You Will Be More Disappointed By The Things You Did Not Do Than By The Ones You Did
Three Intrepid Travelers Head To Sin City—An Adventurer's Playground Located Between Deadly Deserts And Ancient Mountains—To Conquer Their Deepest Held Fears.
Photographs By Ronda Churchill
It's not that I'm scared of heights—I just don't need to be around ledges, cliffs, bridges, observation decks or anything that you have to "look down" to appreciate. No, thank you, I'm fine three feet away from the edge of anything. Unfortunately, all my good adventure travel ideas (macramé, eating, sitting in one place for long periods of time) were shot down in favor of, "Jaime, you're going to jump out of a plane."
"You can go to Vegas to do it."
"Okay, but what are my workers comp rights?"
I walked around for weeks prior to my adventure trip contemplating my mortality. I talked with my Special Forces friend stationed in Afghanistan, who has hundreds of jumps under his belt, and he said in a confident, assuring, military tone, "Seriously, it's tandem, just prepare for awesome. You won't die sky diving, maybe some other way, but not with those guys. They're licensed, right?" I liked the idea in theory—flying, pushing myself in way I never thought I wanted to and it is the 100th anniversary of first skydive, after all. I buoyed my confidence with Ray Brad-bury's quote, "Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down."
But dreams of spouting wings quickly gave way to reality: I would be jumping from 15,000 feet strapped into a parachute with a stranger.
The first step was simple, practice at Vegas Indoor Skydiving—basically romper room for adults. I entered a padded room with a trampoline for a floor and a giant fan beneath the trampoline. I simply had to jump on the gush of air and fly. This ridiculous exercise was like being a beagle in a side-car—wind rushing past my permanent smile. I couldn't believe there was a sub-culture of instructors and coaches who spent their days training novices like me how to manipulate their bodies to hover over earth. By my last round, my instructor was flinging me around like a weightless rag doll and spinning me on his head. It seemed like show boating, like way too much fun to be having in a random hangar off the Vegas Strip, but I actually walked away feeling like I learned how to position my body during free fall—arched back, arms slightly forward, head up.
As much fun as I had indoor flying, my next task was one I feared almost equally to skydiving—jumping from the 108th floor of the Stratosphere on a controlled cable. Let me tell you something about standing on the edge of a platform 855 feet in the air: It is very pretty, majestic almost—until you realize you are meant to step off that ledge and plunge into the miniscule landscape below. The target I was supposed to hit on landing was the size of an orange, the hotel where I was staying, The Cosmopolitan, a dollhouse. The world was abstracted from above, just a grey grid of rectangles and circles.
I was hooked into the cable and the operators were delivering one terrible joke after another. No, I don't think I will go. No, I definitely won't. I do not want to step off that ledge. Why on earth—or any other planet— would I even consider it? Count to three? OK, but why? One, two, ayyyyyyyyy. I fell and fell, and I became one of the very small bodies that I had watched drop from the base.
I was that small falling body, limbs splayed, vocal chords strained, hair flying and feet landing squarely on target... and it wasn't that bad. I felt very brave. I had boldness in my belly. Plus, I got to wear a jumpsuit. I would have signed up immediately had I know I was going to wear fancy astronaut outfits.
That night I rested, I ate food that I thought would be best if it were my last meal—a tasting menu from Chef Dan Rossi at Scarpetta, who made a black squid ink linguini with salmon roe that actually made me feel like I was falling from the sky. It would be ok to die with that meal coursing through my body.
I woke up with a readiness to take to the air that was only tempered by Raj, the other skydiver waiting for the van. Looking over the waiver, he said in a lilting Bangladeshi accent, "You know, the word death is mentioned many times on this paper." Raj, you are not helping. Somehow, buoyed by the confidence of surviving the Stratosphere, I convinced Raj that it would be fine. No big deal, we're just jumping out of a plane today. We watched the prep video for the jump anchored by Bill Booth; a skydiving engineer who invented tandem jumps. It was difficult to concentrate because he had a ZZ Top beard and I kept trying to picture him flying through the air with his facial hair splayed out in all directions like a follicular tapestry. We drove 20 minutes from the Strip to Jean Airport and waited at HQ where there was a bounty of Mountain Dew and Point Breakplaying on loop. Once I got my jumpsuit on, I felt secure and even... excited. I'm jumping from a plane today. Ye-a.
Then I saw the plane. Everything about this exercise is faith: It's putting your life in other people's hands; it's believing that humanity has progressed enough to control gravity, to manipulate air and to allow for a rapid descent without the logical impact. It requires faith in yourself that you can make a decision based on logic, odds and impulse. This was the safest gamble in Vegas—I'd looked it up. I had a one in 30,000 chance of dying due to an auto-related accident and one in 100,000 chance of dying from tandem skydiving. But even with those odds as my mantra and the grand delusion that this was humanity's pinnacle engineering, I was scared out of my mind. The body does not naturally want to throw itself out of a plane from 15,000 feet. In fact, after I was sandwiched into the plane, I decided I did not want to fall from the sky. I could not understand Icarus and his wax wings, I could not even understand birds. What looked small from the Stratosphere looked molecular from this sky. My instructor Brian opened the hatch. I tried to breath. I gathered all my meditative skills and yogic breathing techniques. The wind rushed in. I tried to breath. I thought about backing away. I tried to breath. There was nowhere to go but down. And down and down and down for 45 seconds of free fall.
"You know, the word death is mentioned many times on this paper."
I fell forward, plunging to earth, salty air surrounding me. I was screaming and smiling and thrilled beyond expression. My cheeks were flapping like bologna slices in the wind and I was helplessly overcome with adrenaline. When the parachute was pulled, I couldn't believe the serene beauty of the world below. We floated and spun, and I was in awe of the quiet majesty below. I even took over the controls, piloting us. I saw desert for miles, the Strip on the horizon, and I realized, when pushed, even I could take a leap of faith.