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The High Note

Pilot Kristine Ciesinski stands next to the glider and gazes across the airfield at the dirt devils swirling in the distance. “Rising air,” she says.

My stomach roils, but I fake a smile.

The sailplane looks elegant, like a trumpeter swan with a large head. Its white body is long and slender, its neck and wings outstretched. The fuselage is constructed of aluminum about the thickness of a beer can.

We strap into the cockpit, Ciesinski in the rear seat and I in the front, so that if we crash, I’ll hit the mountain first. A 180 hp Husky dragging a rope behind motors in front and draws the rope taut. The pilot throttles up and both the glider and tow plane roll and then lift off.

Ciesinski raises her voice above the wind. “I have to fly in tandem with the tow plane,” Her words are code speak for “or the Husky will take us down with it.”

The plane hauls us to 3,000 feet, above the heart of the Tetons and right past the Grand, so close that I nearly forget my fright. A small air pocket snaps me back to reality and sends me grabbing for the armrests. There are no armrests.

The Tetons float by so slowly that I’m not sure whether they or we are moving. Still covered in snow, they are so close that I could throw a rock and hit them. We are too close, close enough to pick out individual stones on The Saddle (top of Granite Canyon). If a wind shear hits us, neither the Husky pilot nor Ciesinski will have time for correction.

“You see that yellow handle?” Ciesinski asks. “On my count, pull it. 3, 2, 1.”

I pull the handle, and my fears fall away with the towrope. All is quiet. We are soaring. Like a bird.

Soaring is new to me, but not to Ciesinski, who has been a pilot since 1998 when she chose flying as a second profession. A world-class dramatic soprano, she has performed in many of the world’s finest opera houses : La Scala in Italy; the Munich State Opera; the Paris Opera; the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Although she still performs, the Tetons are her new stage, the glider her voice. “[Soaring] is the most amazing way to get close to the mountains,” she had said.

The glider banks to the right and away from the peaks. The wings come level with the Big Holes on the horizon. Far below, the valley bursts green as transforming into Ireland.

Ciesinski understands transformation. She moved to the valley in 1995 to fulfill a dream. After many intense years of traveling and performing, she longed to settle down, own dogs, and live in the mountains. When her husband Norman Bailey, the famous English baritone, experienced a mini stroke, she insisted it was time for a change, for a slower pace. “Things shift,” Ciesinski says. “Life takes a turn. You have to reinvent yourself.”

Reinvention meant less touring and more teaching—and the chance to fulfill a dream. Ciesinski laughs and stares out the window as if considering her progress. “After singing and teaching, flying is my second career.”

She banks the sailplane to the left. After a wide, arcing turn, the glider levels out and Table Mountain slides by beneath. A hiker sees the glider’s shadow and looks up. The view from the canopy overwhelms me. The earth passes slowly beneath as if we are sitting still. Melt lines run red like veins through the remaining snowdrifts; grass grows lime green in meadows. Spruces and firs shine evergreen in the morning sun. Evergreens—spruces and firs—dot the hillsides. Grand Targhee slides by. The lifts and buildings are mere dots, and I notice anything that moves: a tourist waving from a lift, a truck rattling up a dirt road. So this is what a bird sees.

If Ciesinski were a bird, she’d be a golden eagle, bold and powerful. No wonder she performs the dramatic opera roles. But during flight, she changes. A calmness, a settling of mind and spirit washes over her and she speaks with the reverence of a person inside a church. “Look over there at one o’clock. There’s the Wind Cave.”

We dip through an air sink, and the flight is smooth again. The atmosphere is not yet warm enough to boil and lift the currents, and Ciesinski points the nose down to increase airspeed. The glider whooshes down and then rises, banks, and sweeps into a turn, the horizon stretching at a forty-five degree angle.

“Do you ever get tired of this?” I ask.

Ciesinski chuckles. “Never. Every time I fly is like reliving the first time. It is overwhelming. It [the landscape] feels like you can reach out and touch it.”

Ciesinski’s smile lingers, reflected off the cockpit canopy. “I love this valley,” she says. “I loved it the first time I laid eyes on it.”

The airport comes into view. She asks, “Do you want to do a wingover?” Before I finish nodding, the nose of the plane points down and my stomach leaves my body. The g-forces pin me to my seat and then the sailplane swooshes straight up, nothing ahead but the blue of heaven. The glider soars up, up, and stalls at the crest of the climb. All of the Earth falls still, and for an instant, I float weightless. The glider falls off to the left, its wings at a ninety-degree angle to the ground, the horizon vertical. Life feels magnificent; all seems possible.

The sailplane swoops into a banking turn and I let out a whoop that lasts until the glider lines up with the runway. Behind me, Ciesinski is laughing. She has given another masterful performance on one of the world's grandest stages.

Story Behind the Story...

Christine Ciesinski became a friend years before this story. We bonded over our mutual love for dogs and literature. I adored her and her husband Norman, who had also been a famous opera singer. At their kitchen counter, Norman, speaking in his trademark radio-quality voice, recited Rudyard Kipling poems from memory. I felt as if I were enjoying private poetry readings recited by Hollywood actor. Chris continued to teach voice at a nearby university and take tourists on glider flights above the Tetons. One day, on the same flight path on which she took me, Chris was unable to pull out of a dive. She and her client crashed and tied. This was the second time a subject of my article died while doing what I had depicted in a magazine article. This piece turned out the be the one that most accurately depicted her post-opera life, and I felt honored that it was quoted worldwide in her obituaries. Three of my photos led her obituaries in national and international newspapers. Our community still feels her loss.


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