What Happened In Missouri

  You never know exactly what you're gonna get once that step is behind you, do you?

You never know exactly what you're gonna get once that step is behind you, do you?

Part 1: Black Friday

By the time I get up onto the fishing boat, he’s already come back from the dead once.

It didn’t occur to me why they’d left me treading water for several minutes, my canopy slowly deflating and sinking into the lake, getting more curious than tired. I’d had a beautiful jump -- intentional water landings are some of my favorite novelties in the sport -- and I had a few more minutes left in me before it got dangerous. And, after all, I was the last to land. It was only once I was up on the boat deck, dripping and smiling, that I had any idea what I’d missed as I was navigating my final approach down to the water.

“Joel had a bad landing,” the woman, our host, says, so simply that I first glance around the benches to see if I somehow did not notice him sitting there. Then I see his legs at the other end of the boat, alarmingly grayish, in a pool of liquid on the floor.

I suppose I’m lucky in that, when very bad things happen, my emotions turn themselves off at the breaker. As I drop my gear and cover the distance between us, I feel the power go down; when I look down at him, I’m already in the color-by-number space of simply following my training. The fetal curl of the recovery position gives him the wet, undetermined air of a newborn before its first cry. At first, it’s hard to tell if he’s breathing.

I get to work. The others answer my questions about what happened as I palpate and inspect, Joel piping up through his twilight fog to announce again and again that he’s fine and he just needs a minute, his eyes lazy in their sockets. I’m informed that he had decided to follow through on the stunt cutaway he’d been talking about earlier in the afternoon. It had not gone well. As most people do, he’d egregiously miscalculated his altitude over the fractal landscape of the lakewater. He had hit hard enough to knock himself out; had been pulled out as he drowned. The others describe the sound of the impact, wincing to retell it. 

After a few minutes, Joel pulls me over conspiratorially, asking me why he’s wet. In fact, his memory for the last three months is gone, erased by a violent shake of his cognitive etch-a-sketch. He knows me and he knows his own name, but I watch him strain to remember what we’ve been doing all summer long, then forget what he was trying to remember and tell me again, irritated by the flurry of dismayed attention of which he is the center, that he’s fine, and that he just needs a minute.

The paramedics arrive. They do the same checks I’ve been doing, making the same discoveries: no blood, no obvious breaks, intact spine, some lakewater still coming up in coughs, concussion. They ask Joel if he wants to go to the hospital. He tells them, unequivocally, no. They turn to me, faces expectant. Joel is looking at me, too, with a surprisingly cogent don’t-you-dare written all over his face. I hate the feeling of telling them that it’s his choice, but it is his choice.

So the lot of us limp back to the lakehouse: we in disgrace, hosts and party guests working hard to bail out the mood. 

The paramedics have given us very strict instructions not to let Joel sleep for several hours, but every time I leave his side, even very briefly, he heads for a couch or a bedroom, sore and cross and entirely exhausted, and I am fetched to see to him. I sit on the floor beside the bed, listening to the party outside, trying not to feel defeated. Wake up, I’m sorry, look at me, please, I’m sorry, can’t sleep yet, I’m sorry. Hours later, I can finally leave the room, if only to have semi-stunned conversations with the others. Thank you for welcoming us into your annual crew party. Thank you for a truly extraordinary jump into a truly extraordinary place. Thank you for saving his life. Thank you for not letting him drown. Thank you for letting us stay here in your charming lakehouse while we figure out what the hell to do next. Thank you.

I make the mistake of watching Joel’s helmet cam video. There’s a moment, just after he loses consciousness, when his hands float calmly, sweetly, gently up into the frame, undisturbed by the least twitch of self-preservation, crepuscular. Ready to be dead.

We get it together to drive onward to the next destination — Iowa — the next afternoon, Joel still determined to walk it off. I, unused to conducting the behemoth motorhome, sing to myself to calm my nerves as Joel lolls listless in the back. I do the Iowa jump when we get there, Joel being unable to move from the couch. By the next morning, he’s starting to smell like a corpse. I tell him we’re driving to a hospital. He’s too weak to argue. 

We arrive at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center in the afternoon. Within the hour, Joel is being prepped for surgery. Later, the surgeon tells my father that Joel was hours away from dying yet again, his bowel having punctured on impact and slowly leaking poison into his system.

