Before Rick Walters died, I’d been speeding north on Highway 395 in that dreamy, commuter state of mind when a tumbleweed barreled across my lane. I looked left at the Sierra with her unnerving downdrafts, then right toward the cross hairs of runways and tethered, white sailplanes of the Minden-Tahoe Airport — a mecca to which glider pilots pilgrimage for lift. I reflected then on how the thrill of soaring must be what most inspires pilots. What I missed seeing is how the motivation to a lifetime commitment runs much deeper than that.
It was 28 years ago when I met Rick, glider pilot and my former brother-in-law. Encouraged by a father and uncle who were both accomplished glider pilots, Rick began soaring in 1972 at the age of 18. His sister recently shared a story of when Rick in the mid-eighties won the 15-Meter National Championships with the disadvantage of a non-flap standard class glider. During his podium speech he made the now-frequently-quoted statement, “... that just goes to show you, you don’t need no stinkin’ flaps!” The crowd roared.
Perhaps it was that rush which gave him the confidence in 1990 to walk away from a Silicon Valley engineering career and move to Minden. Over the years he won five National Championships and competed in four World Championships, chaired the Soaring Society of America’s Board, was a Minden-Tahoe Airport Advisor, an Airsailing Trustee and a frequent competition director and was featured in Architectural Digest for his green home building craftsmanship. Though his achievements cultivated enormous respect with pilots, friends and family, there were days where he didn’t finish his flight task and landed out. I watched how in order to log thousands of soaring hours, he ignored his brown, weedy lawn, decided not to marry or have children, battled some serious health issues and dismissed a retirement account. At times we thought he was crazy and yet how often did we look at our paycheck’s accumulated vacation hours and wonder if this was enough?
As I got to know him and his challenges, I watched how it took more than thrill, more than guts and determination — though these were his qualities I have forever esteemed — he was in love with what he did! I imagine when soaring he must have entered a kind of “slipstream,” where heartbeat and wing slice the air, where risk, intuition and faith part, then rejoin. A place inside himself immune to success, failure or what others think. For I’ve seen how after he’d landed, staked his ship and strode into the airport bar, he didn’t dwell on his performance — he didn’t need to. Instead he listened to others’ trials and tribulations while his thick silver hair gleamed as if the sun and wind blew through even while he slept.
Rick Walters died on June 17 in a road bike accident.
His death, though I’m heartsick with grief and terribly saddened by loss, has also uplifted me. For on those days when I want to run from responsibilities, frustrations and disappointments, when I have to look in the mirror and admit, yes, circumstances have gotten tougher but my longings have not changed, I remember Rick.
Now on my drive through the valley I look up and, if I’m lucky, I see the flash of long white wings: a glider has eased into the curve of the earth, its tow-plane umbilical has let go. I know the pilot has his eye on the gauge and hand on the stick and I get butterflies thinking about what it would take to be so committed, to be so alive.
Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.