Two years ago, Eli Castleberry saw someone fly off a volcano.
“When I saw this guy, I was like, ‘I’m in,’” Castleberry said.
He bugged the guy to let him try paragliding.
“He said no,” Castleberry said.
Four months later, he ran into the guy. Castleberry made his case again.
The guy agreed, and Castleberry got to fly.
“Next day, I bought everything,” he said.
It satisfied an eerie craving that the Forsyth County native had always had whenever he stepped to the edge of a cliff: to jump.
“I know logically I’m going to die,” Castleberry said. “But I have this massive pull for, ‘What if?’”
Now he knows: he glides above lakes and forests and volcanos. One day, he’d like to fly through some remote area, just himself with camping equipment, food and water, for days at a time. Maybe the Rockies even.
“It just seems like one of the most freeing and adventurous things you can do,” he said. “Finding out what’s possible. Finding out how much you can stretch yourself.”
It’s a natural next step for Castleberry, who works as a whitewater kayaking guide in North Carolina during the summers and in Chile during the winters. Even when he’s back in Forsyth County, around the lake that he grew up on and a large family he grew close to, it’s only temporary. There is some other adventure for Castleberry to seek. This year, he’ll stick around for a week or so then head to California with his girlfriend to explore the California coast in his renovated Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van,
Castleberry found this life of adventure after trying a more conventional one. He played sports growing up and at North Forsyth High School. He went to college.
But Castleberry was also a “dare-devilish” kid with an independent spirit, he said. At 12, he had a boating license and drove around the lake to visit friends before he could drive. He cut lawns for money. He had his own bank account.
There was no adrenaline to be found from school. After two years at college, Castleberry’s “soul just felt heavy every day,” he said. He came home and managed Tam’s BackStage restaurant for a few years. He tried another semester of school but knew after two weeks of class that it was pointless.
“I finished the semester and was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he said.
The life of adventure started in earnest in a kayak. “Anyone want to go kayaking?” a friend asked on Facebook. Castleberry was off to his first kayaking trip: Saratoga River, Class 3 rapids.
He went down river and was overwhelmed. At one point, his kayak flipped and got stuck on a rock. He was underwater, squirming and fighting to get loose. Thirty to 40 seconds went by.
“I thought I was done,” he said.
Then Castleberry tried letting go. He stopped fighting.
Suddenly, the boat popped back up, and he continued on.
“It was such an adrenaline [rush],” he said. “It was the most adrenaline rush I’ve ever had.”
Two years later, Castleberry got a job as a whitewater rafting guide and instructor at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. Their top guides go to Chile, in South America. After one season at NOC, Castleberry was invited to work the winter season.
There he found the “mecca” of adventure sports: backpacking, climbing, horseback riding, paragliding. Natural glacier lakes. Volcanoes.
“You can do whatever you want to do,” Castleberry said.
For three years now, he’s followed the rhythm of the seasons: summers working at the NOC in North Carolina, winters leading whitewater kayaking trips in Chile.
“We started calling it cowboy freedom,” Castleberry said.
Castleberry counts the river as one of his best teachers.
“It really shows you who you are,” he said.
Lately, Castleberry has found he doesn’t seek the adrenaline rush like he used to. Instead, he wants to be present, “tuned into each second,” he said.
“I want to be focused in the moment,” Castleberry said, “in control of my emotions and my physical state.”
Being away from his family “is the hardest part of all this
living,” he said. He’s missed birthdays. He’s missed the last six Christmases.
“I have the same conversations every year,” he said. “It gets harder for me to leave.”
But the adventure pulls him back out into the world. His next dream is to work in Antarctica. He’d like to visit British Columbia, the Alps, Norway someday.
One of Castleberry’s worst fears is being confined to a jail cell, restricted and captive, unable to explore, unable to live.
He figures some people around the world are forced to exist that way. Others do it by choice, “and it’s super, super sad,” he said.
“I don’t operate that way,” Castleberry said. “It would suffocate me.”