After the surgery, sitting awake next to a sleeping Joel among the mess of tubes and machines that keep him among the living, my feelings start to come back online. They flicker on slowly at first, and more-or-less comfortably, with a warm bath of relief and gratitude. Within minutes, however, the rest of the circuits light up, and I’m in turmoil. I’m whipped between righteous anger (I TOLD HIM NOT TO CUT AWAY WHY THE F*CK WHY THE F*CK WHY THE F*CK) and dismay (this is way too big to do on my own I can’t do it on my own how do I do this on my own) and a thick, sticky kind of survivor’s guilt. I ruminate the stories of the women around me who lost their partners like this; what it would have been like if I had landed in that lake that day and Joel was simply gone. I can’t seem to cry about it. I just judder quietly in the reclining chair until I fall asleep.

The next morning, I think — though time takes a strange, distended shape, bedside — we talk about it. We decide that, somehow, I’m going to keep going as he recovers, and he’ll catch up later. He’ll fly to my parents’ house upon his discharge from the hospital and standby there (thanks, mom; thanks, dad); Brett will join me to help with the driving so I can handle the morass of logistics this project requires and keep up with my client work, besides, without which the game is definitively over (thanks, Bretterz).

I drive to the next dropzone — Wisconsin, blessedly close by — in silence, alone. When I get there, I float in the warmhearted welcome extended me, enjoying the dropzone as a kind of suspended emotional animation before I drive back to the hospital to curl up into the space at Joel’s side, wedging myself against the bed’s hard edges, carefully working around the pipes and tubes, knowing I’ll be leaving in the morning, unsure what I’ll find out there. Unsure what happens next.

On the step.

Nod-nod-nod. Out-in-out. Whoosh.

joely-hospital.jpg

My Job Is To Care

Why This Non-Veteran Gives a Considerable Damn About Veterans

“Veterans?”

I’ve been getting that a lot, since we started this project. We’re dedicating six months of our lives and substantial personal resources, after all, to a veteran-specific cause. Why do it if you’re not, y’know, a veteran?

“...I didn’t know you were in the military?”

I didn’t enlist in the military. You were right about that. I was, however, in the military. I’m in the military like a fish is in water. I have been all my life. My family tree is a collection of official photos in dress blues.

  My parents

My parents

  My granddad on my father's side

My granddad on my father's side

  My grandma on my mom's side

My grandma on my mom's side

  My grandpa on my mom's side

My grandpa on my mom's side

  My mom's brother

My mom's brother

My dad, for instance.

My dad was born an Air Force brat, just like me. He made his debut in 1950, while his parents were in Wiesbaden, Germany, on active duty. The little family--he was an only child; highly portable--bounced around the U.S. from segregation-era Mississippi and Alabama to Oregon, back to Alabama, then to Washington DC; then, finally, to California’s coastal Vandenberg, where his dad retired after 27 years of service. He remembers playing in the shadow of a raised-and-ready missile silo during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My dad graduated high school in nearby Novato.

The first thing you need to know about my dad--and you’ll know it immediately upon meeting him, in the first sentence or two--is that he’s brilliant. He skipped out on the business end of the sixties (1967 to 1971) to complete a combined chemistry/biology degree at the legendary CalTech in Pasadena. He spent his free time helping out up the road at NASA. (He gave me actual photo prints taken by an actual camera orbiting the actual moon. They hang on my wall. They are beautiful.) He joined Air Force ROTC there.

He graduated with honors. He has told me that quantam physics defined the limit of his processing capability; I have to remind him that, back then, people had to do that shit by hand. He can be forgiven for this being difficult.

On graduation, my dad was assigned to Nellis AFB, just outside Las Vegas, as a Disaster Preparedness Officer. His job was to train personnel on the finer points of nuclear detection and decontamination on the National Test Range--and later, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, in chemical warfare agent decontamination. He has told me what it was like to walk around in the powdered decimation of a city that was built solely to be blown up, in lead-lined boots and a lead-lined overcoat, under the Las Vegas sun. He has told me what it was like to drive his blue jeep to the front doors of rural residents and tell them, without explanation, that they needed to leave. Now. He has told me what it was like to have the back wheels of that jeep hanging in the air over a cliff.

