Hawks, like the big redtail above me the other day, often soar and circle over the back pasture, which occupies a high, undulating ridgetop. Any wind from the north climbs the same steep hill I do when I go to check on the cows, and then continues to rise above the grassy expanse, lending any bird a lift. On warm, sunny days the pasture generates its own rising thermals, air currents both lazy and powerful. The hawk moved hardly a muscle as his giant wings accepted the ride. The afternoon sun filtered through his signature tail feathers and his body cast a fluid, mobile shadow more peaceful than predatory. Watching him, I doubt he was bothered about his dinner. He might even have been dozing.
I knew just how he felt, soaring about up there, wings spread. From the age of 11 or 12, I often went aloft with my dad, a licensed glider pilot. We made regular weekend excursions to the Dansville Gliding Club in the southern tier of New York State, where the long gentle hills seem sculpted for one purpose - to scoop and palm the wind upward for birds and the likes of us.
It didn't always work that way. Sometimes we'd land a few short minutes after untethering from our car-powered tow. As the thick rope snaked down to earth, and the little plane settled from its sharp ascent to a level hush, Dad would nose for thermals. If they weren't active or we couldn't connect with an updraft, we'd slowly spiral down.
But following that hawk, I thought of the other times - when through the floor of our little craft we'd feel the exultant punch of a rising mass of air. Then we'd ride it as long as we could, eyeing the slanted landscape through wraparound windows, deliciously buffered from its gravitational pull.
Gliding beat any other form of flight I've ever experienced - including the propeller planes, blimps, and seaplanes I sampled in childhood with my flight-enamored father. The helicopter my son and I rode in a few years ago, and the commercial airlines we sometimes use, don't hold a candle to those engineless, uncharted glides above Dansville.
I did not inherit my father's longing to soar, but I wouldn't have missed those weekend flights with him. How else would I know, from my solid earth cow path, what that redtail was really all about?