I stand on a giant sand dune in Nags Head, North Carolina, harnessed to an 80-pound hang glider. I grasp the control bar at hip level in front of me. My instructor holds on to one wing with a rope, waiting for the perfect wind. I had anticipated this moment for months, but now I'm scared.
When I planned this hang gliding lesson, it was easy to be brave. A few clicks on the website and I was booked. I had always dreamed—literally dreamed—of flying. Waking up, I'd remember gliding effortlessly, leaning instinctively to the side to turn, aiming my body up to soar. In my dreams I already knew how to fly. I was a natural. I wanted that feeling when I was awake. A hang gliding lesson on soft, forgiving sand seemed a way to experience flight without much risk.
I envisioned myself, lean, streamlined, flying over the sand. But lean was the problem. I intended to lose weight—15 pounds, I decided optimistically—before the lesson. The lighter I was, the farther I'd fly. It was the perfect incentive to take off weight that I needed to lose anyway. I had plenty of time to do it, and a stronger motivation than I'd had in years. But, somehow, I didn't.
Now, waiting on the hot dune, I regret every bowl of ice cream, every floppy slice of pizza. I beat myself up over yet another failure to lose weight. If I couldn't do it this time, would I ever be able to? And more immediately, would my weight make me nose-dive into the side of the hill, like (ouch!) the student I'd just seen? The physics seem simple and unforgiving to me. Heavier objects are harder to get off the ground. I can't reason away gravity.
But when I ask the instructor, a compact, dark-haired woman named Andrea, "Why didn't he fly?" Andrea tells me that he stopped running too soon. He thought he was in flight, extended his legs behind him, and fell flat on the sand. He hadn't built up enough speed. It wasn't his size so much as his timing. She tells me to keep running until I pull the bar under my chin. She'll tell me when.
And the woman who'd had a pretty good flight, then crash-landed? She hadn't pushed the control bar of the hang glider up—they call it "flare"—when it was time to land on her feet.
I ask question after question. When do my legs go behind me? Where do I look? What do I do if the glider suddenly gets too high? Andrea, standing next to me, holding the glider rope, gives each one a detailed answer, and I file it away. Flying is much more complicated than in my dreams.
I can feel the heat of the sand through the soles of my shoes. I can't wipe the sweat from my neck because I'm holding on to the control bar.
Finally she smiles.
"I guess so."
I pull the bar down against my hips, hold it tight, and run. With the awkward glider, the wind blowing against me, and sand filling my sneakers, it's more like a waddle, but I take the longest strides I can. The instructor runs alongside me, still holding on to the rope.
"Wiggle your fingers," she says. "Relax your hands."
I hold the bar loosely and keep running. Suddenly there's no ground beneath my feet. I feel like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off the end of a cliff, my legs furiously pedaling through the air.
"Pull the bar under your chin."
I do, and, as if they know what to do, as if they've been waiting my whole life for this, my legs relax behind me. I'm horizontal! I'm flying!
The most amazing part of hang gliding is the weightless feeling. My regret about failing to lose weight temporarily vanishes. Although I'm just a few feet above the ground, the sensation is unmistakably one I remember from dreams of flying. I might feel heavy on land, but in the air I soar.
The bystanders at the bottom of the dune, the other hang gliders and their instructors, the heat of the sun all fall away—there's nothing but wind and air and my body that knows just what to do.
"Flare!" Andrea yells. I push the bar straight up with my palms, and I float easily toward the ground until my feet are on the sand, my knees bent. I straighten my legs into a solid landing. I grin as the bystanders gathered around a bush on the flat sand applaud.
"Perfect!" one of them calls.
I take three more flights, some more perfect than others. My success depends on my skill—running fast, holding the bar correctly, pulling it in, pushing it out, relaxing my fingers—and not the shape of my body.
Back on earth, I know I still have to lose weight. But when it feels impossible, I'll think about how my body, as imperfect as it is, was healthy and strong enough to control the glider, to lift me above the sand. And I'll have this to remember and to sustain my spirit: gliding over the dune, my body supported by the wind. Weightless.
Jody Mace is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.