  Dad in full MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) kit

Dad in full MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) kit

One day, a fighter plane--an F-4 Phantom, to be specific--crashed on base. My dad’s interest in first aid caught the eye of his CO. He was selected for sponsored medical training at the University of California San Diego. He learned to scuba dive nearby, in La Jolla. He has always liked solitary pursuits best, just like me.

After graduation, the Air Force assigned him to a three-year Internal Medicine Residency at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. (That hospital--at the time and for many years after, the flagship medical center of the US Air Force--closed its doors forever in 2017.) While there, he met my mother, a doll-faced Air Force Nurse from urban Boston. They married. My dad tutored my mom in Chemistry. In addition to those studies, she learned that a bulb of garlic and a clove of garlic are not the same thing, least of all in a culinary context. My dad let her figure that out for herself, though his coworkers and lab partners ardently requested that he break the news to her preemptively.

  My mom

My mom

At some point after a two-year nephrology Fellowship at the University of Texas Medical Center, they had me, and promptly moved to the Philippines for the first family PCS. My dad became the only military Nephrologist west of Honolulu. My sister was born out there. The earliest pictures of us have tropical backdrops. We’re squinting, and sweating, and smiling. The base where we lived is now under several feet of volcanic ash.

After that, the family’s orbit spun wide, but it spun around Travis AFB in Northern California for about a dozen years. Dad’s rank advanced: Major to Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel. He became Chief of the Medical Staff, then Medicine Residency Program Director, then Commander of the 1,200-man 60th Medical Operations Squadron.

It was explained to my sister and I that families also serve. Mom was not just our mom; she was a veteran, and a commander’s wife. We were a commander’s daughters. We were expected to comport ourselves in this manner. We were seen at church every weekend until we moved from the house. We joined our parents at the Officers’ Club every Sunday morning for brunch. I never skipped a single class. I never snuck out of the house. I never smoked a single joint. I tended my GPA like someone else’s garden.

One night, my dad came home from work and, before his briefcase could even hit the floor, he announced that we were “going to the Caribbean.”

  Our quarters on Officers' Hill, Howard AFB, Panamá

Our quarters on Officers' Hill, Howard AFB, Panamá

The Panama years--when my dad was the 24th Medical Group Hospital Commander at Howard Air Base--were the best childhood years I can remember. My dad’s command of the hospital took place during the closure and shut-down of US facilities under the Carter-Torrijos Treaty. I busied myself in high school as a television and radio personality on the Southern Command Network stations, the only English-language service in the country. I like to think he listened to me read the morning news as he drove to work.

He took pride in every damn day of that work; every connection he made between the various US military branches nipping at each others’ heels and the local population; every disaster averted; every soldier saved. “Our Job Is To Care,” his commander’s coin insisted. And he did. And so, led by this example, did his unit.

  There it is.

There it is.

“Is your dad really as perfect as he seems?,” his colleagues would ask me, next to punch bowls and picnic tables and fourth-of-July lawn chairs.

“Yes,” I’d say. I know what they meant; I also knew that, in the sense that they were asking about it, yes, he was.

I moved away from home when he was still in charge of his white hospital on the hill. Not much later, Howard closed. He, my mother and my sister moved to Scott AFB in western Illinois, where dad took up the mantle of the Air Mobility Command Senior Physician. The AMC seemed a behemoth to me, flitting in and out most Christmases, my dad’s exuberant collection of overseas souvenirs fitting oddly within the straight lines of the commodiously corporate, midwestern office he now occupied. “A busy kidney is a happy kidney,” tooted a cheerfully carved hardwood sign he commissioned in the Philippines. “An idle bladder does the devil’s work.” Behind it, white walls and glass.

It was there that my dad finished his three-decade-long Air Force career. It wasn’t over, though. My dad is military by blood, by temperament and by choice. He stuck with the mission.

  Celebrating 30 years of active duty, left on a high note.

Celebrating 30 years of active duty, left on a high note.

Following his first retirement, he joined the DOD-GS system as a civilian Chief of the Medical Staff at Scott AFB. He remained there until 2005. After that, he moved to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, taking over as the Associate Chief of Staff for Ambulatory Care Services at Quillen in far-eastern Tennessee. He took on projects to revitalize and update the Center’s systems, working 60-hour weeks well into his sixties. He remained there until his second retirement at the end of 2016.

