Courage is a strange word, one often foisted on others in recognition of some difficult feat they accomplished or challenge they overcame. Rarely does it seem to be someone's explicit intent. That is, most people don't set out to be courageous. I certainly don't. And yet people keep telling me that my actions are courageous. Like it is courageous to fly my paraglider again after breaking both of my feet and being hospitalized in three countries from a single flight-gone-awry.
But I'm not sure courage is the appropriate word for my behavior. Perhaps idiotic is a better description. Or maybe just stubborn. In truth, getting myself back into flying post-accident has been a long journey and one that isn't remotely over yet, and courage doesn't seem to have much to do with it.
The first three months after my accident, I wasn't allowed to even stand on my right foot, much less walk or run on it. I hobbled around, sometimes using a wheelchair, other times being literally carried by other people, mostly my husband. I drove other pilots to the top of the mountain, watched them launch, then drove down. Sometimes I even picked them up when they'd flown to far off places.
Nearly five months after my accident, I flew tandem with a good friend who'd been there the day I crashed. We flew over the mountains of Pemberton going cross-country in a place I'd always wanted to fly. And while I couldn't fly solo yet I was ecstatic to be aloft again, soaring in the sky with the birds and taking in the otherwise hidden views of alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks. When it came time to land, we opted to slide in on our butts, protecting my still-healing bones.
Seven months after my accident, I was cleared to fly again and we were in Bali. I intended to take my first solo flight there but the sites didn't look easy enough for me. I was afraid of top-landing, a feat I'd only tried once before, and the beach landing options were dismal. Instead I kited my glider, scooping up heaps of sand in its delicate cells. I was delighted to feel comfortable kiting my glider, muscle memory served me well although I clearly needed more practice.
Eight months after my accident, we landed in New Zealand. I knew this would be the place I would take my first solo flight... I just didn't anticipate how long it take for that opportunity to present itself. You see, I ended up in the hospital again, just days after arriving in the country. The MRSA staph infection in my right heel which I acquired during my surgery in California randomly returned. I had to have a second surgery to remove one of my eight screws and to clean out the infection. Then I was incapacitated with an IV port in my arm and a hole in my foot which precluded paragliding, or even kayaking or camping. Two weeks later, I was set free with a gnarly scab and a huge bottle of antibiotics.
After a trip to Nepal where I took a second tandem flight with another friend, again purposefully landing on our butts, I'm now back in New Zealand. It has been more than nine months since my accident. For the first week, we ran from the rain which dogged the flying sites and then we backpacked in the mountains before finally cruising the famed Milford Sound. We arrived in Queenstown to high winds and rain, so it wasn't until New Years Day that I was finally able to take my first solo flight there.
I was terrified, but determined to get aloft again. That morning I visualized a solid launch, smooth flying and a nice landing, over and over and over again. On launch, I went through my familiar pre-flight checklist and setup procedure. Josh hovered over me, wanting to help but understanding that I needed to do it all on my own. When it was my turn to launch, I took a bunch of deep breaths. I was nervous. I took more deep breaths. I checked the wind. I checked it some more. And finally I seized the moment and pulled my glider into the air.
I'd like to say it was a perfect launch, but that would be a lie. However, it was a safe launch. Josh agrees, noting that it didn't cause him to hold his breath. But I am rusty, for sure. The air was thermic, it was mid-day and I found lift easily. But I choose to fly straight through it. I headed towards the landing zone, staying close to the ridgeline to preserve my altitude. I felt a like a newbie again, heeding my instructor's guidance to make sure I had an easy glide to the LZ before trying to extend my flight.
I wanted to land immediately but I wouldn't let myself. I knew I needed time in the air to try to get comfortable again. I shook out my shoulders and legs several times. I flew lazy 360s in good lift and got high above the ridge. I flew out of the lift and just wandered around and tried to enjoy the view. Then I took another thermal into the sky. Eventually I got bored and less scared so I flew down the ridge towards Arrowtown. I watched my instrument the whole way, making sure I wasn't getting below ridge height and then turned around to head back towards the LZ. I even used my speed bar a few times just to prove I could still do it.
After nearly thirty minutes I was done. I felt I had flown long enough, practiced enough skills and had just enough tenacity left to safely land my glider. It seemed like forever to get down. The air was buoyant and I eventually found some sink and turned in it. A friend of a friend guided me into the LZ on radio. It was so nice to have a soft, confident voice on my shoulder telling me that I was at a good height to turn and walking me through each step of the landing as my mind played its own tape.
The last ten feet were the hardest for me. When my glider came in fast along the ground, like it should, I tensed up. I wanted to pull my brakes, to slow the glider, but I knew that I should not. I resisted the temptation and let it fly. When I finally buried the brakes, flaring my wing, I felt fear. I was certain that terrible pain would shoot through my feet when they touched down, but it did not. My landing was soft and smooth. I easily ran it out and set my glider down gently. My feet were fine.
I had succeeded in flying solo again. You might expect that I would have whooped with joy. One of the other pilots there certainly looked pleased at my performance. But I felt numb and scared and jittery. I didn't love it. In fact, the last 35 minutes had been terrible. No fun at all for me. But I did it anyway. I needed to.
And so it is that I deny all claims to me having courage. I have fear, persistence, gratitude, and willfulness. But I do not have anything like the bliss of courage.