Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog by Steph Davis (Touchstone Books)
Americans love to rave about their individual freedoms. Ironically, most shackle their lives to desires and expectations other than their own and grind out their days without ever bothering to discover their genuine loves and passions. Even more tragic, many of those who do know their hearts can’t summon the courage to take the action true love requires.
Steph Davis is not one of those people. She has no place among Teddy Roosevelt’s “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Steph Davis is one of the rarest American breed—a free individual, one of the freest in the land, and she’s cut the whole cloth of her life from her hearts’ desire.
Freedom isn’t easy, however, as any person who has tried to live it knows, and Learning to Fly begins with Davis thrown low by twinned disasters—the disintegration of her marriage and the collapse of her professional relationship with the clothing company for whom she’d been a “climbing ambassador” for most of a decade. Unmoored and depressed, Davis drifts into Boulder, Colorado with little besides her truck, her climbing gear, her beloved dog, Fletch, and a wild, inexplicable urge to skydive.
Inexplicable because intentionally taking a fall is anathema to a world-class climber like Steph Davis who does a fair bit of solo climbing (climbing without a rope). For nearly two decades, she’d kept herself alive by not falling, but Davis senses crucial life lessons waiting through the doors of skydiving, of voluntarily jumping, and in typical fashion, she throws herself whole hog into the parachuting world, learning in quick succession to skydive, BASE jump (parachuting from earthbound objects like buildings, antennas, bridges (spans), and cliffs (earth)), and fly wingsuits.
Davis is, of course, Learning to Fly, it’s a fascinating process, and through her new passion, she returns to her old one, climbing. As she falls in love with BASE jumping, the extreme becomes routine, and before we’ve blinked twice, she’s jumping Moab’s 450-foot tall Tombstone before breakfast every windless morning. It’s a wild ride: Davis fights through two accidents, both of which could have been a whole lot worse than they were, falls in love, emotionally nurses beloved Fletch through her final days, and takes us climbing and jumping in Yosemite, Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Utah, Idaho, Switzerland, and Italy. Particularly excellent are her descriptions of soloing the Casual Route and Pervertical Sanctuary on the Long’s Peak Diamond, Colorado’s premier alpine crag; totally mind-blowing is her story of free-solo rock climbing the North Face of Utah’s Castleton Tower—and BASE jumping from the summit.
Davis brings it all off with just the right touches of humility, too, because really, she’s phenomenally good at what she does. She barely has a foot in the same universe as the rest of us. Books are hard to end well, and Steph leaves us with a gorgeous fly-off, wrapping her story of loss and redemption, freedom, love, action, passion, and responsibility into a spectacular leap into a world “vast with possibility” from near the top of the Eiger.
With Learning to Fly, Steph has written a wonderful and inspiring book, a shining example of what soulful courage makes possible, and I couldn’t put the damn thing down. I’m in awe of how much juice she’s able to extract from life–and how well she’s able to write about it.
Almost makes me want to learn to BASE jump–and buy a dog.
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(And a nod to Yulia Brodskaya for creating Learning to Fly’s whimsical and uniquely perfect cover illustration.)
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Disclaimer: Steph Davis is a personal friend of mine, I advised her at a few points while she was proposing and writing Learning to Fly, and she graciously mentioned that help in her acknowledgement statement. That said, I’m extremely proud of my association with Learning to Fly.
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