I wasn’t there for dad’s second retirement. I recall that not many of the folks in his immediate orbit in the VA were veterans themselves. I wonder how many people in that room could even conceive of the career he had; could calculate their service to America in lives saved; in continents not just traveled-to but truly lived-within and shared; in bringing up not just children but ambassadors.

Indeed, it is only a veteran who can truly understand the experience of another veteran. And that’s why veterans need a context to get together and serve each other.

And that’s why I’m here. Not because I ever made rank. Because I care, too. It’s my job.

On The Kindness of Strangers

BOOMkerthudclunkskreeeeerattlerattlerattle.

We're on the Kansas Turnpike, between Topeka and Wichita. We’re in the single-file march of a construction zone. Something really bad just happened.

A few miles ago, the cones walling off the left (and only) lane had started to describe a sloppy, erratic warble that, more than occasionally, make a drunken collapse into the path of traffic. Once, twice, three times we evaded them.

Finally, we did not.

We caught a cone by the hair of our exhaust, which stuck a bit too far out from the undercarriage for its own good.

Our faces drain, but the RV keeps going. We manage to get off the road, after what feels like a hundred miles, after the construction zone. Emergency blinkers on, we limp into the relief of the shade under an overpass.

One cursory glance under the vehicle reveals it: Stuff is missing. Stuff is hanging. Stuff is bleeding.

Shit.

The next exit is Emporia, Kansas. Its population is about half that of UCLA. It is known for not much. (That said: In 1953, it claims to have been the site of the first Veterans Day observance in the United States. That's definitely something.)

Still shocked into an uneasy silence, we chug clunkily into the Emporia exit’s closest truck stop and consider our options. When asked, the single service guy gives us the wish-I-could-help face and points us at an auto mechanic “downtown.”

The drive down towards the shop was bleak. Sure, we’re still running--but we’re leaking and making occasional, horrible noises--high-pitched metal yelps of pain. Is it over? Maybe it’s over.

I call the guy to let him know we’re on the way. Defeat stamps every word. We’ve already replaced the engine and the transmission in this thing to get this trip done. We can’t take another hit.

As we’re pulling up, the mechanic is already running out towards us like we’re old friends whose car he recognized from across the street. We conduct our introductions as he’s already on his back under the coach, rattling things around. He leaps up once or twice to get tools. Before we know it, he’s explaining what he did, gathering up his tools and wishing us well. He refuses repayment, but I take advantage of his hands being full of wrenches to stick some cash in his front pocket. It doesn’t feel adequate.

We drive away. We were screwed and, solely because of this nice man, now we are saved.

I’ve never been particularly good at accepting others’ generosity. I’m overwhelmed by a sense of imbalance when someone does something for me and I don’t see any immediate way to repay them.

This particular journey has been a yoga for that part of me that yearns to pay its debts immediately, in full. It has been a nonstop lineup of kindnesses, imparted almost entirely by theretofore strangers. We’ve been invited to dinners (a couple of which count among the most delicious I’ve ever gobbled down); to breakfasts; to baseball games; to the zoo; to parties on the lake. We’ve been welcomed in when the dropzone is usually shut, we’ve been rolled office-dispenser-sized bottles of water when we were thirsty; we’ve had cash collections taken up on our behalf; we’ve been plugged into power at every port; we've found little crafts and nice notes left on our RV steps; we’ve been brought frosty, delicious, local beer.

We’ve been shown just how goddamn nice people are, almost all the time. To say it’s humbling is an understatement. It’s downright arresting.

We are only moving forward on the kindness of strangers, and I’m working as hard as I can to pack more thanks into every stunned thank-you.

  This was our destiny--until it wasn't. (Scrap yard in rural Oklahoma.)

This was our destiny--until it wasn't. (Scrap yard in rural Oklahoma.)

Good + Scared

So I'm standing on a bridge, looking down at my feet over the benighted void, as is my occasional custom. But there's nothing on my back--no reassuring hug on my shoulders; nothing to tighten just-one-more-time across my chest; no pilot chute to touch again for no easily explicable reason. There's just me.

"Get a good push, now," says the guy behind me.

Ooooohkay.

3. 2. 1. See ya?

