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How I Fell Two Miles in Love with Central Virginia
B. Clifford
Illustration by Pat Lewis

So I think it all went wrong when the guy in the wheelchair rolled himself into the classroom and said, "Okay, first yer gonna watch this video on skydiving safety, hosted by ZZ Top." I mean of course, who else? So Billy Gibbons talks to us about how skydiving is risky and can kill you. Very comforting, and all right before they ask you to sign away your legal rights to sue in case of injury or death.

Why did we do this? Well, it’s Dave White's birthday, and Gavin and I are accompanying him to SkyDive Orange which is, on the most basic level, a hangar on the outskirts of Orange Airport in Orange, Va. But it is also this bizarre and lovely almost-commune consisting of its main and most frequent users, who apparently all belong to some club.

Having planned this two months before, one can imagine the build-up of anticipation which reached a fevered pitch when we finally near SkyDive Orange and see canopies (the "in" lingo for "parachutes") floating through the sky like so many dandelions. When we walk into the hangar, it is immediately evident that we are the new guys. We don't have jumpsuits. We don't have our own rigs (the "in" term for canopies when they are packed away and ready for deployment). We are, in the parlance, students. So we check in and are told to wait for the 3 p.m. class announcement, which comes at 3:10. Our class consists of us and no one else. Ned rolls in and starts the ZZ Top video. Upon its completion, we fill out the requisite liability forms, which Ned then witnesses.

Orange is a small town with a population of 4,133 and is the seat of government for the county of the same name, located roughly seventy-five miles northwest of Richmond, thirty minutes north of Charlottesville. The geographic triangle formed by these two larger cities with Fredericksburg to the north approximates the borders of the Central Virginia region. Rivers and creeks such as the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Robinson, and the Tomahawk slither down the foothills through the Piedmont on their way to the Chesapeake Bay, giving names to family estates, antique/curio shoppes, and vineyards along the way. Numerous lakes and hills bearing the names of local families scatter themselves through the landscape. Bi-ways with histories stretching back to the country’s origins seem to define the region, connecting Orange with neighbors such as Culpeper, Barboursville, Gordonsville, and Madison; the intersection of Virginia State Route 20 and U.S. Route 15 marks the center of downtown Orange. Whether taking these routes to Richmond as a traffic-free alternative, or to go, say, skydiving in Central Virginia itself, one cannot help but find a sense of peace and utterly enjoyable calm as this landscape unfolds along the way.

We turn in the forms releasing SkyDive Orange from any legal liability to the check-in desk and pay. The woman there flirts with Gavin and informs us that some nasty weather is approaching so, after our ground training, we may have to wait a bit. If we get bored and want to go home, we can reschedule. We buy sodas and sit down to wait. At about 4:15, a huge thunderstorm hits. A few of the smaller planes are rolled into the hangar, and the huge door at the front is closed most of the way shut. The storm lasts for about an hour and a half, during which time a frantic message comes over the loudspeaker: "All club members please meet in the center of the hangar, all club members, and club members only! This is to be treated as urgent!" Everyone in the hangar but us goes to the center and has a long powwow during which lots of people walk away in tears, compose themselves, and return to the fold. We never learned what the great tragedy was, but it clearly affected SkyDive Orange the rest of the day.

Around 6 or so, they start sending planes up in twenty-minute intervals. Finally, we meet Romlo, who leads our ground training. He is shortish and looks like Robin Gibb with a ponytail. Very cool guy. Essentially, because we are beginners, we chose the "tandem jump" option, which means we are hooked to a much more experienced jumper at the shoulders and the hips (it's cozy) in a spooningsetup, and that person (termed “the jumpmaster”) is in charge of pulling the canopy and steering us down safely. Romlo teaches us how to arch our bodies in the appropriate way, how our tandem jumpmasters and we are going to leave the airplane, and how to land, all in the span of about fifteen minutes. Due to a shortage of jumpmasters, we are not able to board a plane until about 7:00. Around 6:40 or so, a few experienced-looking guys call out our names, and we meet our jumpmasters; Shane (who is assigned to Dave), Jason (Gavin), and Hank (me). Hank is pursuing a graduate degree in math at the University of Virginia and has made about nine hundred jumps in toto. They hook us into our harnesses and reiterate the points Romlo made, and finally our load is called.

Orange lies at the heart of Central Virginia, surrounded by history. James Madison’s Montpelier home is a scant few miles down Rt. 20. Owned by the wealthy DuPont family for most of the twentieth century, it is now a historical landmark open to visitors. Montpelier Station, now a post office, was built by Robert DuPont, Senior, for his private use along the railroad tracks. The Orange County Courthouse, at the center of town at the Rt. 20/Rt.15 intersection, was designed in 1858. These roads even play major roles in history, as the numerous historical markers that line them will testify, for Central Virginia is rife with battle and skirmish sites from the Civil War. The locale figures prominently in many of the battles and campaigns we read about in our history books; Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, with Orange on the southern periphery of it all. Virginia itself is obsessed with history, and the afore-mentioned roadside historical markers describing various battles, troop movements, and birthplaces can be found throughout the Commonwealth. While is it not atypical to find these nuggets in strip mall parking lots in Northern Virginia, seemingly every estate house or bridge or hill in Central Virginia is accompanied by a large, white sign with black lettering denoting the historical event that took place on the site.

