“No two flights are the same,” Merlin, our driver, said. “I have yet to land in the same space twice. When you’re flying one of these things, you literally learn to go with the flow.”
These words stuck with me as Matt and I prepared to float roughly 2,000 feet above the city of Albuquerque in little more than an oversized picnic basket.
Arriving at the launch site, we disembark from our pick-up vehicle and begin unloading the items we’d need to get ourselves up off the ground: a fan, the wicker basket and, of course, the balloon, what true enthusiasts call the envelope. In the distance, I can see the shadowy silhouettes of the Sandia Mountains as the slightest hint of pink peeked up over them. It was only minutes before sunrise, the best time to fly, Merlin said.
A hot air balloon ride has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it was the childlike vision of floating above the world in a balloon or the romantic illustration of watching a sleepy city wake with the sun. Regardless, I felt remarkably calm despite my constant excitement during this trip, and couldn’t wait to take to the skies.
“Feel free to talk while we’re up there,” Merlin said as he flicked the burner off and on. “I’ll do my best to answer your questions, but if I do this, don’t think I’m being rude. I just need to keep us afloat.”
Almost as soon as he said it, the small (I’m being generous, here) wicker basket in which Matt and I were standing, began to rise. Above us, a towering 90-foot-tall hot air balloon grew, boosted by a blast of flame from its propane burner. Before long, we were skimming over clay roofs and bristly mesas. As the balloon slowly ascended, the landscape underneath increasingly shrunk until it started to resemble a miniature diorama of a city. The Sandia Mountains came into full view as did neighborhoods, parks, schools and parking lots. All was silent. The glimmering waters of the Rio Grande marked the path of the sun.
Ballooning, Merlin pointed out once we were back, over a Champagne toast, is so very easy to fall in love with. But for me, love isn’t all this trip represents. Let me explain.
The Montgolfier brothers, owners of a paper mill in Paris, initiated the first untethered flight back in 1783 just to see if they could. The fuel? Wet straw. Because the brothers believed that it was smoke, not heat, that caused a balloon to rise. And because no one was sure whether humans could survive at high altitudes, they sent up a sheep, a rooster and a duck.
When it was finally established that these animals survived, the ideas of how to use this new technology began pouring out. It could replace shipping, some thought. Or ferry troops across the English Channel. But what many people didn’t realize, and perhaps don’t even today, is that a traditional hot air balloon cannot take you from point A to point B. Rather, it will take you to point X, a mystery.
And that’s why I say that hot air ballooning for me represents more than just an activity I’ve grown to enjoy, or even a dream that has finally been realized. For me, this flight represents a time in my life (and probably Matt’s, too) where the end landing point, the outcome, is something totally and irrefutably unknown.
And I love that.