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Thrills, Chills and Spills

They got tossed, turned, wet, and scared. They returned home with the healthy glow of an adrenaline high.

two biplanes that are vintage aircraft, image
Photo caption
Riding in a vintage aircraft gives the passengers a new perspective on flying.

I freak merging into traffic, so I’m still not sure why I decided to skydive. My brother Tom, a former skydiver, agreed to jump with me and fed me enough conflicting information to keep my palms clammy.

“I wouldn’t let you skydive unless I felt it was safe,” he said. “But you may die.” Which is why I chose Skydive Hollister, two hours south of San Francisco—their Web site says they “have never had a fatality.” Their tandem jumps spoke to the weenie in me. In a tandem, you are harnessed to an experienced parachutist who does all the work, including nudging you out of the plane and pulling the ripcord (you provide the shrieking).

Most of tandem jumping is prep work. First, Tom and I initialed a bunch of papers that basically said that if we end up Earth pizza, our families couldn’t sue. Then we saw an MTV-style video of blissed-out first-timers tandem jumping to a Van Halen soundtrack. Jumpmaster Bob (1,000 jumps) gave us instructions and told us, “relax and have fun.” (The jumpmasters are very encouraging and surprisingly grounded for folks who get their kicks leaping out of planes.)

In goggles and nylon jumpsuits, a dozen students and jumpmasters boarded a small prop plane. On the ride up, my jumpmaster, Doug (4,000 jumps “at least”), kept reassuring me, “You’re gonna be safe” and reminded me how to position myself for the jump.

“What if I forget everything?” I squeaked.

“That’s okay,” he soothed.

Positioning himself behind me, front to back, Doug harnessed himself to me so snugly you couldn’t slip a liability waiver between us. At 10,000 feet he signaled Bob to open the door. The ground far below was as brown as a paper bag. Nothing lay between us and the onion fields two miles down except air and my will to prove something to myself. I crouched in position, Doug nudged me forward and I jumped with Doug clinging to my back like a tick to a horse’s backside.

In the first airborne seconds I flashed on those dreams I have in which I’m flying and the Earth below looks neatly shrink-wrapped. We gave way to gravity, but in midair there was nothing to indicate we were dropping at 120 mph. The wind roared and adrenaline shot to my heart, eyeballs, and fingertips. We were suspended in open sky and it was a rush.

Thirty seconds into the free-fall, I felt a tug as the parachute unfurled with a soft “whomp,” then silence as our legs dangled a mile above land for the five-minute ride down.

“Well?” said Doug, as we floated peacefully, “How is it?”

After I blathered lame superlatives like “great,” Doug gave me the bird’s-eye tour of Monterey Bay, Gilroy, and Hollister, and then for fun spun us around like a pinwheel. We landed with a gentle bump in an empty field, where I immediately had the jones to jump again.

Skydive Hollister is certified by the United States Parachute Association. Tandem-jump prices start at $125. Call (800) 386-5867 for more information. SkyDance Skydiving outside Sacramento is USPA certified. Tandem-jump prices start at $139. Call (800) 759-3483 for more information, or visit

Great Walls of Water

By Maria Streshinsky

A wall of water rises up in front of us. White, foamy tongues reach for our raft. “Dig hard!” John yells. And we raise our paddles over the top of the wave and pull, sliding the raft up and over only to have to do it again. As the boat slips out of the last of a long train of waves, John grins.

“That was the Dragon’s Tooth rapid,” he says. “In summer that one can be a bear. There’s a rock at the bottom of the rapid that’s the size of a house.”

John McDermott has been running this water for 15 years. He knows the Klamath River, tucked into Siskyou Forest of northernmost California, inside and out—every wave, hole, beach, and side canyon. As owners of River Dancers, he and his wife, Chantal, guide people (on rafts and in inflatable kayaks) through the rapids and riffles of rivers in Northern California and Oregon.

“This stretch of the Klamath is a perfect beginner’s river,” he says. “It’s great for families. We’ll bring kids as young as 6, and it’s also great for people who want to learn about white water, then head to the big water.”

We’re running a Class III stretch of the Klamath—from the town of Happy Camp to a place called Ti Bar. (Class I rivers are the easiest, Class VI are unrunnable.) In summer the water is warm enough for swimming through the calmer stuff, but recurring white licks of water and swirling whirlpools will keep any river traveler on his toes. “This is the wilderness,” John reminds us.

At first, I don’t feel deep into the wild—the river is chased by California’s Highway 96. But soon I barely notice the road—especially as we set up camp, eat plateloads of Thai chicken, and fall asleep to the sounds of rolling water.

