As he hopscotched the Himalayas on little more than a glorified parachute, paraglider Eric Reed was so wildly out of place in the sky that he would often catch the curious eye of his soaring brethren.
A Himalayan Griffin vulture, Nepal's version of Oregon's turkey vulture, would often saunter up to Reed and join him for a leg of his aerial marathon, much like a local runner will sometimes follow the Olympic torch as it passes through town.
Eric Reed will speak at a charity dinner Sunday night, put on by the Rogue Valley Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, on Day 1 of the 11th annual Rat Race Paragliding Competition that runs from Sunday, June 23, to Saturday, June 29, off Woodrat Mountain near Ruch.
The dinner, raffle and auction will benefit the Magdalene Home in Medford, which serves pregnant teens and teen mothers.
Dinner will run from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Fiasco Winery, 8035 Highway 238, outside of Ruch. The event is free, but organizers suggest a donation of $20 per person.
"We'd go on a glide together, then ride another thermal together," says Reed, 47, of San Francisco. "We'd stay together 15 to 20 minutes. They were really curious. I just figured, why not?"
The vulture would eventually peel away, and Reed would land on a mountaintop, sleep with his paraglider as a sleeping bag, then wake up and jump off that same mountain and do it all over again.
That's how far off the beaten path Reed and a handful of other paragliding extremists will go during soaring adventures they call "bivouac paragliding," their discipline's version of long-distance hiking.
Instead of single-day paraglide flights from a high point to a valley, bivouacers go from high point to high point over weeks at a time, often from one end of a mountain range to another.
Reed and his friends have traversed the Himalayas, and last year they conquered the Sierra Nevada range from Southern California to Lakeview.
It's as if they're crossing a giant river of air, with mountaintops as their stepping stones, a week's worth of ramen in their packs and faith they'll find the next thermal and avoid valleys.
"It's all invisible," Reed says. "You don't know where the thermals are going to be. The idea is not to land in a valley."
Reed will be in Ruch on Saturday as part of the annual Rat Race hang glider and paraglider competition, when he and more than 200 others will jump off perfectly good Woodrat Mountain and sail the skies in one of the nation's top events of its kind.
Rat Racers will speckle the Applegate Valley skies from Sunday, June 23, through Saturday, June 29, with onlookers relaxing at several of the valley's wineries to soak in the experience.
Reed will be the featured presenter at a Sunday-night dinner-auction benefit at Fiasco Winery to raise money for Medford's Magdalene Home, a charity chosen by the Hunter family, who for decades have let paragliders and hang gliders land at their ranch for free.
The presentation will include a mix of photographs and videos, with Reed describing what it's like to ride with the vultures. He'll focus on his 2010 trip through Nepal that lasted 48 days — including 26 days in the air — and covered 1,170 kilometers. The trip is recognized as a world record within bivouac paragliding's very small and passionate circle.
"The thing that makes bivouac paragliding interesting to a wider audience is that it's a really cool idea that you can travel the entire length of a mountain range," Reed says. "It's pretty incomparable. You're so far off the beaten path."
Hang gliding and paragliding are disciplines in which pilots use kite- or parachute-like contraptions to take advantage of rising currents of air called thermals.
Hang gliders are more like giant kites, while paragliders take advantage of parachute technologies to catch and ride these thermal escalators, much the same way bald eagles reach great heights.
High-altitude gliding is already a sport that could get your life insurance canceled. But bivouacing puts the exclamation point on this extreme sport.
"It's a natural extension," Reed says. "Say you really like to hike, and you think, well, I could take my sleeping bag and tent and hike for two days or three or four.
"It changes your perspective a lot," he says.
Reed got bit by the paragliding bug in 1996, and it turned into a full-blown infection in 2009 when he walked away from his Microsoft office job and into the bivouacing world.
"I started getting excited about flying as far as I could from wherever I can," he says.
His passion led Reed and a small bank of like-minded fliers to the Himalayas, where they averaged about 50 miles of flight a day. Between stints of sleeping alone at launch sites, they found themselves as accidental ambassadors.
"We'd land in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, then realize someone had seen us and had run five miles barefoot to greet us," he says. "They were smiling and super-happy and opened their homes to us.
"I love bivouac paragliding, and I'm excited to tell this story," he says.