Look out below; it’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s me– hang gliding at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Woo-hoo and a hoot-hoot! I feel like an owl soaring through the sky on unfurled wings. The cloudless day blesses me with gorgeous views, rather like looking out the window of a low flying airplane, but…without the plane.
I’ve always dreamed of flying; as a kid I longed to leap from the window and soar off to Never Never Land like Peter Pan and Wendy. A few years ago, although scared, I jumped at the opportunity to sky dive. The incredible experience left me empowered enough to try just about anything. So, when a chance to go tandem hang gliding appeared, I knew I would go.
The outing began at mountain top where I found the pro shop and offices of Lookout Mountain Flight Park. Waivers and releases were signed and temporary student registration cards handed out. I wasn’t just going along for a ride, I was taking a lesson.
I drove back down the mountain to the flight school which sits within a 44-acre grassy field. Here I met Dan Zink, manager, who had me step into a flight jacket of sorts with lots of tabs, hooks and rings. Then, a group of first timers assembled to watch a video and complete a short written test.
Soon my pilot, the charismatic Eric Grue, called my name. He had just landed an earlier flight. Eric strapped me in a harness, more like a sling, as I lay face down in a horizontal position. Space was tight so I needed to snuggle up next to him, with my right arm over his back– one of the benefits for sure. The glider has wheels on a frame which allows it to be tethered to an ultra-light plane for take-off. Therefore, I did not need to fling myself off a cliff.
The plane rolled down the field and slowly took off; we followed behind lifting with ease. No fairy dust needed; I was Peter Pan. The flight was surprisingly quiet but I could feel the rush of the wind on my face. Whew, pure exhilaration. Eric answered my questions and I had total faith in him- especially after he told me he had earned a Ph.D.
When the pilot reached 2,000 feet, the tether was released and our free flight began. I had a rush of euphoria but simultaneous calm; I think that’s a state of enlightenment. I honestly felt sereneness and joy.
Amanda Jobe, another first- time glider said afterward, “It was amazing. All my problems went away up there. It was the best way ever to start a day.”
Eric instructed me on how to control flight, “Push your hips and legs toward the left and the glider turns left. Want to go right, do the opposite. Pull forward on the bar and we’ll go faster, push back and we slow down.”
The technique was simple and I thought to myself “totally radical.” In that instant of ecstasy I forgot I was a sixty year-old grandmother. Instead I felt like one of those super cool Olympic snowboarders.
I’m still flying high.
If you go:
Lookout Mountain Flight Park is the largest hang gliding school and resort in the United States. Every year they teach, certify and solo five times as many pilots as any other school. Their 110-acre resort boasts cabins, bunkhouses and camping on site.
Lookout Mountain Flight Park
7201 Scenic Highway
Rising Fawn, GA 30738
Mention a visit to Montserrat and you can expect quizzical expressions. Spanish mountain? Massachusetts college? West Indies island?
The name applies to all three, but only the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean beckons with shamrocks, sunshine and the still-smoldering Soufriere volcano. Travelers savvy enough to venture beyond neighboring Antigua, Guadeloupe or St. Kitts find a tropical throwback to another time. The British-governed territory endears itself to divers, nature lovers and villa vacationers with unspoiled reefs and a unique Irish-Caribbean culture. Montserrat’s people maintain phoenix- like hope, despite the fact that the volcano has rendered two-thirds of their island off-limits.
Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday — even passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence. The festival also recalls a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.
My visit to the 39 square mile island began with a flight to Antiqua followed by a 15-minute adventure on Fly Montserrat’s 8-seat twin engine Islander plane. Upon arrival, I was given an invitation to attend a party at the Governor’s house that evening. Apparently March 16th is when the festivities begin as the honorable Peter Andrew Waterworth met me wearing an orange tee shirt emblazoned with green lettering and a plaid kilt. He carried a pewter tankard of Guinness stout, flown in from Ireland for the occasion. Dublin’s own Martin Healy band entertained with flute and fiddle until local crooner, Shaka Black commandeered the microphone.
Back in the eighties and early nineties, music ignited this tiny (39 square miles) mountainous isle. Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer, built AIR Studios for recording stars like Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John. Mick Jagger flew down too, along with Dire Straits and Jimmy Buffett, who recorded his album Volcano here. Arrow, a Montserrat native, sang hot, hot, hot as reggae beats pulsed in discos and nightclubs while calypso simmered through posh villas and restaurants of brightly colored stucco.
