Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hot Air

Hot Air
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The desert moon had not yet set onto the west horizon when Gretta and I walked across the resort grounds. We were like kids on Christmas morning, wide-eyed and ready for our sunrise balloon ride above the desert. I gazed at a nearby peak, and could see the hikers’ helmet lamps as they climbed in the dark. It wasn’t yet 6:30, the time the balloon service said they would pick us up.

           The driver and van pulled into the resort and we started to buckle the seat belts in the dark, but some of the belts were missing. Hmm. I’d hoped everything would be top-notch with this outfit. Details are important. This company is going to dangle us thousands of feet above the earth. The driver patiently threaded the belts through the seat so that we could get strapped into the van, and we were on our way.

          Phoenix was beginning to wake up. The busses were running and traffic was picking up on the thoroughfares. I noticed a large advertisement at one of the bus stops, identifying a local personal-injury and accident lawyer. The thought crossed my mind to write the number, just in case we survived a balloon mishap. Once onto the freeways, which were clogged with incoming traffic, we sped out of the city to a rendezvous point where we picked up more passengers. Our final leg of the van journey took us to Anthem, Arizona north of Phoenix amongst the barren patches of desert and miscellaneous mountains.

          I noticed we were following a truck, which had the balloon and basket packed in the back. They turned onto a frontage road that soon changed to dirt and then became little more than a jeep trail. All of a sudden, the van driver had his hands full, just keeping us moving and upright. We started glancing at each other in the van as we jostled and bounced along.  

          Gretta spoke out, “The van ride must be part of the adventure!”

Inflating the balloon
          After a couple of miles, the dusty landscape made it seem like we were on the surface of the moon. Wild burros peered over the cactus scrub to see what was causing the commotion. The crew hopped out of the truck and began to unpack and inflate the balloon. They jockeyed the 1200-pound basket to the ground, began unrolling the fabric of the 900-pound balloon, and cranked up the engines on large fans to blow the desert air into the fabric corridor. The balloon began to inflate, and a giant flying unicorn appeared on the side. Yes, Virginia, Unicorns do fly! When it was three-quarters full, the pilot fired up the burners and the balloon slowly tilted upright.
Unicorns do fly!
          “Everyone come on over and climb into the basket,” announced Tommy our pilot. There were twelve of us, plus Tommy, and he positioned us to balance out the load. I was lucky and was able to stand at the corner of the basket.

          “How long have you been flying balloons?” asked one of the passengers.

          “Oh, about three days,” Tommy replied. Then he grinned and began a big belly laugh. Actually, his title was Key Pilot. He was an expert who was allowed to fly all thirteen balloons owned by the company. Hmm, thirteen balloons — an odd, disconcerting number.

          “Now everybody listen up. This is the most important instruction that I’m going to give you,” shouted Tommy. Then he hit the burner switch. During the blast noise, we couldn’t hear a word he said. He turned off the switch and began to laugh again. “Enjoy the flight!”

          With more blasts from the burner, we began to slide along the ground. Finally, the balloon and basket lifted into the air. Everything was quiet while we watched the shadow of the giant balloon get smaller. It was so peaceful we began to whisper as we spoke.

          Tommy told us the balloon held 275,000 cubic feet of air, and cost about $180,000. The company had a larger balloon, almost twice the size of the one we were riding. It had a basket that held twenty people.

          It was hard to perceive we were even moving, but we began to see the haze on the ground, and noticed the mountains below us. Our ears popped as we moved upward. Someone pointed out a small airplane flying below. Tommy said we were at about 4,000 ft. altitude, or about a half mile above the desert floor.

High above the Arizona desert
          A big complex came into view on the other side of a mountain. “What’s that?” someone asked.

          “That’s a federal prison for white collar criminals,” Tommy said.

          I leaned my head outside the basket and peered straight down as the complex passed beneath us. Glad I’m up here and not down there.

          Pop. Pop. Pop. The noise began echoing off the mountains.

          “What’s that?” another person asked.

          “That’s the prison guards practicing at the target range.” Tommy chuckled with a big smile, “I’m sure the prisoners can hear them shooting.”

A federal prison below us
          Someone else pointed to a lake to the west. “What lake is that?” they asked.

          “That’s a reservoir called Lake Pleasant.”

          During our flight, which lasted about an hour, I felt removed from the madness of the world below. Everyone in the basket seemed relaxed, as hushed conversations transpired between one another. I could see the cars on the interstate, traveling towards the traffic jams in Phoenix. The sun had risen through the haze, and I noticed another hot-air balloon several miles away. The breeze was very slight, so we only traveled about five miles before the pilot began to look for his landing site.

Looking for a landing site
          We noticed how the wind blew from different directions at different altitudes, and Tommy seemed to be an expert at guiding the balloon to the area he picked for the landing. There was one small detail that concerned me. Power lines crossed the landing field in both directions.

           He announced, “We’re going to cross over Carefree Highway and drop down on the other side. I’m not yet sure on which side of the power lines we’ll land.” He radioed to the chase crew and told them to head into the field.

           Carefree Highway . . . near Lake Pleasant . . . it sounds like a peaceful place for a balloon accident.

          The winds were almost calm as we dropped lower towards the field. Coyotes began to scatter.

          “Bee-hive, bee-hive,” Tommy radioed the crew, “that’s where we’ll land.”

          I noticed some old bee-keeper’s boxes stacked in a clearing in the cactus — on the OTHER side of the power lines. The trucks raced to the clearing and the crew jumped out. We passed over the power lines by about thirty feet and the scrubby plants became visibly closer to the bottom of the basket. The other side of the basket scraped and cracked against a dead branch of Cholla cactus, just as the crew grabbed the sides. The plop to the ground was almost imperceptible. We were ten feet from the van. Pretty good, I thought.

Floating past the power lines
          Mother earth, beneath our feet once again! I’m alive!

          The desert clearing took on a party atmosphere as the crew set up tables and we ate a gourmet breakfast of quiche, apples and Gouda cheese. We savored the moment while Tommy gave us a champagne toast and recited the balloonist’s prayer:

“The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so well and so high,
That God has joined you in your laughter
And set you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

          Nice prayer. Hmm, I’m also glad I said a silent prayer BEFORE we lifted off!

Sunrise breakfast on the desert