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I was so high | Pamdemonium
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I was so high

April 22, 2010

As a child, I had a recurring dream that I could fly. In these dreams, a strong wind blew at my back and I’d allow myself to fall back into its embrace. The wind would lift me, gently, and I’d flip over to navigate from a less purposeful Superman pose, eyes at the world rather than the heavens.

Touching the sky.

I’d meander and observe, sometimes dipping lower, sometimes climbing to get above taller buildings. I did not feel threatened or chased by monsters but I do believe, in this dream world, that others could not see me.

Much time and money might be spent on analysis but the sensory memory of these dreams returned when I took my first hot air balloon ride two weeks ago. Compared with the cruising altitude of a typical commercial aircraft, I wasn’t really all that high, but 1,500 feet is enough to produce wonderment and provide new perspectives, though a massive, brightly colored balloon lofting a basket with 10 passengers and a pilot is far from invisible.

This excursion was on my “fabulous before 50” list, which is not a bucket list, though our craft was indeed a sturdy woven rope bucket. Our party of four accompanied six others on an hour-plus cruise that started in Santa Rosa, California, and floated over small Russian River Valley vineyards, a golf course, some really unattractive subdivisions and other odds-and-ends.

View from inside the basket.

The ride itself felt effortless because we moved with the wind. It didn’t produce an adrenalin rush as I suspect tandem skydiving does (that is on my list, too) but did create a welcome sense of peace and calm. The noise and heat from the burners that keep the balloon filled and allow some navigation distracted but I’d been forewarned. At 1,500 feet, double semi tractor-trailers look like Tonka toys; golf carts look like buggies without horses; and wastewater treatment plants look like wastewater treatment plants. Floating over some of the cleaner holding ponds allowed glimpses our grand craft’s reflection, and seeing the balloon and basket make shadows from various heights was delightful. I pondered a possible career as a golf course sand trap designer.

Delightful is a good descriptor of the experience. I felt apart from the earth and earthly worries but was not tempted to fall into the wind, flip over and fly. I did not feel like an angel, though some of my favorite moments involved floating through a patch of fog or a low-hanging cloud. It was otherworldly and considerably colder.

Our shadow across a vineyard.

Unable to tuck the journalist in me away, I asked questions. The fabric is nylon covered in silicone and costs $15 a yard. I don’t know how many yards our balloon needed but together, the fabric alone weighs 450 or more pounds. The volume of air once aloft weighs 15,000 pounds, topping out the total rig at roughly 20,000 pounds. Venus was her name; the company had to sell Jupiter, a bigger rig, because the economy has been unkind to these discretionary field trips. Business overall is down 60 percent.

Other than a few smaller planes destined for or leaving the Charles M. Schutz Airport – the Peanuts cartoonist was a longtime Santa Rosa resident until his death in 2000 – we had little company. Birds don’t fly at 1,500 feet unless they are migrating because that altitude offers no food for them. Dipping lower, we waved at people watching.

Variable winds altered our landing destination a few times, forcing the two-man volunteer ground crew to hop back in the truck and relocate where Captain Scott, our pilot, directed. We brushed some treetops on our way down and skipped, gently, across a very soggy field near some industrial buildings. Our ground team attached ropes and, with the help of an occasional burst of hot air, dragged the rig to pavement. We disembarked without incident as a few nearby workers gathered to watch, one as he ate his lunch. It was a salad.

Shoving all that balloon fabric back into its canvas sack was a workout. We got to help by piling up on it, and each other. I think that was the easy part, though not as easy as floating through the air, grinning and touching the clouds.

Note: We can thank Kris Coyle, my sister, for the photographs. Check out Wine Country Balloons for more information. Now that our flight is a delightful memory, they are having a seasonal sale.

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