Then, on July 18, 1995, a loud rumble, like a jet roar, swept over the tropical landscape. Longtime resident and expat Carol Osborne recalls seeing smoke rise from a green mountain–not wispy puffs but powerful columns shooting skyward. The plumes kept churning and the noise kept pounding, day and night. Plymouth, the capital, and the surrounding southern hills were emptied–no small problem given that the north end of the island had little in the way of housing or other facilities for 10,000 residents.
Finally, the Soufriere Hills volcano went back to sleep, but the temperamental toddler wasn’t through with her tantrums. She acted up again and again, spewing ash, which necessitated masks for breathing and numerous evacuations. Then she blew her top, exploding like a wild child flinging off her clothes, the verdant peak transformed into gray shale.
Today, she continues, a turbulent teen. One day she’s gentle and kind, approaching sweet sixteen; the next day, she rages. Life with teenage Souffi, as I nicknamed her, teeters on the edge, and Montserrat is still without a new capital. Its remaining 4,500 residents will never be the same.
Still, a retreat to her simple lifestyle blesses one with a laid-back escape. Rent an inflatable kayak at Scuba Montserrat and paddle around the corner to Rendezvous Bay, the only golden-hued beach. All the others glimmer with sparkly black sand and typically lie empty, except in the fall when the green and hawksbills turtles nest ashore. Woodlands Beach, which has restrooms and showers, offers views of migratory humpback whales in the spring.
Divers plunge into the slightly warmer aquamarine Caribbean Sea (79 to 85 degrees) due to the volcano, which formed boulders, pinnacles and walls that now anchor new coral reefs. Troy Depperman at Green Monkey Dive Shop guides visitors into caves and rock formations where spotted morays, porcupine fish and octopuses hang. Deep-sea fishing benefits from the lack of cruise-ship traffic. Wahoo, bonito, shark, marlin and tasty yellowfin tuna cavort just two to three miles offshore.
Tourists, especially the eco-kind, enjoy hiking on the 14 well-marked trails established by the National Trust. At 2,437 feet, Katy Hill requires a guide, as the often-overgrown route easily leads visitors astray. The trail demands a high level of fitness and about five strenuous hours. Oriole Trail, the most frequented, provides 1,287-foot scenic outlooks and, if you’re lucky, a sighting of the endangered Montserrat Oriole. James Scriber, a former forest ranger, leads hikes and recounts local lore. With his thumb, mouth and voice, he mimics their song, luring the melodic creatures out of the bush and almost into his hand.
A boat ride to see the ruins of Plymouth, frequently called the modern-day Pompeii, is a must. Worldwide, no other destination compares with the ghostly apparition of the lost capital. I cannot forget my first sight of the now-forbidden city that stands as if Medusa turned it to stone.
Soufriere doesn’t spew lava; she heaves red-hot rocks and boulders over the dome like popcorn, along with blasting steam currents called pyroclastic flow. They travel up to 100 miles per hour, mushrooming like clouds of an atomic bomb. During Montserrat’s rainy season (usually July) gushers gather trees, rocks, ash and mud in a mixture resembling wet concrete, then flow in torrents down the ghuats (ruts) created over time. Gradually Plymouth has sunk deeper and deeper, buried in a cement stew. Sightseers cruise her shores but aren’t allowed to stop. Nonetheless, the outing engulfs the senses with dusty smells, eerie quiet and a stark vision of a once-vibrant village.
Plymouth took a direct hit, but her suburbs on the neighboring emerald mountainside suffered, too. The lavish villas and Creole cottages paint a memorable still life in the government-quarantined exclusion zone.
Don’t miss the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the situation 24 hours a day. Watch the 3-D documentary of past eruptions to understand the volcano’s dynamic force. An eruption in February 2010, sent ash billowing 40,000 feet and carpeted the last remnants of the control tower at the former W.H. Bramble Airport. Pyroclastic flows create new land, leaving the seawater at shoreline a gorgeous luminescent turquoise and increasing the mass from 39 square miles to more like 41. But no one can use the additional property–temperatures below the ground simmer around 300 degrees.
Folks have high hopes for the geo-thermal wattage in the volcano’s core. David Lea, a longtime resident and documentary videographer, said Montserrat could become “the breadbasket of power in the Caribbean.” If only the Montserratians could finance and pull off such a grand, eco-friendly project.
Passport entries come stamped in the shape of a shamrock, recalling a distinctive Irish heritage. Outside Ireland, Montserrat is the only place to declare St. Patrick’s Day a national holiday. Celebrations honor the 17th-century Irish indentured servants who settled here after fleeing anti-Catholic violence and recall a failed slave uprising of March 17, 1789. Resilient islanders merge all traditions and ethnicities for a week-long party.
