Learning to Fly
For nearly an hour, he's a speck in the air, soaring through
the clouds themselves. With the green of the mountains below and the blue sky expanding from
everywhere, he's in a different place entirely, a frame of mind only the fellow paraglider can
"That's how I find God," he said.
Meet Paulo Alves. Armed with a GPS, radio and a fabric wing, he's one with the sky. As he soars, sharing thermals with red tailed hawks 2,000 feet above the valley floor, he's a long way from home, longer than most.
"I was born in a city, which is like a mecca for the sport," he said.
In his native Brazil, it's more than an "extreme" side occupation; paragliding is a passion, a passion he witnessed at an early age.
"It's fascinating to see people falling from the sky like a superhero," he said.
And now, years later, he's one of them. The wing is his cape.
"It's just you, the wing and nature," he said, his face still beaming from 2,000 feet of altitude, sunshine and soaring.
He, along with about 50 other people from across the world, are gathered at Tater Hill in the Mabel community for an event that literally can takes its participants' breath away: The Tater Hill Open, a casual competition for paragliders that ends this weekend.
"It's a worldwide well known place to fly," Alves said.
That's not surprising to Mabel native Jim Younce. For years, he's been coming to the competition and this year, he's going to be a part of it.
"I've been sitting here forever watching these people do this," he said, "and now I want to do it."
Armed with a shaky resolve, the retired military man stood at the base of the landing zone waiting for his tandem pilot and trying to solicit pep talks from the landers.
"I'm actually afraid of heights," he said, laughing.
So is Chicago resident and Czechoslovakian native Jaro Krupa, but it hasn't stopped him from soaring.
While standing at the top might cause him to shake, "when I'm flying it's so natural," he said.
"It's like people aren't meant to fly, but once you try..."
"Anybody who tries it once, you'll never forget," Alves said. "He's going to come back with such a smile on his face."
Besides, "You can't run, so just enjoy the view," Alves said.
And what a view it is. With the occasional blue speck from Watauga Lake and the mist of the clouds, it's a sight that, as soon as you experience it, will fuel your paragliding addiction, he said.
"It's a privilege of a few people, to go inside a cloud," Alves said. "That's a temple right there. That's how I find God."
And the uniqueness of the bald Tater Hill Mountain adds a special mystic element.
"It's how it acts," Krupa said. "The conversion usually builds behind the hill, and it's just beautiful when it flows down the valley."
It's so beautiful that it has Maui, Hawaii resident Tim Lynch calling the High Country an astounding sight.
"It's just such a beautiful place. And there's nothing like southern hospitality," he laughed.
"And there's nothing like southern food, the real stuff," Alves said, stuff like cornbread that, even though he's camping this week on Tater Hill, will bring him down the mountain to Boone in between flights. "I've got to have that cornbread."
"All right. I'm definitely going to do it," Younce said. "I'm next."
As he loads into the pickup truck for the bumpy ride to the top, the butterflies hit. "You're going to start off mellow, right?" he asked tandem trainer Nathan Beane.
"We're going to start any way you want to start," Beane said.
He's been flying full-time for four years. Based in Franklin, he flies four to five days a week, and it's not just the tandem business that brings him back to Tater Hill.
"It's the competition and the amazing camaraderie with all the pilots," he said. "I started flying tandem actually to fly with my wife."
And now it's a business, introducing people like Younce to the sky.
"Sharing it with someone who's never done it before is worth more than the money," he said.
It's a job he takes very seriously. It's not a tandem leisure glide or a lighthearted adventure.
Flying is serious business, with rules, procedures and risks, all of which he goes over with his tandem fliers in detail prior to the take off. It's not an amusement park ride, it's a class, and he's a certified instructor.
"By the time you fly with me, you'll know something about the sport," he said.
But it's not just technical knowledge, it's an experience, an experience impossible to dictate to the uninitiated.
"The birds are probably the coolest thing," he said. "Eagles, buzzards, hawks, falcons. We're literally turning next to each other in the same column of air."
As Younce reached the hill top, the excitement only intensified.
"I'm going to do this," he said. "I can't believe I'm actually going to do this."
And, once his feet hit air and the thermal caught the sail on an upwind, Younce too was hooked.
"Oh, yes. I'll be back," he said.
He couldn't stop smiling.
For more information and a complete schedule, visit http://www.flytaterhill.com.
For photos of Younce's first flight, as well as other paragliding adventures, visit the albums on mountaintimes.com and mtnsnapshots.smugmug.com.