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Almost Heaven
In West Virginia, paragliding can send even beginners on an Appalachian high.

By Don Beaulieu
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Ever have that dream -- the one in which you're flying effortlessly, soaring and banking through the clouds, a human F-16? Me neither. In my rare flying dream, I only manage to float about haplessly and get caught in tree branches, like a plastic grocery bag.

That's why, when I heard about paragliding, I knew I could finally live the dream I've never had. And that's what landed me in the mountains of central West Virginia a few weeks ago to try paragliding, to pursue human flight, a longing that has persisted since the first human witnessed a hawk soaring in the sky.

What is paragliding? If 40 is the new 30, then paragliding is the new hang gliding. Unlike its solid-frame, kitelike counterpart, a paraglider is more of a modified parachute connected to a harness. Both are designed to catch columns of rising air, called thermals, and stay aloft over long distances, and both are launched by running down a slope. But a paraglider is more portable (it fits in a backpack), quicker to set up and easier to master.

So you're ready to launch yourself into the sunset? Hold on, Mr. Incredible. First you need practice handling a paraglider and experience assessing weather conditions. You need training from a veteran instructor.

You need someone like Dwayne McCourt. McCourt has lived in this part of the Mountain State all his life, has been roaming its airspace since he learned to paraglide 11 years ago and has taught the sport for most of the time since then. He may know this land, and how to negotiate it, better than most. Though he'll only allow that "I know it pretty good."

Over the years, he's soared next to red-tailed hawks, spiraling skyward in the same thermal updraft. Once he flew over a mother black bear feeding her two cubs in a clearing. How long can you stay aloft (a good thing to know before flying over mother bears)?

"There's no telling," he said, after I'd arrived with my girlfriend, Jamie, for our first lesson. "The longest I've been up is 5 1/2 hours."

McCourt's outfit, Fly West Virginia, is one of a few in the mid-Atlantic region that offer paragliding instruction. Within a weekend, even a fledgling can experience flight. The first day involves drills in handling the glider on flat ground. On the second day you'll practice on a hill, where you'll probably catch air for the first time.

The terrain is predictable but hardly boring. It rises and it plummets. Sometimes its ridges ascend into rocky crests, skeletal remnants of ancient uplifts laid bare by time and gravity. People have settled this area sparsely and built roads only as the land's contours allow. In short, this magnificent landscape virtually demands to be navigated by air.

Out of his home base in Bolair, population about 200, McCourt helps people do just that. We drove out of town and down a long dirt road that passes under a defunct coal conveyor to the beginner's site -- a former mountaintop flattened by strip mining.

The process of removing entire peaks to extract their coal has leveled broad swaths of mountainside and left graded, treeless slopes -- perfect spots to launch paragliders. There's still plenty of wilderness to see, but the mining has scarred the land's natural beauty.

On our first day, we practiced what is called "kiting," or lofting the paraglider into the wind and controlling it on level ground. Then we ran down a few gentle hills with the paraglider poised above us. We didn't fly the first day, just skimmed the surface a bit, toes barely clearing the grass. It was somewhat exciting and somewhat unnerving, a teaser of what was to come.

McCourt proved to be the consummate teacher, patient and encouraging. He was terrified the first time he flew, he admitted: "If you're not scared, you're doing drugs or you're drunk." With long hair and a trimmed beard, a southern drawl and an unflappable, Key West sort of demeanor, he seems part Bo Bice, part Jimmy Buffet.

And part drill sergeant. The next day we headed for the hills, or hill -- a steeper, higher slope behind Gadd cemetery, overlooking a horse pasture. Our objective was to run down the incline and take a short flight, with McCourt running beside us.

His instructions proceeded something like this: "Run! Run, run, run, run! Run faster! Let go of the risers! Lean forward, go, go, go go! Down on the brakes!"