The river below, quicksilver with the reflected light of the burly LED pointed down at it from four-hundred-something feet above, gets really, really big. The walls are so close, compared to any other reference I've ever had, that it feels like I'm wearing the canyon over my shoulders.

My brain stops its internal camera just under the point it knows was definitely time to pull. 

The spring of the bungee cord at the bottom surprises me, not with the violence I was expecting but by its soundless, spongy softness. I tuck myself up into the prescribed ball, still a little baffled by how well I'm being treated, as I continue my totally uncustomary ascent. At some point, I realize I've been down again and I'm coming slightly up; I remember that I'm supposed to stand, however unlikely it seemed at the time; I do.

It took a couple of hours to drive here from southernmost Seattle. As we wend from interstate to suburban artery to back road to mountain access road, the sun creeps reluctantly down into the neighboring Pacific, and I start to wonder what exactly I'm doing out here. Sure, I jump out of things and off of things, but I'm no fan of heights. I like to know the gear. Getting my legs tied together and being shoved off an object--my longstanding impression of bungee jumping, having shared bridges with tourist bungee operations more than a few times--never appealed to me in the least. 

But now, dear friends have invited me out to do it *their* way. *Their* way doesn't sell t-shirts. *Their* way is to take a truck full of gear out in the dead of night to the place a remote mountain road crosses a narrow, deep river canyon. *Their* way requires you, morely or lessly, not to fuck up.

There's enough meagre sunlight left in the canyon when we arrive to check out the Audobon-Society-posterness of the place: all evergreens; all waterfalls; all granitic formations, square as a lumberjack's jaw. It's the smell, however, that really transfixes me. It's violet-candy sweet, as delightful and arbitrary as something you'd smell right before you collapse from a stroke. I breathe deep, unbelieving, as my friend's dog whinnies nervously about the heights.

The sun is decidedly down before the gear truck rolls up. Immediately upon its arrival, the riggers pile out and begin their work. The task is absolutely methodical and staffed down to the detail; myself and the others who have come only to jump stand emptyhanded and transfixed, like we're watching wasps spackle a nest. We make nervous conversation. We wander off to pee. We wait.

As we do, we get the briefing.

Jump. Far. Slider-off-BASE-jump far. Like-the-bridge-is-coming-after-you far. Then, when you feel yourself at the bottom, ball up. This is so you don't catch an arm or a neck on the bungee when it's a zero-g bowl of pasta. If you feel it touch you, you must untuck just enough to swat it away, then get right back into your ball. Once you come down for your second bounce, you must make ready to grab the part of the bungee that's closest to you and stand up in your pretty blue S&M ankle cuffs. If you miss it and fall past it again, you'll be hanging upside down like a forgotten salmon until the retrieval rope comes down for you. Once standing--and you'll still be swinging back and forth down the canyon, hundreds of feet below the road, mind--the crew will lower said retrieval rope down. It's your job to grab that rope, with the bungee clenched rigorously under your arm, lest you lose it in all that swinging and grabbing and end up like the aforementioned salmon. Then, religiously keeping your clench, work the locking caribiner open with your free hand and get it onto your harness. That'll get you into a seated orientation. You'll still be swinging. Far. Lock your biner. Thus reclined, scream into the yawning void upwards that you're ready for your extraction. As the winch zips you up towards the bridge, gather the hundreds of pounds of stretchy-boingy magic across your lap at a precise interval. Then watch your head, lest you clock your unhelmeted noggin on the metal span. Then pass off the bungee cord to the crew. Then climb back over. Then be amazed that you remembered all that.

"You can really get hurt doing this," the crew chief throws at me, giving me an unconvinced once-over. I was going to wear my sparkly glitter onesie to do this. Kinda glad I didn't.

Previously to this particular midnight on this particular bridge, I thought bungee jumping wasn't, well, much of a sport. Is something a sport if you can participate nonconsesually? (The luge aside, I imagine.) I was, suffice it to say, wrong about that.

Once I'm back up on the bridge, the fact that it's 3 a.m. ceases to make any impression on me. So does the cold that I'd recently been doing jumping jacks to chase off. As we wrap cable and help load the truck, I'm awash in that first-time magic again; that heady, juicy novelty; that lusty confirmation of mortality that surges when you've successfully managed to convince your body that it was on the way out. It's a drug I'll happily recommend to anyone.

