“You have to learn to read the sky,” says the master adding that to do so begins by observing the ground. “Pay attention to the wind in the grass,”he says, “and the movement of the trees.”
Atop a windswept hill, we two disciples have apprenticed ourselves, and, to a degree, entrusted our lives, to the master, a stocky, cheerful Brazilian paragliding instructor named Marcus Santos. Santos has a windsock of hair like Troy Polamalu and speaks, at times, in a Zen-like syntax. No sooner have we finished at attempt at reading the sky from the wind-bent grass than a red-tailed hawk wings into view. It’s an unscripted part of the lesson plan, but a welcome one — a perfect model for what we are about to do.
“Watch the flight of the hawk,” Santos says. Its wings perfectly still, the raptor catches the outer edge of an updraft and spirals skywards, arcing out over the blazing autumn foliage of the Hudson River Valley. “Aloft, it’s very intuitive,” Santos assures us. “You just turn your body and you fly that way. The hard part all happens on the ground.”
“It’s funny,” I whisper. “He talks like Yoda.”
My co-disciple grins, playing along. “And he’s going to teach us how to fly.”
Given present company, my joke’s inevitable; my co-disciple is the Scottish film star Ewan McGregor: global adventurer, family man, character actor, and Jedi knight. He’s a man who’s always game for new experiences, from tracking polar bears in the Canadian Arctic to motorcycling across Mongolia to doing musical theater in a London remake of Guys and Dolls. Now he’s about to launch himself off of this hilltop dangling from an swath of ribbed, fluorescent yellow nylon. I’m glad to be along, but I’m also thrilled he’s going first.
McGregor and I have come to this hill in upstate New York to take up paragliding, the foot-launched, free-flying, and balletic sport in which an inflated fabric crescent attached by Kevlar lines to a body harness allows mere mortals to soar like red-tailed hawks. Unlike hang gliding, where pilots steer a fabric wing stretched over a rigid frame, paragliders are collapsible, stitched out of a parachute-type fabric, but shaped to function like an airplane wing. Neither of us has ever attempted to fly one solo before. “This is going to be brilliant,” McGregor says.
His wing is laid out on the grass behind him, the lines trailing over his shoulders. He double-checks his harness clips. His helmet is cocked at a jaunty angle. Combined with his expression of steely determination, the helmet lends him the appearance of a WWI doughboy about to go over the top of a trench.
“My producer would kill me if he knew I was doing this,” he confides, flashing the same roguish grin which, from its global debut in the opening chase scene of Trainspotting, marked McGregor as a star. “But whatever. I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time.”
“Clear!” he shouts. Ducking his head down, McGregor spreads his arms and takes two strides forward, pulling the huge wing into the wind. Its leading edge catches the breeze, and it billows open directly overhead, and nearly knocks McGregor off of his feet.
“Go! Go! Go!” yells Santos.
Crouching and lunging forward like a rugby player, McGregor runs as fast as he can down the slope (and against the pull of the lines). A few strides later, the wing lifts him up like a marionette, his legs still pedaling, not unlike Wile E. Coyote after stepping off the edge of a cliff.
“Let go of the A-risers! Hands up!” shouts Santos, referring to the straps that control the leading edge of the glider, but McGregor is past earshot. He’s slipped the surly bonds of earth, if only by ten feet, and skims along the contour of the hill like a giant drifting dandelion seed.
If the thought has ever crossed your mind that McGregor is one of the few celebs who seem like they’d be good fun to hang out with, well, you’re right. One of the more remarkable qualities about McGregor—not the appetite for daring adventures, not the million dollar grin—is his humility and self-effacing sense of humor. Where some stars seem like they’ve been coached or reminded to talk favorably of family and friends, McGregor clearly loves his wife and kids and has worked hard to keep old friends as his career took off. He’s been married since he was 25, and has three daughters—the youngest a little girl he and his wife adopted from Mongolia after his trip there. “I’m surrounded by women,” he says. “It’s brilliant.”
He’s fiercely protective of them, particularly when it comes to paparazzi, and he’s done a fair job of escaping the corrosive forces of celebrity culture. He doesn’t drink—anymore. Last year he admitted to the press that his drinking had started to get out of control, and rather than let it derail his career and his family life, he gave alcohol up altogether. At the tender age of 35, his boozing may be behind him, but nobody can accuse him of not having fun.