We walk out into the field, put on our helmets (which are really these faux leather, Red Baron-type aviators' caps with a chin strap) and goggles, and board the Super Otter Jump Aircraft. As we climb to our exit altitude of thirteen thousand feet—more than two miles up— Hank, Shane, and Jason go over a few more details with us and tell a few jokes. "Did you take yer pills today, Hank?" "Yup, six pills every two hours!" "Hank, it's supposed to be two pills every six hours!" "Whoops!" Shane makes a few Point Break references, which is cool, as we watched the movie the previous night to geek ourselves up for this, and then it’s time. The single jumpers in the rear of the plane jump first, in rapid succession. Then it’s our turn; Dave then Gavin then me. So Dave and Shane crouch over to the door, and with that, are gone. Then Gavin. Hank asks "Are you ready?" and bizarrely, I am entirely ready, without any hesitation, as were Dave and Gavin we find out after landing. I scream in the affirmative, and we jump out of the plane.

Several tourism-based industries bolster the economy of Central Virginia, and have helped to make the region more of a destination than a waypoint for folks on their way elsewhere. Perhaps in some way related to the statewide connection with history, antique stores are prevalent in the area, whether scattered about the open country on the side of the road or lined up side-by-side along the brick sidewalks of the main streets in the downtowns of Gordonsville and Madison. By and large these are more trash-and-treasure shops than the upscale places one is more likely to find further south. Most are large barns or houses filled with the wares of many vendors, who each have their own “rooms” set up very informally, divided simply by the largest pieces each vendor has to offer. One can find anything from a slightly-used $4 metal lunchbox featuring characters from any number of 1970s or 1980s television shows and movies, to large pieces of period furniture costing thousands of dollars.

Wine-making is an industry that has garnered a foothold throughout the Commonwealth, and taking trips to Central Virginia for wine-tasting weekends is a fashionable and popular pursuit. Many of the state’s most popular vineyards are found in this region, particularly in and around Charlottesville, as the soil and climate conditions are ideal for several types of grapes. Vineyards such as Barbourville and Horton ensure that visitors do not just tour an industrial site surrounded by fields of grapes, but rather are treated to a customer-friendly experience in comfortable and friendly environs. Intertwined with these and other attractions is the burgeoning bed & breakfast industry. Central Virginia, with no shortage or large comfy historic (or at least, historic-looking) houses overlooking lazy creeks and fields, is ideally suited for B&Bs, and with folks from around the Commonwealth and elsewhere coming to the area for relaxing, wine-soaked weekends, any number of innkeepers are ready and willing to provide accommodations and helpful tips on what to do and see during their stays.

Your head is thrust back on the left shoulder of your jumpmaster, and for a second you can see the bottom of the plane as you start falling feet first. Your hips and stomach are pushed as far forward as possible, your hands are gripping the shoulders of your harness, arms uncrossed, and your legs are slightly bent between those of your jumpmaster, knees together, toes pointing out. After 3 seconds or so, the forward momentum you carry from the plane is eclipsed by your downward momentum, and you pivot such that you are facing straight down.

Hank taps my shoulders, the signal to put my arms out, elbows bent at 90-degree angles. The free fall lasts about forty-five seconds, and is both the most intense and most serene forty-five seconds of my life. I hardly even feel like I am really falling, but rather floating really quickly. We fall through some light, misty cirrus clouds at about eight thousand feet, and all of Central Virginia is laid out before us. I see Gavin and Dave's canopies open (they later said that their jumpmasters pointed us out as we passed the cirrus clouds), and with a jerk that isn’t as jarring as I am expecting, our canopy opens.

As Hank steers us slowly toward the landing field, I have nothing to do but admire a hitherto unseen view of my favorite part of Virginia. As arresting and striking as the scenery is from the roads or trails, and as much time as I’ve spent here either on my way to school or stopping to pick up my favorite bottle of wine, I don’t know that I truly appreciated or understood how it all fit together geographically or psychologically for me until this moment. After six or so minutes of taking this in, we pull even with and circle around Dave/Shane and Gavin/Jason. Naturally it seems, we flash heavy metal signs at each other while enjoying the view of the post-thunderstorm mists surrounding Cedar Mountain, Lake Orange, and the Blue Ridge.

We land without incident, skidding along the ground, legs outstretched, on our butts, shake hands, and leave. Ten minutes later, I throw up in the parking lot of the BP at the intersection of Rt. 20 and U.S. Route 522 near Unionville.

Then we go home.

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