Hot Air

As a kid, I found a picture in a textbook of hot air balloons drifting over the Loire Valley in France. It was magical. For all my life, that picture has been lodged in my brain and I’ve longed to ride, just once, in a hot air balloon anywhere.

So when a half-off Groupon for a local hot air balloon ride popped into my inbox, I couldn’t forward it to my hubby fast enough. My gift this year was a wrapped print-out of a gift certificate for two to ride—a promise of adventure.

My dad’s stroke and our vacation took precedence and it was only recently that I was able to schedule it. But, we were in luck. The company was part of a hot air balloon competition and could take passengers on one of their other balloons. So we booked a sunrise flight for the day of the competition.

Over the phone, the receptionist and co-owner of the company Michelle read the disclaimer and instructions on what to wear, flat shoes and clothing for the same temperature as on the ground. Then she asked a few questions, “Would you like a Champaign toast at the end or grape juice?” That was easy. Champaign. Then came the toughie.

“What is your weight?” she asked.

“My weight?” I choked. She explained they needed to know to make sure the load was balanced. Darn. A crisis of integrity stood between me and my balloon ride. Do I tell the truth about and live? Or do I lie so I can look this total stranger in the eye someday because she doesn’t know my weight? Later, I explained this dilemma to my husband as we were about to get on the balloon.

“Well what did you say?” he asked. Clearly he wanted to live too.

“I gave my weight as my perfect weight and added the difference to yours.” I replied.

“So you netted the truth,” he said and nodded appreciatively.

The day of the flight we met at 6:00 a.m. at a hotel off the highway. The parking lot was filled with chase vehicles and balloon baskets on trailers. There were donuts and coffee in the lobby (seems balloonists don’t have to be light after all) and a scurry of activity as companies met their passengers. The pilots were in a conference room getting the briefing on the conditions. Our hostess and co-owner Michelle took us outside to prep us for the ride by the van.

In minutes, she said when the briefing was done, pilots and crews would fly out of the conference room into their cars and take off for nearby fields. This was serious balloon business. The winner of this competition automatically qualified for the Big Dance, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. We learned it’s not a race for speed but for accuracy. Points are awarded based on how close each team gets their beanbag to three targets. Suddenly, the place sprang to life. Over 30 balloonists piled into cars and took off.

Our crew looked at a map and we drove to a farm nearby. After knocking on the door and confirming it was alright, we unpacked the balloons and started filling them with fans. The competition balloon was up and off in 10 minutes. We waved as our hostess and her husband pilot floated away like the Wizard of Oz.

Then we were up, up and away in our beautiful, our beautiful balloon. And yes that song is tough to get out of your head while you in one. Our first minutes off the ground were scary and I gripped the basket like it was my lifeline (and it was). Soon we were over the farmhouse whose yard we had borrowed. I gripped harder. It was a new sensation to be silently flying like a bird above the trees. Then, as we got higher I saw a rainbow of balloons filling up in the fields below. In the skies in front, more balloons floated together in the rising mist. It was beautiful. I let go of my grip. I was flying.

They say your first balloon ride is the cheapest. The second ride will cost you $10,000 as you’ll probably want to buy a balloon. That was true. By the time we safely touched down two hours later and had our Champaign toast, I had dreams of opening a balloon company over the valley where I grew up in Virginia. The team, however, joked that the way to make a million in ballooning is to start with two million. So, unless a balloon lands in my yard with a basket full of money, I guess those dreams will have to wait.






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