The sound of the propellers drowns the voices of plane’s other passengers. Two by two they lighten the vessel’s load. The instructor tightens all the straps for the third time, and motions to slide along the bench in the middle of the cramped cabin. We wiggle up into an awkward standing position, repeating the same waddle as the last attached pair of bodies that just fell out the open door. We move up. “Ready?” I hear in my ear. The moment I dreaded has arrived. Will I hesitate? I look out and see Earth through a hole in the clouds. “1.” Where’s the rush? “2.” How is it that I’m not freaking out right now? “3!” Where’s the hesitation? The whirr of the propellers is instantly replaced with the sound of rushing wind. If I closed my eyes, I could have been in a pine forest during a hurricane. I try to look around as much as possible; I want to take in the whole experience. The instructor motions for me to make a shaka sign with my hand, and I begrudgingly cave in. As we pass under the clouds my hand is guided to the golf ball on the parachute’s ripcord, and then, suddenly, we’re floating. At that moment I realize something very underwhelming: I’m bored.
When I tell people that I went skydiving this summer their eyes open wide like I did something rare and impressive. “How was it?” they ask enthusiastically. I tell them that it was a calming, peaceful, eye-opening experience that gave me a new perspective. I describe passing over a baseball game at twelve-hundred feet, and how tiny all the players looked. I comment on how the geometry of the fields and neighborhoods seemed to grow more complex the closer to Earth we descended. There’s no attempt of sounding macho or brave in my voice; I could be talking about meditating in a zen garden. That’s because, in my mind, skydiving was both beautiful and serene. My heart rate remained constant from the moment I arrived at the airfield to the moment we hit dirt. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not proud of that fact. Skydiving was something I’ve always wanted to do, and being less amped than the instructor did not live up to my expectations. I felt left out.
I recall being surprised at my lack of fear throughout the whole event. Everything that happened leading up to the jump was explained and practiced, so there were no unknowns to be afraid of. I was strapped to an experienced diver who jumped out of airplanes several times a day, so I wasn’t afraid of going off course or crashing. I understood the risks, and I knew that the chances of injury or death were incredibly slim. Under different conditions, falling out of plane is incredibly scary and life-threatening, but skydiving is really safe. Razor blades, worms, and motorcycles are three things that send shivers down my spine, but I’m perfectly okay with the idea of falling to Earth attached to a parachute. The way I see it, if I crash a motorcycle, then it was the result of something I did wrong. If I collide with the ground at 120 mph while skydiving, then it was something wrong with the chute. The burden of failure lies with the gear, not the user. Since I trusted the instructor, his gear, and the plane’s pilot, I had nothing to worry about; I was just along for the ride.
Like a lot of people, I’m not so good with heights. I hate the feeling of an invisible hand pushing and pulling you while standing at the edge of a cliff. There’s a lurch in your groin, your stomach turns over, and you’re filled with an overwhelming appreciation for solid ground. I usually get the urge to lay down, thinking I’ll fall unexpectedly. In reality, however, you’re just as stable standing on the edge of a cliff as you are in the middle of a conference room. The reaction to heights and ledges is an instinctual one, and it’s a useful tool for survival. My only concern about skydiving was that I would get the cliff edge feeling just before jumping, and that I would chicken out. This concern was shared by the people I was jumping with, as I was forced to be the last one out. When I got to the doorway, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the groin tug and push-pull instinct never kicked in. With no frame of reference, it was impossible to tell how high up I was. The plane cabin’s doorway was just another threshold that needed to be crossed. Falling was easy.
Roller coasters present people with all the feelings of life-threatening terror, but without risk of injury. Yes, people get hurt and killed on roller coasters, but they’re designed to be safely operated all day long, providing fun to thousands of people. Showers are designed to be safe, yet people get hurt in them every year. Your heart races in anticipation while standing in line for a coaster. You get excited during the upwards climb. Then, during the big drop, your stomach shoots up into your throat, and you feel like you’re going to die. But you don’t. Afterwards, my system is so flooded with adrenaline that I have trouble walking towards the exit. I was expecting the same during the first moments after jumping from the plane. But nothing like that happened during free fall.
The ground moves upwards with apparent slowness, like when a film zooms in on a character very slowly. There wasn’t much to do, so I just looked around. It was, without a doubt, the best view I’ve ever seen. Looking out of a window doesn’t do justice to the unhindered 360° range of vision from 12,000 feet. It was awe-inspiring to watch clouds, those giant puffy things way above you right now, fly past like trees on a highway drive. I could see entire towns, mountains, and roads laid out as if they were a map spread across a table. That wasn’t the ground below me, it was Earth. Go search for speeches from astronauts about how they saw Earth from Space for the first time. You get a taste of that while you’re falling. I gained a new perspective, one only obtainable while free falling toward the rock you spend most of your day on. I was filled with awe and a sense of belonging; there was no room for excitement. Just when I’d decided to stay there in the sky forever, it was time to pull the ripcord.
When the parachute opens, the fall turns into a slow drift. My feelings of peace and serenity were not jarred in any way by the change in speed. The instructor and I were able to chat in the absence of rushing air. He pointed out several landmarks, talked about parachuting tricks, and asked how I was doing. I suppose my lack of cheers and shouts concerned him. I tried to tell him the experience so far was calming and peaceful, but I don’t think he understood. We passed over rivers, fields, and homes. We did a few swirls and loops. We hovered for a bit. I actually found myself wondering how much longer it would take. Then, before I was able to comprehend what was happening, we were on the ground. Grass stained and wet, I found my fellow jumpers and forced my cheek muscles into a smile. I was pleased by the whole thing, happy to have finally gone, relieved I hadn’t chickened out, and satisfied for being imbued with a new perspective. But excited was not a word I would have uttered at that moment.
Standing in the grassy field that day, I felt like the one person in comedy club who doesn’t doesn’t laugh at a joke. I was filled with a disheartening sense of misunderstanding. I wanted to get it, but I just didn’t see what everyone else saw. I didn’t feel like I had survived something, or done something extraordinary. Everything about the skydiving experience lived up to every expectation I had had, and there weren’t any surprises. Maybe I would have been more excited if I hadn’t seen footage of felix Baumgartner’s stratosphere jump, or watched Boards of Canada’s Dayvan Cowboy music video. Maybe the mystery of what the world looked like from 12,000 feet would have had me bouncing with anticipation. Was it fun? Yeah. Would I do it again? Hell yeah! Was it exciting? No, not really. It was kinda boring.