Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?
Would you like to glide in my beautiful balloon?
We could float among the stars together, you and I
And we can fly
-Jimmy Webb, 1967
The 5th Dimension had the right idea with their hit song, Up, Up, and Away in the mid 60’s. Often I speak of experiencing nature up close and personal. We tend to observe our wild world as a two dimensional vision: not too far, not too close, truly limiting our encounter. But there are additional approaches to observe our planet. From time to time, step back and look at the entire landscape; a grand approach is from the air, a bird’s eye view.
A hot air balloon flight is an amazing means to float among the clouds, scudding across the treetops as the earth passes gently and peacefully below; and the silence is golden. The sounds that envelope you are only the wind and the occasional whooshing of the gas burner that keeps you afloat and allows you to adjust your altitude as you traverse the treetops.
Our day began with an early departure from home at 4:00AM. There was a light fog surrounding us most of the trip to our liftoff location, a field in Farmington, NY west of Exit 16N on the Taconic State Parkway. We pulled into a muddy driveway lined with a few trees, a farmhouse still asleep with no lights, and a large, beat up barn across a split rail enclosed pasture. The worn parallel tracks led us toward the barn. One problem, though - the reddish tint from the waking sun was just peeking over the grassland past the barn. We were alone; no people, no balloon.
About five minutes after our arrival, to our great relief, we were joined by a long van and a pick-up truck. Out of the van stepped Farmer John in overalls and a plaid shirt. This was Bill Coster, our pilot. The sky was lighting rapidly and after a congenial “hello”, we went to work. In the back of the truck lay a huge wicker basket, our vessel. Bill opened the back door of the van and we were greeted by a rainbow piled neatly on the floor, our balloon.
We grasped the fact that this wasn’t going to be a matter of hopping in the basket to be whisked away to the stars. We were to be active participants. First we had to pull the balloon pile from the van, which I felt was not performed with the gentle ease I thought necessary to prevent rips and tears. Next we dragged this pile into the meadow and unraveled it. Gradually, our balloon magically took shape on the ground. Then we lifted the basket out of the truck bed to the base of the rather flat balloon. Bill made all of the rope and wire connection between balloon and basket. Next came the burner, the source of heat, also attached to the basket.
“Now this next part is tricky,” Bill declared. “As I fire the burner into the base of the balloon, you pull and open it more to allow the balloon to fill with the heated air.” It was really exhilarating watching this flattened rainbow gradually become three dimensional as he shot more and more hot air into the opening at the base. Then, with wonder, we watched the balloon, little by little, lift off the grass until it finally righted the basket. I thought, “We shouldn’t we be jumping in about now?”
Bill allowed the balloon to slowly drift until it was directly over the basket. He knew just the right amount of heat to prevent a premature liftoff yet keep the huge orb perfectly aloft and still.
Climbing in the basket was no easy task. You sort of got one foot on the edge and, with a boost from behind, you tumble in. Quite an adventure already and we hadn’t even left the ground! With all of us in, my wife, me, Bill’s granddaughter, and of course Bill, and with no further explanations, another blast from the burner and we were airborne.
The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon
It wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon
We can sing a song and sail along the silver sky
But we can fly
Lifting so slowly, you barely perceived any vertical motion. Only from the change of location in relation to the ground and the shrinking size of objects on the ground could you tell you were rising toward the stars.
The fog was gone and the sun was peeking over the distant trees. With our rising, we were hastening the sunrise. A quick look down seeing a miniature barn and a matchbox truck and van, we realized we were, “up, up, and away.” Now the reward: a genuinely overwhelming event.
The direction and landing point were up to Mother Nature; as the wind blows, you go. You really don’t feel as if you are moving. The horizon remains in the distance. If you look straight down you will notice the Earth passing by leisurely. Landmarks unhurriedly approach from afar. We were essentially too high for daytime action of birds. A revelation occurs when a turkey vulture or hawk that you are accustomed to viewing, soaring far above, suddenly drifts past you, level with your sight line. A slight breeze brushes our cheeks; we are well dressed knowing the chill of the season and altitude. There was no sway in the basket hanging from the balloon, only a gently intermittent racking.
One moment we watched our shadow float across a pond far below. Colors were muted from the angle of light. Details disappeared, yet we recognized familiar shapes and movements of animals. We seemed to be surveying the world passing by below us. What was most remarkable was the vertical control Bill had with his soaring vehicle. We didn’t simply rise to a height, sail across the sky parallel to the ground and land. He took us up and down, barely missing, not in a dangerous sense, tree tops, lifting to avoid frightening animals below. At one point we were able to grab a handful of leaves from the crown of a huge maple.
Then we detected the Earth steadily coming up to meet us. Trees, cars, buildings, and animals regained full size and, with a noticeable bump, we landed in someone’s front yard. One of the drivers following us had asked permission to land there. After the bumpy contact we scrambled out of the basket, showing less form than our entry, before it was pulled on its side by the balloon. We each took a deep breath trying to believe that we had just peacefully floated over the hills and meadows, homes and roads, in a large bubble filled only with hot air. This is when you justifiably use the word, “Awesome.”
There are numerous individuals and groups that offer flights in the Bethel Area. Here is a partial list:
Soaring.com, the company we used out of Ridgefield