Wilderness it is. The waters tumble south and west, past silty beaches, homesteads; under soaring osprey. Alders bend over the river, firs grow precariously above it. Our raft bounces, turns, and is sucked down into the green where one current meets another. We all position our weight on our feet and lean into the raft so it won’t flip. Another lick of white appears above us. “Who wants to get wet?” John yells. I shriek, “Go for it!” And we head toward the big waves.

“Look at that hole!” Chantal yells from her raft, as we slide past a gaping green void. “Now that’s suction.” Then we paddle into calmer water. Such is how California white water goes.

When we maneuver the boats to shore and head home along the same road I had cursed, I’m blissful to be able keep the river with me as I drive.

To reach River Dancers in Mount Shasta, call (800) 926-5002, or For other California river trips (long and short trip choices run from gourmet trips to environmental cleanup trips), call the California Outdoors Outfitter Hot Line at (800) 552-3625.

In the Fast Lane

By Jennifer Reese

I’m strapped into an acid green Nemesis Formula SC99 race car on a speedway in the parched outskirts of Las Vegas. I’m wearing this car more than sitting in it: The Nemesis is a tiny, sexy, 4-speed racer, and my hips are wedged into a seat tighter than a leather Versace miniskirt.

I’ve enrolled in the Derek Daly Academy’s half-day racing class, something anyone with a driver’s license and $475 can do. Our teacher, Mike, has given us an hour of classroom instruction in cockpit control and braking techniques. Now he’s going to let us burn rubber for another hour or so.

Monty, my only classmate, is here because he craves speed. This is my first clue that something bad is going to happen. My hunger for speed is not a gnawing one. Forget about death or injury: I’m going to ruin Monty’s day by driving too slow.

I press the ignition button and the 4-cylinder Ford engine roars to life. Suddenly I’m scooting after Mike onto the track. The car looks like a toy, but it’s responsive—like a high-strung horse. I can see Monty behind me in his own little car through a mirror the size of a playing card. The engine’s rumble—threatening, thrilling—is all I hear. We make a mellow first lap around the 1.9-mile track.

On lap two, Mike signals us to shift into second gear. I can’t budge the dainty soupspoon of a shift. I shake out my wrist, try again. Nothing. Monty and Mike speed off. I try to catch up, but make a wrong turn. The track turns out to be a so-called “road course,” more of a labyrinth than a perfect oval. I kill the engine. In grade school we’d have called someone who did this a spaz.

Mike rolls up. “You’re facing the wrong direction,” he says, sadly, reproachfully, like every gym teacher who ever tried to teach me to spike a volleyball. “And you were going 20 miles per hour. These cars don’t even want to go 20. You might as well park ’em.”

Make that a complete spaz.

I do better after this. For a few glorious, heart-stopping laps I work up to 60 mph. Don’t laugh. With your butt 2 inches from the road, 60 on the speedway feels like 140 on the interstate. (Professional drivers get up to 200 mph.) Every cell in my body feels alert and alive. And anxious. This is nothing like the giddy, mindless exhilaration of roller coasters: I have a death grip on the steering wheel. And even when I’m zipping gracefully down the straightaway, I’m already flinching in anticipation of that next turn. What if I skid? What if I crash?

Race car drivers are born, not made. Not in half a day. But how would I have known this unless I tried? I pull over so Mike and Monty can have some real fun. And they do. They tear off at 90 mph and when Monty climbs out of his car 15 minutes later, he’s glowing. He can’t stop talking about the g-force on the curves—so powerful it almost made him sick, in a good way! He’s always wanted to drive a Formula car, and it was as fantastic as he’d imagined. My feelings exactly.

Contact the Derek Daly Academy, (888) GO-DEREK. The Skip Barber Racing School in Monterey, California, also offers a three-hour class, $495; (800) 221-1131. And the Russell Racing School at Sears Point in Sonoma runs a $385, half-day course; (707) 939-7600.

Fly Like An Eagle

By John Goepel

The plane hasn’t flipped over—the horizon has. That’s what flying upside-down in an open-cockpit plane felt like. And how gratifying to make a seat belt earn its keep.

A few aerobatic minutes over neat Sonoma vineyards made it clear that a plane like the Stearman is to commercial planes as a motorcycle is to a bus. It’s elemental machinery, without extras: big radial engine, metal tubing with fabric skin, two seats. It’s loud, nimble, and allows for some very intimate communing with the sky.

