Dear Ann, Fereydoun, Souren, Natalyn, Tour,


Regretfully, Leigh Anne and I will not be able to attend the commemoration gathering for Arjan in England. We hope the gathering will be a fabulous celebration of Arjan's fantastic and exciting life and that everyone's grief over their personal loss will be diminished by a new appreciation for the quantity and quality of living that Arjan crammed into his much too short time with us.


I spent many weeks trying to think of what words to share with everyone at the commemoration and was quite frustrated by my inability to concisely express who my friend Arjan was to me. Just when I was ready to give up, a piece of Arjan's history found its way to me. The following simple story most elegantly gives insight into who my friend Arjan was. I hope you enjoy the story and find it worthy of sharing with everyone at the gathering.




The Ambassador of Paragliding




That's how Arjan always greeted me, the first time and every time thereafter. And if you want to hear how he said it, just close your eyes and have his father, Fereydoun, say it. The likeness of their voices is remarkable.


We, Arjan's Tucson friends, wish we could be with you all today in England, to laugh and cry, tell funny stories, and learn more about our very private friend. Arjan was a wonderful person and he had many wonderful friends. It seems that Arjan allowed his friends to know only a part of himself, and now that he has left us, we are all trying to piece together the complete picture. The following story is a sliver from the life of the Arjan that I knew.


In September of 1992, Arjan was in the Owens Valley of southern California for a paragliding competition. The Owens Valley is the most famous hang gliding and paragliding site in the world because of its consistent "big air," hot rising thermals that carry passive aircraft high into the sky, sometimes over 20,000 feet above sea level. Pilots from all over the world come to the Owens to test themselves and experience their passion on the grandest scale.



White Mts


The White Mountains of the Owens Valley. Photo by Leo Geary from a paraglider, 1992.


Also in the Owens for the competition was a young man named Leo Geary. Arjan and Leo had never met and probably had never even heard of each other, but shared some common traits. Both were explorers and adventurers, world travelers with a zest for living that manifested itself in activities like paragliding that, for most of us, are so frightening we can not see the appeal. But to Arjan and Leo, paragliding in the Owens -- riding strong currents of lifting air to altitudes several miles above the earth with no cockpit or motor to isolate them from the experience, looking down at the White Mountains and the Sierra Nevada (home of the highest mountain in the continental United States) as only a bird might, flying great distances over impassable terrain in simple aircraft of nothing more than fabric and string that they carried on their backs -- was an activity that gave them not fear, but rather a joy and elation that few of our species may ever know.


On September 23, Leo launched his paraglider from the Gunter Launch in the White Mountains and had a spectacular flight that carried him all the way to Coaldale Junction, Nevada. The flight was Leo's personal best and he must have felt an immense satisfaction with his accomplishment. But, as is always the case with these sorts of adventures, the practical details, such as a ride back to the Owens, had not been prearranged. Adventurers like Arjan and Leo can focus their energies intensely on one primary goal, like flying cross country, and not be bothered or preoccupied with secondary details such as getting back home. The secondary details always seem to work themselves out and if they don't, the satisfaction of having accomplished something really significant and extraordinary, the primary goal, more than compensates for the discomfort and insecurity that results from unattended-to details. Hitch-hiking or not knowing where one might be sleeping that night actually makes an adventure more epic.


Leo tried hitch-hiking, but had no luck. He called the competition organizer, Mark Axen, back at the competition headquarters in Bishop, California and asked if anyone would be willing to come to Nevada and pick him up. Arjan, who had never met Leo, volunteered to make the several hour drive. That Arjan volunteered to help out a stranger was not at all out of character, especially since Leo was not really a stranger at all; he was a fellow paraglider pilot.


Arjan drove the highway to Coaldale Junction alone. Leaving Bishop, he drove north up Highway 6 which follows the western base of the 14,000 foot White Mountains, cutting across the dry and dusty alluvial fan at 5,000 feet. At the northern toe of the Whites, the highway bends to the east and climbs up to 7,000 foot Montgomery Pass in the Toiyabe National Forest. Another 30 miles across the high desert salt marshes of Nevada and Arjan arrived in Coaldale. The drive probably began late in the day, around or after sunset.




Part of the aeronautical chart that Arjan flew with in the Owens Valley. Bishop is in the bottom left and Coaldale Junction is in the upper right. The mountain range in between is the White Mountains. Highway 6 is the vertical line on the left.


It is very difficult to explain how magnificent the country that Arjan traveled that day is. Everything in the Owens is exaggerated and polarized; enormous mountains and deep valleys, desolate deserts and lush alpine forests, baking hot sun and freezing cold nights. When water used to flow in the Owens, before Los Angeles sucked the valley dry, the water leached salts from the soil and deposited stalagmite sculptures in the present day salt flats; unearthly landscapes framed by pure white cumulonimbus clouds and deep blue skies. The Owens is a harsh, brutal environment but it has a beauty that, for many, makes it a spirit lifting place. Arjan often spoke fondly of the Owens. It was a very powerful place for him. When Arjan found Leo in Coaldale, the sky was probably big, clear, and filled with stars.




Salt stalagmites, "Tufa Formations," in the Owens Valley


If Arjan's drive to Coaldale had been serene and peaceful, the ride back was probably anything but. Leo was undoubtedly happy and excited and the recounting of his flight probably lasted all the way to Bishop. Arjan was so enraptured with paragliding, there is no doubt he empathized with Leo, shared in the excitement of Leo's flight, and became part of Leo's experience and memory.


After Arjan's accident, Ken deRussy, a hang gliding and paragliding instructor that Arjan had immense respect for, wrote of Arjan:



Ken has a gift for being able to verbalize experiences, feelings, and sensations that are often intangible and even unknown to the rest of us. It is one of the qualities that make him the great instructor that Arjan admired. Once again he has concisely verbalized what many of us have felt on a subconscious level, that Arjan could make us feel special.


That night, driving back to Bishop, Arjan probably made Leo feel very special.


The next day, September 24, Leo's mother, Carol, drove to the Owens Valley from the San Francisco area to see for the first time her son fly his paraglider. When she arrived in the afternoon, she was informed that Leo had just fatally crashed.


As Carol tells the rest of the story:




Carol had Arjan to console her through the first few days of her grief with his "quiet strength" and kind, sincere words; the same skills he used to make us all feel special and good about ourselves. Arjan later sent Carol directions and a map to where Leo had landed in Coaldale Junction. She visited the site on June 19, 1993 and wrote Arjan from the landing zone:


I believe the comfort that Arjan offered to Carol, he would offer to us today as we grieve his passing. As Carol felt Leo's elation in the landing zone, each of us has in our memory some of Arjan's life energy and with our imagination we can hear his comforting words.


There is very little that makes Arjan's passing easier to accept. There is no understanding or explanation that makes sense of this tragedy. We have only our memories, our imagination, an appreciation of the life that Arjan lived, the comforting words of each other, and the buffer of time to insulate us from our grief. As Arjan comforted Carol, she now offers us the following insight, based on her experiences:





Arjan, on top of the world, looking toward other adventures.


Good-bye Arjan. We love you and miss you very much.

horizonal rainbow rule

© Copyright Scott Horton 1998 All rights reserved

Note from Caroling: Arjan Ala crashed fatally on March 1, 1998. The above is a letter to Arjan's family. As of February, 2004, I have lost contact with Scott Horton. Please send any news.

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