The High Life

Sweet Van Living and Paragliding in Jackson Hole

Pulling up to a stop sign on a July day in Jackson, I glance up at the Snow King summit to see two paragliders dangling from the bluebird sky above me. They hover easily at 7,800 feet, then dive bomb into the tree tops only to pull up at the last second and glide back into the wide open air. I recognize the two parachutes as belonging to Becca Bredehoft and Cade Palmer, world-class paragliders who make their home here in the summers, then move on to New Zealand and other magical countries in the colder months to continue chasing down their daily pursuit of flying. Realizing they’ll be a little late for our interview, I pull over to watch them criss-crossing each other in the sky, their movements confident and trusting, dancers in the sky.  

An hour later, the thermostat taps out at 90 degrees as I step into the Mercedes Sprinter van expecting a heat wave. Instead, it feels like I’ve entered the perfect desert oasis. The reclaimed barn wood floor is cool against my feet, a fan whirs above our heads, and Becca slides a long drawer out from under the large bed where the refrigerator hides, pulling out a sparkling water and cracking it open as she leans back against the bed.

“This is home,” she says, her shoulder-length chestnut hair tucked under a blue-brimmed trucker hat. “At least ‘til the snow comes.”

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The space envelopes me into its coziness. Wallpaper made out of historical USGS topographic maps of Bridger-Teton National Forest line the ceiling. A long butcher-block countertop sits atop custom made cabinets, and cubbies and hooks and hiding places make it feel spacious and unconstrained. 

Becca, 32, and Cade, 30, couldn’t be more relaxed in the small living space that sits between the front seats of the Sprinter and the lofted bed that takes up most of the back.

“Having your house always with you lets you spend more time in it,” Cade explains. “We’re never home, so why spend money on rent?” He makes a good point. While some people might see this as simply “van life” or glorified camping, Cade and Becca soak in every moment living the dream of adventure. They can bring their van anywhere into the national forest or BLM land and from there, launch out into the open air to do what they love most: flying. The two spend the majority of their allotted 365 days each year doing just that – “We get antsy, especially if the weather’s perfect,” Cade says of the days they don’t get out. In the summer months, the couple lives here in their van and work for Jackson Hole Paragliding in the mornings as tandem pilots, giving visitors the experience of a lifetime. Their downtime is usually from about 1-5 p.m. when they see friends and get chores done, then they head out for solo flights in the evenings, taking in sunsets and snapping pictures as they drift over the braids of the Snake River or a rugged, 10,000 foot summit.

Becca, a Montana native, fell in love with paragliding at 12 and was solo flying by the time she was 14. Her eyes light up every time she talks about the weather, the wind or anything having to do with flying. “The weather is really good for high altitude, and we have the tram to fly from,” she says of why she’s spent 13 summers in Jackson. “Plus, the flying community here is amazing.” In 2009, the same summer she and Cade started dating, she decided to start documenting the spirit of the Jackson flying community through photographs. “It took a couple years to really get comfortable, but I taught myself to fly one-handed while looking through the lens of the camera,” she says of her photography techniques. “I feel super fortunate to get a really unique perspective of the landscape around Jackson Hole, and I love being able to capture and share those moments.”

Cade is on his 7th summer here and got bit by the paragliding bug when he was 19. Originally from Boise, Idaho, he’s at home in a t-shirt and cargo shorts and can’t help but smile about pretty much everything. “A few days a season we get the perfect rising air to do cross-country runs,” he says. “I think the JHMR record is something like 200 miles.” Cross-country flights are when you can stay aloft for hours without landing. On these days, the two will launch from the top of the Jackson Hole tram and fly all the way to Grand Teton and back in just a few hours, an incredible feat when you consider it takes most people two days to summit the peak from the valley floor.

They weren’t always living this large – literally. They started out in an Astro van with a dog and drove down to Costa Rica for six months. “We painted the van with chalkboard paint,” Cade says. “At all the border crossings, we’d just hand out chalk to the kids and hang out.” That trip was the test of the relationship – and of small spaces. After that, they knew expanding to a Sprinter and being able to fly from anywhere was a shared dream.