And y'know what? Jumping off a bridge in the middle of the night with your feet tied to a giant rubber band ain't a bad way to score it.

 

night bungee netterz.png

This is demo country

As a writer in the niche-y little category of airsports, I'm often asked to write biographies. I love it. I've never been much of a small-talker, and bio-writing gives me the chance to ask deep questions almost immediately after the initial howdy-do.

That means that, more often than not, I'm afforded a peek into the deep bios of the friends and athletes around me without ever having to stand cow-eyed around a living room watching people act themselves out with drinks in their hands. It doesn't always mean that I end up with legitimate affection for my interviewee, but it does point to "good egg" or "bad egg" with remarkable swiftness, saving me some time and trouble.

Neil Amonson was one of the folks I met this way. When he was a GoPro Bomb Squad member, I wrote up his bio for the internet. I liked him instantly. In just a few minutes, it became evident that Neil is, definitively, a good egg.

Straightforward, humble, open-hearted and generous, he immediately puts the world around him at ease. As capably as he strides through the world, he never uses his impressive CV as a weapon. He just leads by example, inclusively and kindly, never insisting on the ever-growing screed of badassery that waves over him like a banner. The badassery speaks for itself. He doesn't have to point at it--and I doubt that it ever occurs to him to point at it, anyway.

It was a joy and an honor to share the sky in Utah with Neil for his charity project, Jump For Joy. I had done plenty of demo jumpin' with a BASE system, but having the opportunity to huck what was essentially a fun jump from a King Air and land in front of a field full of screaming, happy kids at an elementary school was a bucket-list item duly checked.

Utah, complete--Netterz, smiling like a doof for days.

It's my fond hope that at least one of those kids looks at the sky a little differently now...and I bet it's a hope fulfilled.

grovecrest-jumo-for-joy.jpg

One Hand and the Other

Excuse me, sir. Despite your impeccable manners and entirely valid documents, you have been selected for additional questioning regarding your intentions for traveling to the USA. Please make your way to the official misery area.  

I have processed through enough American airports now to understand that you will be treated, with almost unwavering consistency, like shit. The US border is a curious contradiction from the land that elevated customer service to something exquisite - as though they have purposefully crafted a kind of sorcerous mirror image to barricade the promised land within, patrolled by humourless goblins that all seem to have attended the same humourless goblin finishing school.

A few dozen weary faces that represent a fairly thorough cross-section of humanity take their turn. Most are eventually granted their documents accompanied with a snippy dismissal, but one or two are presented with very serious expressions, some government muscle and the gloomy prospect of some unfathomably grim detention. Mostly we wait. 

Please remain seated on this wooden bench for several hours until you miss your connecting flight. One of our more reasonable minions will be along eventually to ask you no questions at all and then send you on your way.

Then it is all gone and I am in the Chicago night watching a huge yellow fire truck flash and honk and scream slowly past. Modern technology is still close enough to magic for me that even after the extra faff which gobbled up many hours I really needed to use for important sleeping, I find it amazing that I can get out of bed on one side of the globe and end the same day on the other. A small boy lost, out in the world.  

Then America plays its other hand. After midnight, two airline employees - with no kind of skin in the game - open up their office, tend to our logistical wounds and upgrade us for the following day. Another equally flummoxed customs survivor and I are astounded when the desk supervisor first arranges the hotel and then drives us down there his own self. Bravo.

- Joely

 Frontier gets the usual kind of budget airline bad review buts they have animals on they tails and a couple of staff made of solid gold. 

Frontier gets the usual kind of budget airline bad review buts they have animals on they tails and a couple of staff made of solid gold. 

On Being Down

I have been lucky enough to travel some, and either blessed or cursed in that the most restful moments I have ever known are those in which I can watch the world slide by. Our planet feels to me both small and huge all at the same time - one can be anywhere within the space of a single day, yet every spin of the earth spent wisely only serves to expand the horizon. As people our similarities and differences ebb an flow from one place to the next. Everything and all of us a little bit different. Everything and all of us a little bit the same.

