CHAMONIX -- Cyrilde Pinard had the gentle voice and calm demeanor of a woman who could have been selling sneakers, but instead was telling me to jump off a cliff.
Some 3,000 feet below was the town of Chamonix. Just overhead, a yellow, parachute-shaped airfoil -- a paraglider -- was taking shape as it prepared to take me and pilot Pinard aloft in tandem flight.
''Run," she said.
Except in dreams and reruns of ''Thelma and Louise," I had no experience leaping into voids. But run I did, propelled less by self-discipline than by the conviction that one never wimps out in the presence of a woman.
Dashing toward oblivion, our harnesses went taut and then started tugging us skyward -- long before we reached the brink. And as the earth fell away, I nestled into the lap of the woman to whom I had just entrusted my life. We began to rise like a pair of eagles playfully embracing the updrafts taking us ever higher above our launch site. Gravity and gravitas were left behind; I settled back into the arms of my pilot.
Let the fantasy begin.
There are many ways for human beings to experience flight. To my mother's chagrin, I've tried most of them. You can fly airplanes or jump from them, dangle from hang gliders, soar in sailplanes, or churn along like a flying chaise longue in a noisy ultralight. Nothing, however, comes close to the controlled, quiet flight offered in paragliding, a sport that allows you to hang your feet into space like a slow-motion dream.
Then when the ride ends, you stuff your ''airplane" back in a knapsack, ride a ski lift up, and do it again.
''I never tire of this. It is reverie," Pinard explained in a mix of English and French late last summer. ''And I get to do it five times a day."
Pinard, 36, is a Chamonix (pronounced sham-oh-NEE) native and mother who has been teaching the sport and taking tourists aloft for the better part of 16 years.
She flies for Summits, which was founded in 1987 and is one of the oldest paragliding schools in Europe.
The paraglider is an adaptation of the parachute that has been aerodynamically reconfigured to allow a highly maneuverable glide at a meandering pace. The glide slope of a paraglider is 10:1, meaning that for every 10 horizontal feet it travels, it drops one foot. The down side is that in the arena of powerless flight, a paraglider's glide ratio pales in comparison with the 15:1 glide of a hang glider (a rigid-framed wing from which the pilot dangles) or the 60:1 glide of a competition sailplane.
The upside is price; as glide slope climbs, so does the cost -- from a $2,000 paraglider to a $7,000 hang glider to a $200,000 sailplane. Of the three, the paraglider is the only one that returns to a backpack like a genie to a lamp.
An estimated 100,000 people paraglide in Europe, but only about 4,700 paraglide in the United States, according to Steve Roti, a director of the Colorado Springs-based US Hang Gliding Association, the American umbrella organization that governs sports such as paragliding. What explains the difference in popularity?
''Europe has the Alps. We have the lawyers," Roti said. He points out that the average fatality rate is 0.9 per 1,000 participants; horseback riding, motorcycling, and snowmobiling fare little better, according to him.
''Accidents rarely just happen," Roti said. ''They are usually the result of poor decision-making."
There is no law on either continent against buying a paraglider, then jumping off a cliff -- except, of course, laws of physics that explain the descent rate of objects. Summits annually takes some 1,500 tourists on tandem flights (no experience needed), and offers a basic one-week course throughout the summer for another 150 students. The school has never had a fatality, according to company officials, so it seemed a reasonable place to learn something about the sport.
I joined a Summits class two days into a five-day introductory course in a ''classroom" borrowed from ''The Sound of Music." The hills were alive with blankets of wildflowers, with clouds in the valleys below while the glaciers of Mont Blanc towered overhead like a 16,000-foot- high effulgent meringue. Surprisingly, Julie Andrews was not among the four Britons, two Italians, and four French nationals enrolled in the program.
''Aha! What do I see? A twist in a line! Remember what I said? One beer for me for every twist I find!"
Meet Hervé Farge, 52, who had just spotted a student's crossed paraglider lines before a practice launch. Farge is a lean, intense, compact package of energy. An instructor with Summits from the beginning, he has enough command of several European languages to demonstrate that he has a sense of humor -- and that he's serious about his mission.
A paraglider has 133 lines leading from the flying canopy above to the harness worn by pilots. To get the canopy airborne, the flier folds the material carefully behind him or her on the grass, clips the harness, walks slowly downhill until the lines are taut, and then yanks smartly on them. That's all it takes to make the device fly in a light headwind.
Making it obey is another matter.
The challenge for the students this day was to keep the canopy, a colorful, fidgety monster, following them as they jogged downhill toward a target. To steer the contraption they pulled on either of two control handles to dictate its direction and speed. The maneuver had to be done gently, by feel, so that the pilot's eyes could remain straight ahead.
''Doucement [smoothly], doucement, dooooooucement!" Farge pleaded again and again to his French charges.
And to the Italians: ''Piano, piano, piaaaaaaano!"
By afternoon, everyone had developed a light enough touch to consistently run down the pasture with the paraglider dutifully following above. During subsequent days, the students would practice takeoff and landing maneuvers. And then it was time for an actual flight. Student Charles Sherwood, 45, an investment consultant from England, would reflect later on the experience:
''I surged forward [on foot], feeling the resistance of the canopy overhead. I then ran like hell in big exaggerated strides down the grassy slope. Within a pleasingly short period my legs had ceased to pound the mountainside and instead were making rather comical bicycle kicks in midair. I was flying. I was really flying!"
As were Pinard and I. We had launched 3,000 feet above Chamonix near the top of the Planpraz gondola station, then risen another several hundred feet on updrafts.
When riding tandem, the riding configuration is, well, intimate and sandwich-like. And it's a quiet world up here; with only the whisper of the wind through the paraglider lines to contend with, conversation is a breeze. And talk we did.
Working the control lines and occasionally allowing me to fly, Pinard chuckled about the looks she sometimes got when clients requesting a tandem ride would scrutinize her gender and small frame. She asked if I wanted to take some steep, spiraling turns. Would I be nervous? Of course not, I said, quelling a hint of nausea.
With each spin, I lifted my toes toward Mont Blanc to click a few photographs.
''Very clever," she said.
''C'est rien [Nothing to it]," I answered, sensing opportunity. I changed the shutter setting to rapid fire, and with an impressive volley of cha-chooms, I captured three dozen more pictures of my feet.
Twirling in space, Pinard shared stories about paragliding in the Caribbean, about her father, about motherhood and her daughter, now 11, who once suggested that paragliding might make a nifty way to go to school each day.
''How cute," I giggled.
Nestled in her arms, I shared some of the more incredible places in the world that I had been for work. I mentioned a few mountains I had climbed, a few wrecks I had dived. You can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes. I don't recall if the subject of my wife came up, but I know my arthritis did not.
In Chamonix I had been suffering a bout of fairly intense joint stiffness that made sudden movements difficult, particularly after sitting for a spell.
Now as we approached our landing site, I was becoming distracted -- less by nudists in the public swimming pool below than by apprehension that I had been sitting for almost half an hour. What would happen when we touched down and Pinard issued the command to run?
With just moments to go, Pinard told me to stand in my harness. Suspended like a puppet just over the ground, I desperately tried to loosen up by running through the air.
''Run," she said.
On the first step, I buckled into a somersault that tripped Pinard. She catapulted overhead, emitting a distinctive ''Oumff!" as all 110 pounds of her sailed by -- harmlessly, we would determine later. Then came the paraglider, eventually settling on our human heap like a beached yellow jellyfish.
End of flight.
End of fantasy.
Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, at firstname.lastname@example.org.