Still touring the van, Becca pulls out a drawer to reveal cork lining instead of shelf paper (it helps dampen rattles while driving), then explains how the stove works and where the oven will go (their next project). They’ve used Baltic birch wood for the cabinet doors, finishing them with a soft, deep blue paint and Tung oil to let the grain show through. Electrical outlets and celling lights are powered by the large solar panel installed on the roof of the Sprinter, and they can be three days off the grid in bad weather before their energy gets drained. They’ve done all the work themselves in just the past two months, taking it from a generic Sprinter to a tiny home worthy of the cover of Interior Design magazine.

The space under the bed holds most of their personal items – “Everything inside the van has to have at least two different uses,” Becca jokes – while a trailer behind the Sprinter holds all their gear. They each have multiple types of canopies for the different types of weather and flying.

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Between hauling all of their equipment and the amount of work that’s gone into the van, I wonder out loud if they ever question their lifestyle. Puzzled stares come at me from both directions, and a moment of silence hangs in the air. The two share a knowing look, then Cade says, “If you’re going to write about it, you’re going to have to get in the air.”

I assume they’re joking, and we wind down the interview and go our separate ways. Less than 15 hours later, I get a text from Cade. Open slot at 10 a.m. You ready? My stomach lurches in excitement – and a little bit of fear. I’d never actually thought about going paragliding before. What if I got nauseous and threw up? What if my occasional fear of heights reared its ugly head? Pushing these thoughts away, I knew I couldn’t not try it, so an hour later I find myself walking out of the JHMR gondola, taking in the low lying clouds hovering in the valley below. The tall grass and wildflowers tickles my calves, and I quicken my pace to keep up with Cade, who’s wearing a 60-pound backpack that carries our ticket to ride off the mountain: a tandem paraglide. He unrolls the giant canopy along a grassy incline, checking to make sure the mass of colorful lines aren’t tangled, then pops a helmet on my head and starts instructing me on how we’ll take off.

“I’ll be facing backwards, so just wait for me to tell you to start walking,” he says. “Then I’ll have you run for a few steps, and before you know it we’ll be in the air.” His tone is calm, matter-of-fact, as if we’re about to do the easiest thing in the world. He hands me a pair of gloves. “Then you’ll just sit back like you’re in a chair and enjoy the ride.” While he clips me into the harness – it feels more like a large potato sack, supposedly this “chair” he speaks of – I take in the jagged peaks of the Tetons, imagining what it might feel like to circle the Grand with my feet dangling in the open air. 

Cade yells to start walking, then to run. I take a few quick steps before my feet pummel against nothing instead of the hard ground. “You can sit back now,” he laughs. I lean into the surprisingly comfortable potato sack, barely able to contain my giddiness. The world drops below us, and we dip and glide over the gullies and steep rock faces of the mountain. “Let’s touch that tree top,” he says, leaning into a right turn and then swinging his foot gently into the tip of a tall Pine tree. I’m speechless, equally spellbound by this new perspective of the world and the freedom of my body against the summer breeze. Cade lets me take it in, the air in our sail the only sound as we climb higher in a small pool of wind. The feeling is indescribable – we’re flying.

He gives me the control handles, showing me how to pull down on my right hand to turn us to the right. Then he points up above my head. “See the leading edge – that has openings to catch the air and inflate the wing.” Not feeling any of that air sickness I was worried about, I pass the handles back and ask for a demonstration of aerobatics. He turns us fast to the left, and the speed pulls us up in our seats momentarily before dropping us head-first to catch up with the sail, that familiar roller-coaster feel giggling in my stomach.

By the time we come down for a soft landing in a field, I’m pretty sure “the bug” has bit me, too. The multi-colored canopy spreads out behind us and gently flattens on the earth. Becca jumps out from the Sprinter where she’s parked only a few yards away and greets us with a big smile.

“How was it?” she asks. I’m still mostly speechless.

“Amazing,” is all I manage. I glance back and forth between the beautiful wing that has just supported us in flight and the open door of the Sprinter, sunlight bouncing off the dishes drying by the sink. My heart pumps with adventure and the thought of being back in the air. Sensing my newfound interest in their way of life, they remind me their Astro van is still for sale.

“What about the new one?” I ask, seriously pondering a lifestyle overhaul.

“We think we’ll have it about five years,” Cade says.

I question them on what they’ll do after that, but they only look at each other and shrug. “Five years is a really long way away for us,” Becca laughs. Living by the wind and the weather, today is the only day that concerns them right now. That, and of course, where they’ll launch from this evening to get the perfect flight.

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Combo Trip