Up, up and away

24Dec10

I’ve heard that the best way to see Sedona’s red rocks is from the air. So for the past few days, I’ve been debating my options: Helicopter? Red-Baron-style biplane? Astral projection? Or hot air balloon?

I ruled out astral projection right away. And although the biplane was intriguing, the tour price was based on two passengers. Esteban wouldn’t be joining me — he’s been having vertigo, poor guy — which meant I’d probably end up paying for both seats. Too dear a price, I’m afraid.

So it was down to the balloon vs. the helicopter. My decision came down to a matter of convenience: The balloon people would pick me up at the hotel. Done!

I was a little nervous last night. I’m not particularly fond of heights. Wouldn’t I feel vulnerable in that little basket? What if it toppled over? What if I freaked out?

I tried to ignore those thoughts as I got ready for my 6:15 a.m. pickup. I made small talk with the driver as we drove around town and picked up two Japanese couples, two sisters from Washington state, and another pair of young Japanese women.

I soon realized that the driver, Mark, would also be my pilot. I’d be in the smaller balloon with the two Japanese couples, he said. Everyone else would be in a larger, 12-person balloon.

We all read the disclaimer that warned of the many, many things that could go wrong: high winds, downdrafts, becalming, rapid ascents and descents, loss of flying control, falls, burns, balloon collapse, electrocution, encounters with insects and/or wildlife, and other random equipment failure. “Oh, well. I have to die of something,” I thought to myself as I signed the waiver.

The other tourists and I watched as our pilots and their crews inflated the two balloons. First, the pilots used giant fans to partially inflate the balloons.

Once the balloons had a bit of shape to them, the pilots used liquid propane burners to warm the air inside.

Slowly, the balloons started to rise and look like, well, something that might actually float.

Mark gave me and the Japanese tourists a quick safety briefing before we hopped in. At the top of the list? “Don’t climb out of the basket until I tell you to.” “No problem there,” I assured him.

Getting into the basket reminded me of trying to mount a really tall horse. The baskets (or, more properly, “gondolas”) don’t have a door, so you have to use a foothold to climb in. I wasn’t exactly the picture of grace as I struggled to reach the foothold, which was at about waist height. But once I actually managed to climb in, I felt remarkably secure.

I don’t really remember the exact moment at which we left the ground: There were no screaming engines, no lurching, no physical sensation of altitude or speed. There was just me and the ground below, getting further and further apart. Soon, the launch site looked otherworldly and remote.

To my surprise, I didn’t feel a single twinge of nervousness or anxiety. Within moments, we were soaring above the treetops, and the sun-lit ridges were coming into view. Mark turned the gondola several times so we could all enjoy the sunrise.

Soon, I learned the most important lesson about ballooning: You’re at the mercy of the wind. This morning, the winds were pretty calm. Mark tried a variety of altitudes — from 500 feet above the ground to almost 3,000 — but we still weren’t covering much distance.

I didn’t mind too much. The views were spectacular, at any height.

Alas, after an hour or so it was time to descend.

It blew my mind to watch the numbers drop on the altimeter: I felt nothing. Mark said we were dropping at about 500 feet per minute. “If you were in an airplane, you’d think you were gonna die,” he said. But the only sign of our descent was the emerging detail in the landscape below.

From my perch, I could see the chase vehicles coming in like the cavalry to meet us.

I marveled at the way Mark hovered the balloon above the landing site.

I was worried at first that we’d land on a tree, but he and his crew on the ground worked in tandem to guide the gondola onto a secluded, open road.

The touchdown was softer than many airplane landings I’ve endured. We were safely on the ground. Everyone applauded and cheered.

The Japanese tourists and I watched as Mark and his crew steadied the gondola and began deflating the balloon. Mark asked one couple to step out. The balloon sank even further, and it was soon my turn to return to terra firma. (To my dismay, getting out of the gondola wasn’t any easier than getting in.)

I watched as Mark and his crew folded up the limp balloon and loaded everything into the trailer behind their van.

My adventure had come to an end.

In the end, I was disappointed in my photos: The sky was hazy, and because we didn’t cover much ground, there was little variety to the scenery.

But I was thrilled with the rest of the experience.

From now on, when I see the ravens soaring above Sedona’s red rocks, I’ll no longer have to wonder how it feels to float on the wind and see past the canyons to the horizon.

What a great way to spend a morning.



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