Features | Jan 01, 2019
Down for 50

Annette O'Neil

It was the best worst idea (or, perhaps, the worst best idea).  It came, as all the best worst ideas do, over coffee.

It bubbled up one wintry Slovak afternoon as my partner, Joel Strickland, and I were taking a mid-tunnel-camp break. As I snuggled down into a beanbag chair with my thermos, I checked my phone. A dear friend—the inimitable Melissa Dawn Burns—popped up to invite us to visit her in Alaska, where she and her husband have been flying planes over the wilderness at the world’s end. I’d never been to Alaska. I’d always wanted to go.

Suddenly, a thought occurred out of the ether. I turned to Joel.

“Hey, do you want to jump in all 50 states?”

“No,” he said, without missing a beat.

A few moments went by. I kept scrolling.

“Wait. Yes.”

And suddenly, it was real.


The project soon became a favorite dinner-table conversation. We talked about the conveyance: a 20-year-old motorhome (unforgivably fuel-hungry but just as big and comfortable as a proper apartment). We talked about the schedule. (Joel is a Briton and would have a six-month visa in the States, making May to October the best window.) We talked about the route. (We’d wrap clockwise from Arizona back to Texas to follow the season, picking off Alaska, Florida and Hawaii via domestic flights.)

Most often, we talked about the why. By this point, Joel and I had been traveling the world to pursue airsports for years, and it had started to feel a touch purposeless. From the start, this effort had presented a way to use our immense privilege to do something meaningful. After all, we didn’t want the trip to be just about the simple act of jumping. We wanted it to be about finding common ground in a fractured world, illustrating how diverse micro-communities like that of skydiving can foster the kind of inclusiveness, mutual respect and healthy discourse that the world needs right now. After some thought, we decided to dedicate the trip to Operation Enduring Warrior’s skydiving program.

We decided to call the project “Down For 50.” We couldn’t think of a name that did a better job of capturing the implicit great big nod of assent that the effort represented. (Are you down for this? Yes. Really? Yes. Down for all 50? Yes.)

And indeed, we were down for all 50. Six months after our initial departure from Skydive Arizona in Eloy on October 16, 2018, we landed our parachutes at the Dillingham Airfield on Hawaii’s North Shore. We were deep into debt on miracles, but we’d done it: We’d skydived in all 50 states in a single trip.

There are a few things I wish I’d known before we set out on this crazy adventure. Here’s what we learned. If you’re cooking up a similar best worst idea, maybe these will help you. Godspeed.

Be Open to Generosity

Arguably, the biggest lesson of this project has been this: Our worldwide sky family is full of people who want to help crazy dreamers meet lofty goals. It’s full of fellow strivers—of people who want to prove what’s possible, especially if that includes helping other people along the way. We were overwhelmed by the positive response. We were welcomed and toasted and treated and supported and connected and advised and befriended. When we asked for help, we got it. And that help saved our hides over and over again.

Embrace Intensity

Down For 50 seemed so straightforward (if enormous) in the beginning: thousands of miles of freeway; many, many drop zones (pleasantly familiar in a template sort of way); a few domestic flights; a few spreadsheets; a set of Google maps; a couple of calendars; a budget. Joel and I had put together and carried out significantly more complicated itineraries in our day, and we certainly will again.

In retrospect, I should have been reminded of a lurking lesson from my pre-cutaway days of producing big television commercials: With scope comes complexity, no matter how simple the framework. With a project this big, variables leak in from innumerable gaps, most of which, even individually, have the power to grind the entire project to an undignified halt. Big projects require constant triage. It’s intense. Embrace it or be crushed by it.

Do It for a Good Reason

Speaking of which: In week number one (!),

the motorhome’s transmission died a miserable death outside Flagstaff, Arizona. That cost a cool $7,000 to fix. (Bye-bye, fun jumping budget.) Another: Joel had an accident in Missouri that resulted in major surgery and a hospitalization.

(The full story on that is up on downfor50.org, if you’re curious. It’s dramatic.) Yet another: Hurricane Florence decided to meet up with us in the Carolinas, chasing us deep into Appalachia. The storm put us on a one-drop-zone-per-day schedule for a week to play catch-up.

We had padded our schedule and budget to accommodate eventualities, but none as major as these. If we hadn’t been unshakably determined to finish, we would have chugged to a stop, let the project snuff itself out and waited for the rest of the world to forget about it. If we hadn’t had the fire of our convictions pushing us forward—specifically, the determination to do Operation Enduring Warrior proud—there’s no way we would have finished the trip. We needed to be operating in service of something greater than another feather in our collective cap.

Mind Your Expectations (and Treasure the Contrast Between Expectation and Reality)

Expectations play both the muse and nemesis of any adventurer. After all, it’s the imagined journey that compels you forward into the acting-out of it, but it’s the richness of the reality, with all its warts and red alerts, that truly makes the experience. Down For 50 was no exception.

In the grand tradition of great adventures, Down For 50 was not at all what we expected. That said: We haven't only been brutalized by happenstance. We've been handed generous gifts by it, too. We didn’t get to spend the time we wanted to with each drop zone community, but we did manage to build friendships with a few absolute legends. We didn’t get to jump nearly as much as we’d intended, but the jumps that we were able to make included some absolutely landmark experiences. (I dazzle to even think about 'em: jumping out of a floatplane formation in Alaska; demoing into a craft brewery in Wyoming wearing creepy elephant masks; high-fiving a whole elementary school with Jump for Joy ... the list goes on.) We have learned a great deal about our personal priorities, too: about the tools of diet, activity and mental habit that keep us in trim, and about the actual amount that we can accomplish in a day (which is more than we thought but less than we hoped).

We also got a comprehensive feel for what American skydiving looks like right now—and it's a lot different than I thought it was. Firstly: The live-on-the-drop-zone-in-your-RV era appears to be pretty much over, pretty much everywhere. (There are exceptions, of course, but far fewer than I'd thought.) Secondly, the sky family feels like its balkanized segments are uniting under one banner. More non-professional athletes than ever are working in a fecund multidisciplinary context, building communities and skill sets that bridge skydiving, paragliding, BASE jumping, tunnel flying and speedflying. Finally: Students at the drop zones we visited were reliably receiving a detailed education. I was constantly impressed by the quality of instruction I saw in process. I’m proud of us. Really, I am.

I keep pressing these lessons into the rapidly curing cement of the new pathways this mad project has laid in my head and my heart. What a long, strange trip it's been.

And now, we’re ready for the next adventure.

To learn more about the project or contribute to the causes it supports, visit downfor50.org. See the whole 50-state trip in four minutes at vimeo.com/downfor50.

About the Author

Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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