This was the point at which I was supposed to launch off the hillside. I understood the instructions. The risers are lines that attach to the front of the paraglider, and releasing my hold on them exposes it to the wind's lift. The brake lines connect to the rear of the glider. They help you steer and land, and tugging these lines gently during takeoff acts like lowering the wing flaps on an airplane, and the flow of air forces the glider up.

I knew all this, but the first two times I caught no air; it was hard to suppress the very rational fear that my superego whispered: "I am a land-based mammal. Bipedal. Terrestrial. No wings. I don't belong in the air. It's not my domain."

The key to rising, literally, above the fear is to give in to the thrill. Think Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Think Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Bach, it turns out, is an avid paraglider pilot. He describes gliding as a "wide, slow brush stroke in the air."

Finally on my third try, I flew, though my first "brush stroke" was more Jackson Pollock than Claude Monet. I was airborne for about 10 yards and then found myself sprawled on the ground below the hill, my canopy collapsing around me, McCourt yelling, "Do you know what you did wrong?"

I did. While approaching the ground, I had released the brakes by mistake, so instead of landing softly, the wind blew the glider, and me, off balance. On my second flight, I soared for about 20 yards, lowered the brakes as I descended and came down on my feet, a perfect landing. And perfectly exhilarating. It felt surreal and spirit-lifting in every sense.

Jamie had an even better flight, although she started the weekend with more apprehension than I did. On her first flight, she rose about 15 feet in the air and landed gracefully with an enormous smile. "Some people who are most afraid enjoy it the most," McCourt told us. "You have to have respect for it."

We're already planning our next trip to West Virginia, another weekend of lessons and, we hope, some extended flights. Do we have a choice? As Leonardo da Vinci said, "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."

But am I worthy of flight? Shut up, superego. It's time to take off.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE : Fly West Virginia has a mailing address in Webster Springs but operates out of neighboring Bolair, about a 5 1/2 -hour drive from Washington. Take I-270 north from the Beltway to I-70 west and then I-68 west through Maryland. At Morgantown, W.Va., take I-79 south to Exit 57, Route 19 south. Pick up Route 82 east to Cowen, then Route 20 north to Bolair.

FLYING : A beginning lesson costs $100 a day for three to five hours of instruction with Fly West Virginia (304-847-7765 or 304-644-4359, http://www.flywv.com/ ). Other paragliding outfitters include: East Winds Paragliding of Arlington (703-772-2039), with Juan Ortiz, who takes beginners out to training hills in Virginia for $150 a day; Southern Skies Paragliding of Moravian Falls, N.C. (828-632-6000, http://www.southernskies.net/ ), where two instructors give three- to four-hour lessons at training sites about 50 miles west of Winston-Salem, N.C., for $150 a lesson.

STAYING THERE: The cottages at Carnifex Ferry Cottages in Mount Nebo, W.Va. (800-701-0809, http://www.westvirginiacabins.com/ ), have up to three bedrooms and rent for $140 a weekend night for four people. All cottages, including Driftwood Lodge on Summersville Lake, have fireplaces and outdoor hot tubs. Mineral Springs Motel (McGraw and Hoover streets, Webster Springs, 304-847-5305, http://www.mineralspringsmotel.com/ ) would be unremarkable if it were not wedged between the Elk River and the court square of this former resort town. A room for two runs $49 a weekend night.

EATING THERE : Cafe Cimino is just off I-79 (Exit 62, 400 Fourth St., Sutton, 877-924-6466, http://www.cafecimino.com/ ). Some of the Italian recipes were passed down from the owner's Grandma Cimino. Entrees start at $15. Be sure to begin with the homemade bruschetta. The Custard Stand (364 Webster Rd., Webster Springs, 304-847-2942, http://www.custardstand.com/ ) serves "West Virginia's tastiest hot dog chili." A chili dog costs 90 cents; dinner for two, including frozen custard, is less than $10.

INFO: West Virginia Division of Tourism, 800-225-5982, http://www.wvtourism.com/ .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company