Lighter Than Air

It was one of those things we had always wanted to do. I had witnessed the huge balloon festival in Albuquerque, and vaguely thought, “Well, next time we go to New Mexico…” Then Mary discovered balloon tours in Santa Rosa and called up Wine Country Balloons.

So one mid-October morning, we were up at 5:30 to meet the crew and other passengers for a winding drive of 45 minutes or so in the dark to get out of the fog.  Just after sunrise, we came to a field where another group was inflating their balloon.  “Do you know why we take off early?” Scott, the pilot, asked. No one did. “So we’re done by the time the wineries open, of course.”

Balloon "envelopes" spread out in a field. The one behind Mary starts to inflate.

He did supply an alternative explanation for the scientifically minded among us – that the colder, denser, molecules outside the balloon push the lighter, heated ones inside, and this causes the lift, the way dense water molecules push an inflated beach ball to the surface.   The colder the outside air, the easier it is to gain altitude.

Using a generator and a large fan to inflate the envelope.

First ballon almost ready to go as ours expands.

The pilot, checks cables inside the expanding envelope.

Gaining altitude lifts you into wind currents flowing at different speeds in different directions, and one of the disclaimers was, there are no guarantees on what we’ll find or where they will take us. “I can influence the outcome but not control it,” Scott said. “Which isn’t a bad metaphor for life itself.”

Scott, far right, fires the burners.  Liftoff is immanent.

Mary and I mug for the camera, as Scott, far right, fires the burners for liftoff

You don't feel the wind while it carries you.

No one spoke much during the flight. Have you ever been drawn into the blue of the sky from a plane window? Much more so in this experience.

The shadow of our balloon in the foreground, another balloon in the distance

Given my own mindset, I really, really got why “space” is the image most often used to describe the indescribable “mind of clear light” that Buddhists hold to be our common core of awareness.

We rode until the cows came home

The first hot air balloon flight, in France, was witnessed by Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Benjamin Franklin who was at the French court that day. The 20 minute voyage resulted from the experiments of a pair of paper-makers, and was celebrated with champagne. Scott related this piece of history after the ride back to town for a champagne brunch. Balloons and champagne have gone together since day one – and no one had any objections.

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