Monday, July 30, 2007

One purpose of our journey to the Outer Banks was to redeem ten-year-old "Wind Checks" we received from a previous visit. Back in 1997, during our Great Eastern drive, Jenny and I attempted to take hang gliding lessons at Kitty Hawk Kites. This location is popular for first timers due to both its historical significance -- proximity to the first flights by Orville and Wilbur Wright -- and the forgiving sands that that make harsh landings endurable. During our visit we took the ground training and trudged up the sand dunes to take flight, but the wind died down and our session was grounded. Since we had a long day of driving ahead and could not come back later that afternoon, we asked if we could try anyway. Our instructors gave us the OK and we tried our best. Unfortunately, a hang glider without adequate wind results in a lot of running and perspiration but little lift. Jenny and I both ate a couple of dirt sandwiches before we recognized that that day would not be our day to fly. So we pocketed our wind checks, brought them home, placed them in a file cabinet, and presumed we'd never see them again. But planning this trip we remembered KHK's promise that they'd be in business forever. I gave them a call, they checked their files, and we secured reservations for a return trip, this time with Vienna.

Thus you can imagine our distress when we awoke to see ominous thunderclouds advancing from the south. In the morning we grabbed a light breakfast and swam a bit in the pool. Jenny and Vienna even tried their hands at a bead-making activity offered by the campsite. But I kept my eyes on those clouds and recognized with gathering dread that we may not get a chance to fly. Even so, we drove the half-hour north along Highway 12 to Nags Head after calling and getting a non-committal forecast from KHK. "We may launch, we may not. Might as well come in and hope for the best." When we got to town, the rain fell steadily and we split a pizza. As training began we learned about procedures and the theory of glider flight, watching a video of thrilled hang glider students catching updrafts from gorgeous sun-kissed dunes. Outside, the rain slapped the window with increasing intensity. As training concluded, we filed out to chat with the local forecaster. "It looks like Christmas," he said, "lots of red and green. We could get storms all day." One couple decided to attempt their flights anyway; they got the go-ahead since the lightening had abated. But we knew that flying in the rain would result in much suckage. Jenny asked if we could secure some later slots, hoping that the weather might let up, and we got the last three late afternoon slots. I knew, I just knew that the rain would only get worse. But we decided to wait. Jenny and Vienna did some souvenir shopping while I found a place to read the paper. I tried not to look at the clouds.

Gradually the rain decreased and the thick cloud layer broke into small lumps, and eventually some sun shone through. By the time Jenny and Vienna returned, the rains had gone and the skies had transformed to a friendly series of wispy orange bands. The breezes had picked up and our spirits lifted as we returned to KHK. Our instructors handed us harnesses and helmets and we climbed the dune again, just as we did a decade ago, and found a handful of gliders waiting for us. Surrounding us, blue water lapped up against both sides of the islands, and kite flyers played on the dune. This time, the wind was light -- about 5 MPH -- but flyable. The types of gliders we flew require about 25 MPH to take off. The wind contributed its meager portion; our legs (and some help from our instructors) would supply the rest. Each of us got five turns, practicing the skills essential to achieving a few heady seconds of lift.

The most important quality to a successful flight is a paradoxical combination of focus and relaxation. First-timers tend to overcompensate when given instruction, forget to focus on their target, or employ a death grip on the bar, each of which results in eating a dirt sandwich. Jenny and I made all of those mistakes, sometimes all three at once, while Vienna picked it up fairly quickly. By our fifth flight, each of us had a caught some decent air and even managed to land on our feet. All the while, our instructors (most notably, Dylan) offered advice, provided feedback, and most kindly of all, dragged the gliders back to our starting positions.

At the end of the lesson we returned to the office, swaggering with success. All of us were drenched in sweat, and yet we claimed our certificates, our flight logs, and other souvenirs with a sense of triumph. Ten years late, we finally flew over the Outer Banks dunes (and gained a little insight along the way -- click to read more). For dinner we celebrated at Dirty Dick's, a funky seafood place whose slogans dip into silly double entendres, ("Never been to one of our restaurants? … you obviously don't know dick!"). The meal was insanely priced, but our obnoxiously large boat of snow crabs, spicy shrimp, new potatoes, ears of corn, along with some smoked crab dip and various libations, were worth every penny. We planned to hit the pool one last time upon our return to the KOA, but decided simply to hit our racks when we finally rolled into Rodanthe.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood