Travel Essays

Broken Wing

It’s 5am and I wake up in a hotel in San Diego. I meet up with my friend Candor and we set out while it’s still dark to reach the bottom of the cliffs. Our plans includes some running, a smidge of hiking and a beach at sunrise. Once at the bottom of the trail, we spend some time at Black’s Beach. Candor, the one of us who actually runs without complaining, takes off down the beach while I hang back just be.

I breath deeply to take in the sea air, look down and see kelp washed up on the beach. I look behind me and see knife-etched memories of love’s past on the rocks along the shore. I wonder, did Jan love Chris? Was it passionate, yet brief, unrequited or everlasting love?

Then I look out to sea. The surf is calm and the clouds cast a melancholy hue. I stand  silently and feel the breeze on my face, then look closer. That’s when I see him. He is an average-sized gull walking along the edge of the surf. At first, he is just coastal context for me, until I look a bit closer.

The gull’s right wing is broken and it drags in the sand and surf. I crouch down and watch him for several minutes. He walks to the surf, back toward the cliffs, then back again to the surf. Over and over he repeats this pattern. A man passes me on a morning jog and comments how the injured gull has been flightless for days and that the end should be near. This gull will never again soar over these turbid waters. His fate has been sealed.

I have always been transfixed by the hovering flight of gulls. They are, for me, a powerful symbol of freedom – from the faint childhood memories of Port Lavaca and Galveston to the courageous heart of Jonathan Seagull, who overcame and guided others to overcome limitations imposed by self and others.

“Come along then.” said Jonathan.“Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.” 

“You don’t understand, my wing. I can’t move my wing.”

“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the law that is.”

“Are you saying I can fly?”

“I say you are free.”

– Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan knows that flight is a window – a window to discover what he can and can’t do in the air. Happy, hungry, learning – yes, and even dying to know his limitations. Not content to be just another one of the flock, he fights to uncover what he has the potential to become, with speed and courage there as teacher.

I wonder to myself, what is it like to soar high above these cliffs and waters? To escape earthly limitations and be free to dance on the wind. My wings aren’t broken, so why do I live like they are? Why don’t I shout into the wind?

I return to the hotel, but the gull is still on my mind, my mind restless and distracted. It’s two hours until my flight. Once again, I think about what would it be like to soar over that beach, like the gull before he was rendered flightless by a broken wing.

The gull is still there.

Why am I so distracted? I am blessed, I tackle interesting challenges each day, right here with my feet firmly planted on the ground. Then the beautiful faces of my family glide through my head.

Today, another side of me is calling and I am listening.

The gull is still there.

A decision is made. One pair of nude pumps goes in the bag. One pair of sandy sneakers goes on my feet.

I hop into a cab and five minutes later, I am dragging my roller bag up the hill through deep sand. This is the place where I will run, leap off a cliff and soar above the sea before catching the 4:50pm back to Texas.

I scrawl my initials and sign upwards of 75 places on over 10 pages of documents. Reading is optional because it isn’t going to change my mind. However, I do wonder how many lawyers were involved in this stack of liability-releasing madness.

The gull is still there. So, I will soar.

No thinking. Ready. Pull back. Lean. Walk forward. Run slowly. Silence. I hear only the wind now.

After a few moments, over my shoulder he asks if I want to really feel it now. Lean into it and feel the real power of this freedom.

Absolutely ready. We soar away from the cliff towards the water. Lean to the left. Now, lean to the right – HARD.

I feel it, I am soaring. Spiraling through the air, the force pulling me. I see fragments of water, fragments of canyon wall. I think of nothing but this moment. The bliss is without bounds and I scream into the wind.

Again.

This time, I release the death grip I have on my harness and once again scream into the sunlit silence. After a few moments, my feet with the sandy shoes are back on the ground firmly planted on the exact same spot where they started. Now I have seen what the gull with the broken wing has seen. Felt the joyful bliss of staring down a fear and overcoming self-imposed limitations.

I think once again of Jonathan Seagull…

“He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control…He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he’d be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.”

Why did I decide today was the day to strap myself into a harness with a Korean named Ki, jump off a cliff and soar out over the San Diego coast?

Because in the light of dawn, a gull with a broken wing whose fate is sealed, taught me that mine is not.

—–

A special thanks to Ki at Torrey Pines Glidersport for taking me to new heights. You made me laugh all along the way.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2011.

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