Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...
Sing to yourself "a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour." Oh sure, it looks like the cats meow from the ground with the fun shapes, colors, and smiles, but once you've taken to the skies in one of these "wicker baskets of terror" you might be singing a different tune. For the past 29 years I have been relegated to watching these balloons on the ground, wondering what it felt like to float in the clouds. So when the opportunity arose to take a flight at the Balloons Over Bend Children's Festival this past weekend, I gladly accepted the chance to fulfill this mid-to-low-priority dream of mine.
With the sun having just risen and the grass still dewy, my fellow passenger, Lay it Out Event's Eric Miller, and I put our respective fates into the hands of our pilot and his handmade, experimental balloon, which was incidentally only disclosed to us when we were already 100 feet into the flight.
"By the way, my wife and I sewed this balloon by hand," the pilot casually dropped, as if our heartbeats weren't already racing enough.
Upon taking off, two things come to mind. The first is "Wow, this is high. My body is not adjusting well to this." The second is, "Where the hell are we going to land!?" One can really see and appreciate the natural beauty of Central Oregon from some altitude. Forests, rivers, and mountains abound; as far as the eye can see. That's great if you're an outdoor enthusiast, but Barney if you happen to be suspended from a basket at 900 feet. The pre-flight "brace-for-impact" briefing that the pilot gave didn't help settle the nerves either. But eventually as you get higher and higher and grasp that you're not going to topple out of the uncomfortably low-walled basket, the color slowly returns to your knuckles as you loosen your grip on the safety rope and a few moments of calm wash over you as you bask in the blasting warmth of the propane burners. The calm is fleeting, however, as the pilot begins to turn his attention to landing. Eric and I chimed in on possible landing spots and weighed in on the wind conditions, as if we were bringing value and information to the situation.
With the landing spot chosen, the pilot brought it down for what I was told was a faster-than-usual landing. We bounce off the ground once and head straight into a dirt mound, sending me flying across the basket and onto the floor as the basket connects with the slope. In all fairness, I was holding a six-pound camera in one hand filming the event. So I guess I got bucked off the bull before my eight seconds were up. It was clear that the balloon had different ideas though and wasn't ready to settle, so we plowed through a brush pile and took back off without further incident, bringing her safely back down in a clearer section of field about thirty seconds later.
Most adventures that are worthwhile have some unknown element of risk to them; it's the classic risk vs. reward scenario that dictates our every waking moment. And while seemingly uneventful from the ground, ballooning really does contain all that we look for in a good thriller: suspense, unknown villains like gusting wind, and danger such as dirt mound landings. Once you're in the air, you realize that this actually could go the way of Gilligan and the Skipper with 1,000 feet of altitude and a flame thrower mixed in for good measure. And as safe as ballooning is, statistically, all the passengers, pilot included, are virtually powerless in the face of the elements. You will come down, eventually, But not knowing upon what terms that will happen is the proposition that makes even the most uneventful balloon ride...eventful.