle perform at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC. That was perhaps the 12th time I've seen him over the last 20 years, and not only did he put on one of the best shows I've seen from him (and that is high praise, believe) but the crowd was also one of the best. They were respectful and quiet, which was essential as this was a solo acoustic show; in my not so humble opinion, that is the best way to see Steve, especially if you've never had the opportunity previously.

Sure, there were a handful of talkers, but even they were doing their best to whisper. The couple near me perhaps deserve a special mention for the hot & heavy action they were engaging in through much of the show: you want to kiss, that's fine, but don't make the sucking noises that can be heard for 25 feet in all directions. The guy in front of me looked bored from the moment he sat down and by all indications felt that the mere act of clapping after songs was spiritually draining, so I'm not certain why he was there. Still, a well-behaved audience, especially considering that it was a sell-out show of I'd say 400 people.

But there's always one in every crowd.

One thing to know about Steve -- by no means the most important thing, but relevant to this story -- is that he started using heroin as a teen, and that addiction eventually took everything from him. I saw him perform in the summer of 1993 and he was in such bad shape that I expected to read his obituary shortly thereafter. But by some grace, goodness, or just plain good luck, he was able to turn a short prison sentence into a a first step toward recovery, and he's been clean for about 15 years since.

One other thing to know is that Steve considered Townes Van Zandt a hero and mentor, and the two were good friends for 25 years or so. Townes suffered with his own demons, mostly alcohol addiction and mental problems. Townes never beat the addiction and died back in 1997. Steve's latest release is an album of Townes covers.

(A quick aside: It's interesting to note that while Townes and Steve are both considered two of the best songwriters around and both suffered addictions, Steve is quick to dismiss the whole tortured artist myth with its idea that the problems nurture the creative process. In fact, in a couple of interviews I've read where that idea has been raised, he seems offended by the idea or perhaps more by the romanticism behind it.)

Anyway, back to talking about Steve and the crowd... About halfway through the evening, Steve tells one of his old standby stories about that period when he is slipping deeper and deeper into the addiction. His "vacation in the ghetto," as he calls it. He begins by commenting that a person knew he was in a bad way when Townes of all people commented that their drug or alcohol habit had gotten out of control. As expected, this got some laughter from the crowd.

Steve starts to describe how he came home one day -- but he interrupts himself to explain that this happened just before he lost the home and ended up homeless for a period.

At which point a handful of people laughed.

He says that he got home to find Townes sitting in his living room. Again, he stops himself to explain that he never bothered locking his house during this period because he'd pawned almost everything of value, including all but one of his guitars.

Only one person is left to laugh now.

SE: "So I walk in and find Townes sitting on my couch playing my guitar."
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "He looks at me and says, 'You look like hell.'"
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "And I said, 'I know it.'"
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "He says, 'Your arms look like hell.'"
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "He asks, 'Do you have clean needles?'"
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "I told him that I did."
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "He asks, "Do you use a clean needle every... single... time??"
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "I told him that I did."
Idiot: "Hahahahahahaha!"
SE: "And he said, 'Good. Then I want to play a song for you that I just wrote."

It was at that point that Steve launched into his cover of Townes' "Marie." I would love to say that he first waded into the crown to give holy hell to the moronic woman who found that story so hilarious, but Steve has certainly mellowed over the last 10-15 years, which is a good thing.