Vermont is, for good reason, the definitive fall foliage destination. Each autumn, the landscape is engulfed by a sunburst of reds, yellows, and oranges as the sugar maples and other hardwoods begin their slow, brilliant journey into dormancy. The challenge is finding the best vantage point. The interstate and bucolic back roads are the obvious choices. A mountaintop hike is even better. But if you really want to do it right, you need the bird's-eye view that I got from the front seat of a glider.
The stark-white, pencil-thin gliders caught my attention as I drove with my family along Route 100 through Vermont's Mad River Valley. They looked like model airplanes, beautiful but fragile, gleaming in the late-morning sun. Later that day, on the outskirts of Warren, a sign for glider rides with a company called Sugarbush Soaring led us to the Warren-Sugarbush Airport. On a lush plateau, we found a small control tower and a single airstrip. At the far end were the gliders.
I plunked down $125 for a 30-minute ride and got on the scale. The maximum allowed weight is 242 pounds. Another passenger admitted failing the test last spring. "I've been starving myself for three months so I can do this ride," he whispered. Luckily, the scale put me at 205 pounds, and I went to get acquainted with my craft.
The pick of the litter was a German-made Schleicher ASK 21 with a 17-foot wingspan. Its composite construction has no internal frame. "The skin itself is the structure, though they have spars inside the wings to give it a lot of tensile strength," my 25-year-old pilot, Caleb Hanson, told me.
Hanson's youthful demeanor belies his 13 years of flying and gliding experience, but his confident manner immediately reassured me. "People are often nervous about it and wonder if it's safe," he said. "The most dangerous thing you do is driving to the airport. Soaring is exponentially safer."
He directed me to the passenger seat. At 6-foot-3, I was a tight fit. I felt as if I was at the wheel of a top-fuel dragster (sans helmet). Hanson pointed out the one button I can't touch the release knob, designed to jettison the clear Plexiglas canopy that enveloped me. I swore to keep my hands to myself, buckled up the five-point harness, and we were off, hauled via nylon line by a single-prop plane and aimed at the billowy cumulus clouds hovering nearby.
After we crested the peak of Sugarbush ski resort at 4,135 feet, Hanson released the towline. A slight jolt was quickly followed by an uncanny calm and a feeling of weightlessness. The utter silence, singularly terrifying in a traditional propeller plane, induced a strange sense of euphoria. Before long, the only noise in the cockpit was my giddy laughter bouncing off the canopy.
"It's definitely a lot more peaceful than powered flight," Hanson said. "It's like you're 100 feet underwater. There's very little sound, and everything seems to be moving slowly. It's like you're floating. There's really nothing else like it."
The same can be said for the view. From 5,000 feet, I could make out the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the Champlain Valley to the west, and New Hampshire's White Mountains to the east. "When you get up here, everything is this giant tapestry," said Hanson. "Then, when you get closer, you can see the colors much more vibrantly. As detached as you are from the world, it's still there. The only way that it exists is in the visual sense."
Near the half-hour mark, after gauging my comfort level, Hanson banked the Schleicher into a series of sharp turns. As we drifted back toward terra firma, I could see the details of this glorious tapestry, every tree, every house, even a white-tailed deer. Hanson lined the glider up with the runway, and touched down ever so gently.
My legs were a bit wobbly after I pried myself free, but my wife saw a smile revealing some- thing akin to rapture. My only regret was forgetting a camera. Hanson laughed. "If you're up there fooling around with your camera," he said, "you can miss the flight."