I've been steadily moving from one location to the next for years now, enjoying the immense privilege of being born into the comparative comfort of middle England - a lucky springboard into a life of mostly doing whatever the fuck I like. Yet a desire has been growing inside to do something with a bit more purpose, to bring together the different elements of a sometimes scattershot existence. I feel rarely achieve more than scratch at the skin of a place, moving on in the face of opportunities that appear or tending to seedling relationships that reach for the sunlight.

Many at some stage aim for the big American road trip - particularly if you are shot through with so many cultural touchstones in the makings of your brain. The USA is a country that looms so large in modern history and culture that the internal promises to one day go out and look for it are easily made - to search under the furniture things that used to be and might be still, or things you were not sure to believe ever really existed in the first place. The America of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, of Nina Simone and Mavis Staples. The America of Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry. The New York of Ghostbusters and the Los Angeles of Point Break, big city Robocop, small town Gremlins. Of Chuck Jones and Walt Disney. Of Chuck Yeager, the Mercury Seven and the New Nine. Of Sigourney Weaver kicking ass in space like nobody ever before or since. The never-was and always-is Wild West of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. The America of Tom Waits. 

But today’s USA is also the land of the drive-through bank. The America of non-stop televised pharmaceutical badgering and the sinister machinations of managed news. Of labyrinthine superstores with their canyon rows of poisonous psychedelic breakfast serial and the vulgar privilege of a hundred flavours of Pop-Tarts and a hundred more of Oreos. The pumpkin-spiced everything, pole-axing you with guilty choice. The abandoned homeless wandering the streets in every big city in the same way third-world countries have dogs. The militarised police force. The steel-and-glass mega church. The community massacre.

Skydiving is an excellent prism through which to view a society - it gathers humans from every corner of being, as much through adventure and travel as by simple proximity to a big patch of grass to land upon. I have never encountered anything that so precisely and thoroughly strips away fortune’s grace and favour, and insists so thoroughly you leave your preconceptions by the door. The most superficially unremarkable person you meet on the ground may well be an unimpeachable deity of something, decades deep in legends. The dropzone insists you come only as you are, and the sky makes you stay.    

If you were going to have a proper peep at the insides of a place, is there anywhere else you would want to investigate more than the USA, and to do so by skydiving in every part of it?

- Joely 

“Do you want to go to all fifty states?”

“No. Wait. Yes.”

 

first landing 2.png

Before the storm

While Joel is in Voss, judging the 1st Annual European Championships of Indoor Skydiving, I'm in Amsterdam at a yoga retreat, pulling together my zen for the next six months of way-turned-up-pressure.

People who don't know me often accuse me of being "on vacation," as I've lived and worked for myself on the road since 2009 and it looks like a lot of fun and games from an outside perspective; the truth is that I'm a legacy workaholic, spending most of my time in beautiful places behind a laptop. Moments of actual rest are few and far between. Vacations are, essentially, never. This one, unfortunately, is not the exception I hoped it would be. (Coulda called that one.)

Come this Sunday, I'll be aeroplaning west to spend a week in Phoenix solo. I'll be getting ready for Joel to land on the 21st, which kicks off a jam-packed prep week full of paint and warm-up jumping before the starting gun goes off.

Honestly, this project is so damn thrilling--and important to me--that I'm sitting with a presentation-quality coffee in one of the world's most drop-dead-charming cities, wishing I was in the middle of the Arizona desert. 

Giddyap, already.

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Snowdrifts and spreadsheets

We've been hiding out under a blanket of spring snow in the Hurricane Factory Tatralandia. The inclement weather has been a blessing indeed, as we've been flying ourselves to bits--as well as spending late nights on Google Maps, as you might imagine.

Both of us are old-hat routemappers--Joel, to plan extended sojourns in the Hermes (the Ford Transit we very lovingly converted to carry us in wide circles around the other side of the pond); Annette, to chart out the cross-country motorcycle adventures she takes her beloved Ninja 650R out on when she's Stateside.

This trip, of course, has significantly more moving parts--and partners--in order to unfold smoothly.

Luckily, Annette used to do this shit for a living. In the good-old-bad-old days, she was a producer and production supervisor of big ol' music videos, commercials, promos, industrials...you name it. While there were plenty of celebrities involved, the job sounds more glamorous than it is; for the most part, it was making sure hundreds of people and dozens and trucks and that all-important food showed up on time in the right place.

After much wrangling, we're happy to debut the webpage we created for our partner DZs. Meant to make it easy for our partner dropzones by wrapping all the key information into one succinct place.