A parade starts near Little Bay, the proposed new capital, and marches to the Village Heritage Festival, where replicas of plantation slave huts and traditional African food take center stage. Try Duckna, a paste of shredded sweet potato, coconut and spices, wrapped in elephant-ear leaves (taro) and tied with strands of banana palm. The national dish, Goat Water, reigns most popular despite its less-than-enticing name. It looks, tastes and smells like spicy gumbo with pieces of tender goat meat.
Expats and visitors from other Caribbean islands unite at the Green Monkey Bar. The Martin Healy Band from Dublin plays, while patrons quaff pints of Guinness along with mango rum punch. But…no green beer. At Soca Cabana, reggae artist and Montserrat native Shaka Black belts a soulful tune. Music once brought prosperity to this island and now it simply unites. Mother Nature bubbles up clean mountain water, breezy trade winds and planetarium-worthy stargazing. But some days she also blows ash in the air. Come see the haunting beauty and listen to her song.
When I moved to Florida in ’97, a neighbor asked, “Are you a gator or a dawg?” Having no idea what the reference meant, I simply replied, “A dog,” since I owned a lovable golden retriever. Only later did I realize he was talking college football and mascots– a sport ranking legendary in Florida.
Over the years I have learned to read referee’s signals; move my arms in the Florida gator chomp; met Uga –the University of Georgia’s bulldog; toured the Bear Bryant football museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and attended the Gator Bowl- held in my hometown of Jacksonville.
But, I’ve never had a special allegiance to any of these SEC (Southeastern Conference) schools until now. My daughter enrolled as a freshman at Auburn University (class of 2014) so I’ve become a Tiger fan. I’ve also mastered the phrase, “War Eagle,” the battle cry or greeting used when meeting a student or alumnae.
How did Auburn come to have two animal symbols, particularly a War Eagle?
I discovered the answer when I visited the Southeastern Raptor Center on Auburn’s Veterinary School campus. Or did I? Numerous myths surround the iconic eagle at AU, but the most popular seems to be the one dating back to the Civil War.
According to printed legend published in 1960 in the Auburn Plainsman:
A soldier from Alabama was the sole Confederate survivor of a bloody battle. Stumbling across the battlefield, he found a wounded young eagle, kept it and nursed the bird back to health. Several years later the soldier, a former Auburn student, returned to college as a faculty member, bringing the bird with him. For years both were a familiar sight on campus and at events. On the day of Auburn’s first football game in 1892 against the University of Georgia, the aged eagle broke away from his master during the game and began to circle the field, exciting the fans. But at the end of the game, with Auburn victorious, the eagle fell to the ground and died.
Reminds me of the story of the runner, Pheidippides, the messenger who ran back and forth to Sparta (150 miles) and was then sent from Marathon to Athens (25 miles) to tell of the great victory. He completed then run, then died.
The first documented live eagle on campus arrived in November 1930. He was a golden eagle who swooped down on a flock of turkeys and became entangled in vines. Some individuals including cheerleaders DeWit Stier and Harry “Happy” Davis helped care for the rescued bird. They put it in a cage and took it to the Auburn football game against the University of South Carolina on Thanksgiving Day.
Auburn, having not won a Southern Conference game in four seasons, was expected to lose. However, the Tigers managed a 25-7 victory over the Gamecocks. The student body could only conclude that the eagle’s presence on the sidelines was responsible for the victory.
The legend seems to continue today. A lady seated in the stadium said, “If the eagle sweeps over the crowd, Auburn will win.” If the eagle flies directly to the trainer and its food stationed on the 50 yard line, well… victory is not guaranteed.
Whatever you believe, the Southeastern Raptor Center is a place of pride for the University. Dr. Jimmy Milton founded it in the mid-1970’s to rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey. Over the years endowments and funding have enlarged the facility which now boasts 24 state of the art mews, a hospital, rehab building and educational center.
Nova, the golden eagle known as War Eagle VII and Spirit, a Bald Eagle, are trained at the Raptor Center along with other hawks, owl and vultures unable to return to the wild. The eagles continue to amaze spectators, flying free at the start of games in Jordan-Hare Stadium. I must admit, watching Spirit soar prickled my spine. Their presence adds a unique touch to school tradition and War Eagle history. When 90,000 fanatical fans pack in, the place rocks. And like the famous lunar landing, when you go to Auburn’s game, you can truly say the eagle has landed.
For anyone interested in learning more and viewing these birds up close, consider the ‘Football, Fans and Feathers’ show at the Raptor Center’s amphitheater on the Friday afternoons before Auburn home football games. Donations of $5.00 per person help support their educational programs.