Sure, Stearmans mostly were trainers and crop dusters, but Vintage Aircraft’s concours-condition planes conjure up more of a Dawn Patrol/Blue Max image. Just before takeoff, Will Rogers and Knute Rockne come to mind, too.

Once you roll down the grass strip and leap into the air, the plane seems solid, incapable of letting you down. We roar steeply upward, apparently hanging from the prop at the peak of our climb, then head groundward. A glance at the wings shows no Dacron peeling off. But this isn’t the “Kamikaze” run, described by pilot Chris Prevost as “intensely aerobatic, not for the faint of heart.” It’s a scenic flight above Sonoma, by San Quentin, across Sausalito, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and looping around the Bay.

Some mistake prudence for faintheartedness, so we throw prudence to the considerable wind and get a taste of the kind of flying that would land United in court for the rest of its life. A roll. A loop. Steep climbs. Steeper dives. Maneuvers designed to give you and your stomach what Chris calls “a different perspective.”

A long turn lines us up with the landing strip; in a minute the plane rumbles up to its corrugated steel hangar. The experience certainly gave us a different perspective on flying. A biplane flight can hardly be matched for seeing the Bay Area from an unusual angle and for the fun of riding a small, responsive, powerful machine as it’s put through its paces.

Vintage Aircraft Co., at Sonoma Valley Airport, has four Stearman biplanes, all dating from c. 1940. Stearmans were built from the late ’20s into the early ’40s. Described by airplane writer Sean Rossiter as “tough, durable, easy to honest airplane,” Stearmans are among the rare examples of industrial design in which everything comes together to produce a classic. Think of the Model A, the DC 3, the early Mustangs. Vintage restores and maintains its planes with its own people and offers a variety of flights, including leisurely tours, aerobatics, and combination tour/aerobatic flights (our choice). Price range: $89-$199. 23982 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA. Flights available any day; call at least a day in advance: (707) 938-2444.

Other sources: Outfits offering biplane rides are few; some tend to come and go. State tourism Web pages are good information sources:;;

Making Waves in Caves

By Kristina Malsberger

A warm gulp of hazelnut coffee—that’s what my taste buds are expecting at 9 o’clock in the morning. Instead they get a blast of salt spray as my open-deck kayak punches through a wave off the coast of San Diego. I’m here, along with a couple from Virginia and our guide, Greg, to explore the La Jolla sea caves. But first we have to make it through the surf.

Greg’s earlier instructions return to me as I face a menacing breaker: “Don’t be a deer caught in the headlights. You see a big wave, you paddle toward it, hard as you can.” Resolutely, I grapple up the face of the crest, hit the peak, and drop with a resounding slap. Another breaker threatens. And my biceps, honed to a Jell-O consistency by cubicle life, are beginning to give out.

On cue, Coach Greg appears. “C’mon, paddle hard! You can do it!” Unable to refuse, I dig in. Finally we reach the calm beyond the breakers and head south. As we near the cliff face, Greg briefs us on part two of Operation Sea Cave: We’ll paddle to the cave mouth, turn, and go in backward, keeping a watchful eye on the surf.

Reversing into the cave is like backing a Lincoln Continental into a garage during an earthquake—everything beneath me is slopping forward, sideways, and back while I paddle frantically to avoid a skin-searing scrape with the barnacles. Finally I get the hang of it, though, hovering in the sweet spot between the cave walls before I’m spit out in the backwash.

At our final cave, the entrance is only a narrow fissure in the rock, but it widens into a large cavern with a back entrance. Inside, the air is cool and sound is distorted. Oystercatchers dart above our heads, their flapping wings echoing like snapping towels in a strong wind.

We ride the roller coaster of swells, kayaks bumping amiably in the close quarters. Then Greg leads us back out and around the rocky point. “We’re going in through the back door!” he yells, coaching us on the hairpin turn required to reenter the cave. I swallow hard and start my approach, grazing the rocks and turning into the cavern just as a large set of swells hits. The light dims as the waves rise up at the entrance and rush in to whoops and smiles from the group.

But the real ride comes as I’m paddling back to the beach. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, I catch a huge curl and shoot wildly toward the shore. The “Hawaii Five-O” theme song races through my head in a moment of surf bunny glory.

Abruptly my hubris turns to humility as the wave catches my kayak and dumps me face-first into the water. I come up spluttering, a wet poodle of my former self. Slowly I drag the kayak ashore and let out a sigh of relief. I’m ready for my coffee.

Aqua Adventures runs the La Jolla Caves trip May-October ($55), with other sea kayaking excursions throughout the year. (800) 269-7792;

Photo by Markham Johnson

This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.