The dominoes are lining up. That's a good thing, since we're taking off a couple days earlier than originally planned, putting us just 24 days from launch.

Whee!

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Four states left to go (and a happy revelation)

So now we just have four states left to go before we're 100% supported, coast-to-coast: California, Indiana, North Carolina and Hawaii. We're not only thisclose to being primed and ready for an amazing six months--we had a great surprise yesterday!

Drumroll, please: It turns out that Skydive New Mexico's thumbs-down was a slip of the thumb, and they're totally down to support us. We're looking forward to making them our very first stop. Hugs all around!

 

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While we're at it...

There's a lot on the table for this trip, but y'know what? There's room. Aside from skydiving and veteran issues, there are a few other topics we're going to be tackling out on the road.

Waste

Skydiving leaves a sizeable carbon footprint. So does driving a 20-year-old motorhome from sea to shining sea. So: to try to keep that in balance, we're dedicating ourselves to not producing any non-compostable waste. We'll be learning a lot along the way about how recycling works in different regions of the U.S.--and just how difficult it is to live a waste-free life.

Localism

It would be easy to float from recognizable franchise to recognizable franchise for this entire journey, but so much of America shines through its small businesses that it would be a damn shame to miss 'em. We're dedicating ourselves to staying the heck out of WalMart, Starbucks, McDonalds and all the other major multinational brands. When we find the intersection of local and awesome, we'll be talkin' about it here.

RV Life

From fitness on the road to boondocking to baking in that ridiculously teensy little oven, we're going to explore what it means to live large in 37 rolling feet.

  photo credit:  Kevin Baird

photo credit: Kevin Baird

50% there, 50% to go

50% there, 50% to go...

We've been working on reaching out to dropzones for a week now, and we're blown away by the responses. DZOs are as stoked about this as we are! 

We've only had one negative response so far, and it was a downright weird one: Skydive New Mexico, which reacted to our initial reach-out on Facebook without even bothering to respond...just by thumbs-downing the note. Ouch. Aight.

Other than that, we've been welcomed in with open arms at every turn. My heart is full. 💖 ...And I'm chomping at the bit to discover these wild and wonderful dropzones, sprinkled liberally all over the USA, which are strangers now but certainly won't be by the time summer is done. It's loads of work to put this together, but I can't think of a better cause.

Now, we're sitting at 42 days until launch, and we have 50% of the states left to cover. If you've ever read Douglas Adams, you know that's a lucky number--and we'll need all the luck (and support!) we can get for this immense undertaking.

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68 days to launch!

68 days might sound like a lot. Man, but it ain't.

I'm Annette O'Neil--airsports athlete, writer, adventurist and daughter of a retired US Air Force Commander. My partner, Joel Strickland, is a triple National gold medalist in Britain in two different skydiving disciplines: freestyle and freefly. I go by "Netterz." He goes by "Joely." We're both completely mad--as evidenced by the fact that, in just a couple of months, we're going to set out on the most epic road trip ever undertaken in the name of skydiving. We're dedicating the effort to Operation Enduring Warrior, for the reasons this website explains in some detail. And we're funding the trip entirely on our own. (That said: We would deeply appreciate contributions to the gas-money fund.)

Joel and I are jumping all fifty states to raise funds and awareness for Operation Enduring Warrior. The effort (which we're calling "Down For 50") already has support from all Joel's sponsors. A few are really going above and beyond to help: L&B are giving free units to each of the OEW athletes with whom we jump; NZA supported us with parachutes; Vertical are supporting us with suits. (We're even popping up to visit the Canadian workshop to receive those, eh? Sorry.)

The trip will kick off at Eloy, where Nik and Brianne of Axis Flight School train OEW's new skydivers, on May 1st. We'll be on the road through October, when Joel heads to Bahrain to judge the Tunnel Worlds. From there, we'll be meeting and jumping with OEW athletes all over the States, hearing and sharing their stories, and making the effort to really understand what's going on during this fascinating, intense moment in American history.

Joely, suffice it to say, will be making a lot of tea. ☕ 

We're excited for you to join us. We'll be keeping a travelogue here, on Facebook and on Twitter. Don't be a stranger-- reach out to us if you want us to drop by.

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