How else would one achieve both peace and terror at the same time than by being slowly hoisted 2,000 feet into the air, supported only by wicker and nylon?
The peace part? Seeing and hearing the world from 2,000 feet up. Expansive. Serene. Picturesque. Eerily quiet.
The terror part? The whole wicker/nylon thing. There is no parachute, safety line, assisting helicopter or giant net in which to land. Its you versus gravity, and the only weapon in your arsenal is a bunch of stuff that any bloke could buy at Pier One.
From what I understand, hot air also plays a factor.
I am told that traveling by hot air balloon is extremely safe, but all I could think of is that one scene in The Wizard of Oz where the “Wizard” is floating away from Dorothy, responding to her beckoning by shouting “I can’t come back! I don’t know how it works! Goodbye, folks!”
As far as I was concerned, there was no chance of me surviving this whole thing. Oh, I covered it pretty well. But deep down I was screaming like a little girl, filled by a terror that defies words, unless the word is “AHHHHHHHHHH”.
My balloon pilot’s name was Andrew, known by his friends as “Andy”. I, too, was his friend, because he held my life in his hands. That is, in his basket, which was attached to a 70,000 cubic foot balloon. First came the inflation by a giant fan powered by a lawn mower engine. When a hot-air balloon is first inflated, it is a normal-air balloon since there is no heat to speak of yet. Fire was the chosen warming medium, fed by propane to a giant burner which I would later discover is a leading cause of hair loss in Hot Air balloon pilots. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH. Hot air rises, thus the balloon stood up as if someone was taking attendance. As it warmed, it stood and even started to lift its basket, stopped only by the thick rope tied to a van’s bumper.
“Okay, Adam, we’re going to have you get in, so just use these footholds and climb right up and stand in this corner of the basket.”
“Right, then. Here we go.” I was assuring myself that this was still a good idea, all the while remembering the waver I had just signed. So many words, such fine print. Should I have actually read it? I remembered a few phrases like “power lines” and “loss of life” and “printed on recycled paper”. Why could I remember the recycled paper thing but not much else? It didn’t matter. It was time to go.
Balloon untied from van. Balloon and passengers floating. People taking pictures. Trees, as seen by birds. Birds, as seen by planes. 600 feet. 800 feet. 1,000 feet. More flame, greater altitude, wider expanse.
Andy the pilot was making it seem like a piece of cake, this whole flying thing. Actually, we were only abiding by the laws of thermodynamics, with law #1 being “make sure the basket is steel-reinforced.” I like that rule. It gave me peace as we hit the 2,000 foot mark.
How do you describe being up in a Hot Air Balloon? Water towers. That’s the first thing I noticed. Jackson County’s landscape is dotted with water towers, from the hovering big blue near Dunkin’ Donuts to the campus water tower emblazoned with “JCC”. Miles apart yet simultaneously visible from up here. Cars look like they’re being driven by ants. People look like ants. Unsurprisingly, you can’t see actual ants, but I am quite sure they’d look small from up here. It’s quite breathtaking, and the only word I could seem to master at the time was a long, drawn out wowwwww. All five senses are affected. You see everything. You hear nothing, since most of the noise comes from the surface. It’s all quiet except for the occasional firing of the burner, which you don’t mind because you know that’s what is keeping you up. You feel your head burning, but again, no problem there. The air even smells different, as if you are experiencing an exclusive oxygen/nitrogen mix that other humans don’t know about. I didn’t taste much because my mouth was open most of the time.
I asked Andy the Pilot if 20-plus years of ballooning has changed the way he sees the world. He mentioned that he has developed a deep appreciation for cartography. “Every road, every curve, every river and lake — they’re all represented perfectly on maps. It’s pretty amazing.” As he said this, Andy pointed out some deer running from one bank of trees to another. I wondered about the possibility of hunting from this altitude, being that we’re in the most effective deer blind ever. But then I thought about the wisdom of having a gun in a hot-air balloon. Then I wondered about fishing from a hot air balloon, if you could find a long-enough line, it could be done. I eventually decided not to ask Andy about either. What if he decided to “accidentally” bump the eject button? Does a hot-air balloon even have an eject button? Again, I decided not to ask. It was just too beautiful.
It was then that Andy began to brief me regarding the landing procedure. He never said it aloud but I would guess that he was thinking to himself “this is where I’m glad you signed that waiver.” As this giant balloon holding an average size basket which held a giant person was preparing to land, there were just a few things I needed to have in mind. For example: just stand there. Andy the Pilot made it really clear that I was NOT to get out of the basket for any reason whatsoever, because the sudden change in weight (was that a fat joke?) would cause him to go zooming back into the air. Another rule: Don’t touch anything except THIS HANDLE PART of the basket. I think Andy had an experience where a passenger thought it would be best to suddenly turn the tanks up to max during the final descent, which would negate the whole landing. Not this guy. I was too scared. “Oh, and one more thing — we may go kinda sideways and skid, but we should be fine.”
Okay. We should be fine.
And fine we were. Andy did a masterful job of landing us in a Jackson County golf course with absolutely no sideways and skidding. In fact, the landing was about as peaceful as the other parts, except for the golfers yelling at us. Big deal. Take a mulligan. Tell your friends about what happened on the course today. But put that 9-iron down. Please.
Actually, the golfers were really cool about it. While we were up in the air, floating over people’s homes (many of which had very nice shingles, I might add), children would scream “Land in our backyard!”, which we didn’t because of the whole pit bull thing. Instead we found ourselves to be the new obstacle for the 8th hole.
Some nice people helped wrap up the balloon and lift the basket on to the tailgate shelf of the spotter van which followed along as we floated. All told, we traveled about 3 miles as the crow flies, which is a unit of measure that I now understand because I saw them flying under us.