He certainly keeps himself busy: a half-dozen film projects in various stages of production (he’s in New York now to film a thriller called The Tourist with Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams). Miss Potter, in which he co-stars with Renee Zellweger, will be out in the spring. His performances are extraordinarily versatile, fitting as well into a blockbuster lead as he does in a character role in an indie production, and always with the sort of easy charisma that hasn’t been seen from his native Scotland since Sean Connery had a full head of hair.
Moreover, he’s planning his follow-up odyssey to Long Way Round, the 2004 film of the round-the-world motorcycle trip he did with his friend Charley Boorman, riding BMW motorcycles from London to New York via Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia and Alaska. He’s a motorbike junkie, something he has to foreswear when he’s shooting a film (shades of Ben Roethlisberger), but his stable includes everything from a gorgeous new Moto Guzzi Griso to a 1929 Rex Acme TT Racer, with a half-dozen bikes in between. And his next motorbike journey will really be into the unknown.
“This May we’ll begin in John o’ Groats, at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and ride to Capetown via Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Victoria Falls, Malawi, and the Namib desert, which is like another planet. We’re taking the exact same crew as the last trip. It’s called Long Way Down.”
As with Long Way Round, the new journey will serve to publicize the Unicef projects in the countries he and Charley motor through, which have millions of children orphaned by AIDS. After that, McGregor says, the final journey will be Long Way Up, from Tierra del Fuego north through the Americas. He gets incredibly animated when he talks about these journeys, barely able to contain his excitement. It’s a rare thing for a movie star to prioritize travel over their career—McGregor spent eight months doing Long Way Round—but he has no regrets about following that path.
“I think you can forget to do it, you know? If you’re fortunate enough to get work like I am, you can end up working and working and working and forget that that should enable you to do other things that you want to do. I think it was a very important thing at that time to be on that journey, there were moments on it that were absolutely complete. I remember feeling that there was nowhere else that I should be, or was meant to be.” And it was in that spirit that he proposed paragliding school, another realm of experience that focuses you in the moment.
After floating down the hill, a successful flight on his very first try, McGregor slides into the grass a hundred yards below us with his collapsed paraglider on top of him. He scrambles to his feet, still tethered to the wing, jumping and laughing like a kid at the bottom of a sledding hill, already gathering his lines together to run up and fly again.
Now that it’s my turn, Ewan shouts up encouragement from the bottom of the hill, waving me down, as Santos gives me last minute instruction.
“Everyone thinks paragliding is a crazy sport, but it’s very Zen,” Santos says. “You have to be calm. And the conditions have to be just right. That’s why we spend so much time parawaiting. And paradriving around.”
Following his advice, I wait patiently for a drop in the breeze, then step forward, gripping the risers attached to my harness, my arms spread wide. The paraglider inflates behind me and swings up, pulling at me like a roped steer.
“Run!” yells Santos, “Lean into it and run!” I concentrate on the ground beneath my feet, scrambling for each step forward, futilely trying to register Santos’ shouted directives. Which things are the brakes again? And then suddenly a foot misses the ground, and another, and I’m flying! ... Sideways, across, rather than down, the hill. Within seconds, I’m unceremoniously dragged and stuffed by the crosswind into a head-high thorn bramble, my wing fluttering closed, and draping me like a funeral flag.
After extracting my tangled wing from my inaugural “bushwack” (a common occurrence in paragliding, Santos reassures me), Ewan and I trek back up the hill.
“My mind went completely blank the first time,” he confesses. “And there’s no way to hear the shouted instructions from the air. You just have to go with instinct. But when you’re flying it’s absolutely brilliant.”
As we walk, he tells me that he’d long been curious about paragliding, but in the last year, especially, he’s been dying to try it. “I was shooting on a Woody Allen film last summer, and this cameraman, George, started talking to me about paragliding one day. He flew. And we kept talking about it, and I kept asking him questions about it. He brought in some videos of people paragliding in South America and France, and it looked absolutely gorgeous, and I was kind of hooked. Then I got a copy of The Art of Paragliding, by Dennis Pagen. This huge technical manual, and I just devoured it.”
