Season Opener: Time to Fly

“First you jump off the cliff and you build wings on the way down.” —Ray Bradbury

Around the middle of March, when spring arrived on our calendars but not in the skies, mountains, or streets of Montana, I got a call from local photographer and quintessential Bozemanite Lonnie Ball. He said he had an idea for a story. It was something he’d wanted to do for a long time, he explained, a story that captured an iconic part of summer in southwest Montana. He said it was fairly intense, a little crazy, and somewhat controversial. I told him I liked it already.

A few weeks later Lonnie showed up at the office with a score of photos showing kids of all ages clambering up cliffs and bridge trusses and, under bright blue Montana skies, launching themselves into the water far below. He called it aerial swimming, and said he’d been documenting this activity around the state for years. I looked at the images of bare-chested boys and bikini-clad girls throwing themselves headlong into the Gallatin, the Jefferson, and several lakes around the region. The tanned skin; the relaxed, carefree postures; the joyful smiles of exuberant celebration—Lonnie was absolutely right. This was summer in Montana all the way.

I immediately thought of a day last August when my climbing buddy Dave and I stopped at the Green Bridge in Gallatin Canyon to cool off after a long, hot day on the rock. Dave let me go first, then promptly scrambled to the top, spun around, and executed a perfect back flip into the pellucid water 15 feet below.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty accomplished aerial swimmer. I’ve been hucking cliffs and bridges all over the world for as long as I can remember. New Zealand. The Mediterranean. Acapulco, Panama, and the California coast. Vermont and Maine. Georgia and Alabama. An 85-footer on the Spokane River outside Coeur d’Alene. And then Dave follows my lame-ass, foot-first leap with a perfect back flip.

I’ve been thinking about that flip all winter. I’ve also been thinking about climbing straight up the front of the Jefferson cliff, shedding my shoes and harness, and jumping off. I’ve been thinking about finding a 90-footer somewhere, and seeing if I’ve still got the cajones I used to have.

Well, summer’s here. Enough thinking. The water beckons and the sky calls out for contact. Time to spread the wings and fly.