It is 6:02 am when I arrive at RC flying field. I am two minutes late, and already the hot air balloon is swelling with air. Its hand-painted high desert mural of old-growth junipers and raptors are billowing in the wind as if they were alive. Several people are swarming around the balloon like ants at a picnic, pulling ropes taut, treading quickly through the dew-covered grass toward the basket, while avoiding the surging balloon's sway back and forth along the ground of RC field. A trail of smoke calmly trickles north from Pilot Butte and, if I remember my fire weather class correctly, that means that there is stable air aloft—a comforting sign and a rarity for Central Oregon that is generally limited to early summer mornings. I hug my cup of coffee and look for Darren Kling, the owner of Big Sky Balloon. Darren is the balloon director of the Balloons Over Bend Children's Festival that happens this weekend, July 19-21, starting from Riverbend Park.
Kling has the look of someone who is part-cowboy and part-surfer. He is strong by necessity of dealing with the cumbersome basket and deflated balloon, and he wears the two-day old beard and button-up work shirt of someone who cares only for necessities. Much younger than the average hot air balloon pilot, clocking in at 44 years old, Kling already has amassed more than two decades of experience as a pilot. The only full-time commercial hot air balloon pilot in Central Oregon, he is known for his confident yet collected nature, taking on our turbulent airs when many balloonists won't even consider flying here.
I quickly walk up and introduce myself to two of the passengers and barely have a chance to take a picture of the balloon and traditional wicker basket before the balloon is filled and heated and the basket begins to bounce off the ground. Amazed and still only half awake, I am hustled into the basket, and away we go!
This is when I finally meet Kling, with a silent wave of the hand under the roar of the propane burners. I am instantly struck by his relaxed demeanor, and within minutes, if not seconds, I realize that the entire basket of people—four out of six of whom are new to hot air ballooning—is infected with his aura of coolness.
Before arriving in Redmond that morning, I had spent the previous week anxiously mulling misfortunes that could occur on a hot air balloon ride. What if I get air sick? What if I get claustrophobic? What if I get agoraphobic? What if someone proposes to his/her sweetheart and then gets turned down while we're in flight? And of course, what if the whole thing crashes!?
As I looked over the Central Oregon landscape—at Smith Rock, the Sisters, Mount Washington, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, at all the Monopoly board-size houses, livestock the size of ants, trains, and cars—I began to understand how this 300-year-old sport could still be so loved and how there could be such a strong sense of community among balloonists. I was overwhelmed with endorphins and had an intense feeling of freedom, hope and refuge all rolled into one big ball of pure joy. As I listened to Kling recount his stories of ballooning, I realized that this is a man of true inner peace, and it is the balloon that has given him this gift.
Kling was a lucky child whose father was an airline pilot. At a young age, he knew that he wanted to be involved in aviation, but only in college did he find his calling through a good friend who had been raised hot air ballooning. Ever since then, he has been an avid hot air balloon pilot. Now, he gets to impart the joys of flight to his own son. He is a true family man, and soon, hopefully by the summer of 2014, his wife and he will be opening Panacea at the Canyon, a luxury campground within Crooked River Canyon that from the sound of it, will easily rival other regional resorts in terms of tranquillity, beauty and comfort. From here, he will be able to launch rides directly from his own land—a further step toward the perfect blend of business and life. Meanwhile, Kling continues to offer flights in Redmond from the Field of Dreams RC flying field. (If interested in scheduling a private flight, contact Darren at bigskyballoonco.com.)
Balloons Over Bend is touted as the largest family festival in Central Oregon, and undoubtedly, must be the most beautiful as well. There are nine balloons confirmed, with morning flights at 6 am, and a not-to-be-missed Nightglow on Friday, July 19, at dusk, which entails the internal illumination of each of the balloons in the air against the night sky. For early risers, I recommend getting to Riverbend Park at 6 am with a breakfast picnic to watch the inflation and ascension of the balloons, which will be one of the more magical spectacles of the event. Amazingly, there are still a few spots available in Darren's basket for the morning flights. If you'd like to take this rare opportunity to get to know the Bend landscape more intimately while on board with Kling, you can contact Eric Miller with Lay It Out Events for availability and pricing information at [email protected]. For more information on the Balloons Over Bend Children's Festival, including information on other activities scheduled for the weekend, check out the event website at balloonsoverbend.com.