Invented by a NASA engineer in 1965 and developed as a sport in 1978 by hanggliding enthusiasts in the French Alps, paragliding has since seen exponential growth and technological innovation in the decades since. With over 100,000 pilots worldwide, it has evolved into an extraordinarily diverse sport, encompassing recreational flying, aerobatics, cross-country flight, and competition flying around courses, with high-tech wings designed for each specialty. There are mountaineering wings compact enough to hump up your nearest massif, and tricked-out racing wings that can hit speeds of 60CK miles an hour. Riding a ridge or a big thermal, a glider can stay aloft all day long. Record-setting pilots have ridden air currents for 254 miles, and caught thermals up to 15,698 feet.
A global cult has arisen around the sport, though it has yet to gain as much popularity in the United States, where there are perhaps 5000 pilots. Pilots have to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and certification requires many hours of training on the ground and in the air. And there are serious risks: pilot error, wing collapse, the dreaded “gift wrap”, which happens when a pilot swings above their wing and falls straight back into it, plummeting back to earth. Still, it can be more dangerous to have a problem near the ground, where there’s no time to throw the reserve chute. Over a dozen pilots were killed in paragliding accidents last year.
It’s hard and risky work, but the people who are into paragliding tend to be really into it. As Santos puts it: “I’m a drug dealer, and you’re gonna keep wanting to get high.”
For McGregor, the appeal may also be genetic; he comes from a flying family. His brother Colin, two years older, is a pilot who served in the Royal Air Force, flying sorties out of Kuwait in Tornado fighter-bombers during the most recent Iraq War.
“He doesn’t talk about it very much. I was in makeup one day. I don’t remember what film I was working on. And he was flying down in the Gulf at the time. And a bunch of actors standing around having coffee, and my phone buzzed, and I had a text from him. And it said ‘Emergency landed into Basra last night, had to sleep under canvas at the side of the runway, got mortared all night with small arms fire around the perimeter, have a nice day.’ And I said ‘guys, we’ve got to stop moaning about the fucking coffee right now.’”
If that weren’t enough to put his brother’s life in perspective, a lift in the backseat of a Tornado was. “He took me through some incredible maneuvers, we did a lap of Scotland in an hour and a half. Coming back up the west coast we flew between Skye and the mainland, and he went really low over the sea. He put the wings back, put on the full afterburners, and we took off like a missile. We got to top speed, he put the plane on its end, and we shot straight up in the sky, 14,000 feet in four seconds. It was insane. I was sick as a fucking pig. And I’ve never felt prouder of him.”
McGregor and I slog back up the hill again and again, and begin to get the rhythm of launching ourselves and soaring down the hill, borne along by our gliders as our shadows chase below us. These moments of utter freedom occur in between a Buster Keaton montage of hill slides, wing collapses, and crash landings. Each time, McGregor shakes his head, laughing.
“I’m amazed, the stages of doing something like this, where you land it and think, ‘that’s it, I’ve cracked it,’ and two minutes later you’re on your arse. Again.” Still, he’s something of a natural at it, throwing himself off the hill, looping down smoothly to a toe-touch landing far below. “You’ll be launching off mountains in no time,” Santos tells him.
McGregor, shouldering his lines for one last flight before the sunset, is amenable to the idea. Rarely averse to challenges, he likes to push himself to his limits, not out of some adrenaline-junkie posturing, but rather out of an insatiable curiosity. His success as an actor, especially in Hollywood films, has afforded him the flexibility to follow his interests wherever they’ll take him. And he means to take advantage of this freedom.
Out in Mongolia and Siberia, in the vast lonely spaces beyond the pressures and influences brought by his celebrity, in places where what you do is more important than who you are — that’s where McGregor says he’s learned the great lessons he’s brought home with him.
“There were moments that were really difficult, that drove us nuts, like the mud in Mongolia where you just wished you weren’t there at all,” he reflects. “We never felt like quitting, but there were some very challenging things. But those are the moments you look back on and enjoy the most, really.”
Folding up his glider in the setting sun, he looks back up at the practice hill. “This is the hill of dreams,” he says, without irony. “I think I’ve begun a new chapter in my life.
“I can really imagine standing on one of the Munros and flying off it,” he continues. “They’re these mountains in Scotland that are over 3000 feet. There’re lots of people who make it their life’s work to climb them all. You’d just have to find a really good rucksack for the paraglider.” He says it in a faraway voice, like he’s already planning the whole adventure out in his mind.