Up, up, and away!

This last weekend I got to go up in a hot air balloon. Like, up in the sky where if you fall, you will come crashing down to the ground and have zero chance of surviving.

This is pretty much what I was thinking as I waited to climb inside the basket.

Beyond that, I was actually really grateful for the experience. It was something that, while a bit scary, was still on my bucket list of things I wanted to do but probably never would. But thanks to a really cool job that allows for opportunities like these in the name of writing a good story, and thanks to the other writers having absolutely no interest in doing anything that might be life altering, I got to go up at no cost.

The meetup time at the Sonoma County Airport was to be at 6am, which means wake up time was at 4:45 in the morning all the way over in Petaluma. When my alarm went off, I had to remind myself over and over why I was getting up this early. And the jitters were starting to creep in under my excitement.

When I got there, the parking lot was starting to fill up with people. I began to feel a bit awkward since I was all by myself and everyone else had at least one other person with them. Believe it or not, I constantly have to fight through my shyness. I pushed forward and immediately spotted the owner, Mike. We shook hands and he directed me to the van I would be driven in to get to where we would lift off. I took a bathroom break beforehand since we were going to be away from one for 3 hours, and I crossed my fingers that the “movement” gods would be kind to my system today.

At the air strip, the crew set forth to unfurl the balloons. Many of us watched as they got to work, some actually pitched in to help out. I stood back with my camera and took a ton of photos. The early lighting of the morning against the bright colors of the balloons made for spectacular photos and I wanted to be sure to capture it all.

I was told that the basket I was flying was the only wheelchair accessible hot air balloon in the United States, and the 4th of its kind in the world. I thought that was kind of neat. One of the passengers was in a wheelchair, and I rode with him and his wife in a balloon flown by Mike. We all watched as one of the balloons lifted off. And then ours started to move. It was slow at first, but then it started going up rapidly.

I was told beforehand that I would barely feel anything as the balloon rose. This was a lie. As soon as we started to elevate, my legs started to get really shaky and I felt my stomach drop. I looked outside, and the whole ground seemed to want to swallow us up. It was such a large view I had to turn my back against the siderail and focus on the inside of the basket. I was afraid I was going to get sick, though it was comforting to know I had a whole entire world below to throw up on.

Luckily, this feeling only lasted about 10 minutes. My teeth and legs stopped chattering, and soon I was enjoying the view just like my basketmates. We flew over beautiful vineyards, the view expanding all the way from Windsor, to Bodega, to Napa, to Petaluma. It was seriously magnificent. And the beauty was enhanced by the cool air and rising sun. Everything was cast in a golden glow as we floated over the earth, dipping and floating in an ebb and flow.

Speaking of cold, it really wasn’t. I mean, it was as cool as morning would be, but it wasn’t freezing. And as we rose, it did get a little warmer. Hot air balloons follow the wind currents, so it does not get windy when you’re up in the air. And it helps to have the burners right above giving off a bit of heat.

When we reached our destination of a retired air strip, Mike lowered the basket. But we got caught up in a “box wind”, moving us back a bit. We had to go back up and overshoot the landing space so that the box wind would catch us and bring us back. The landing was barely a bump and without incident. And while I loved the ride, I couldn’t help but be grateful to have landed on the ground.

The morning ended at Kendall Jackson where Mike’s wife treated us to quiche and coffee cake, chocolate covered strawberries, and various other bites to eat and delicious mimosas to wash it all down. Mike read us off a blessing and sent us on our way.

I was asked by several people if it was something I would ever do again in my life.  I think I would.  It would really be neat to experience this with my family or a group of friends.  And there really is no substitute for that kind of bird’s eye view of our beautiful wine country.

A huge thank you to Up & Away Ballooning in Windsor for giving me this opportunity.  If any of you ever want to go up in a hot air balloon, I could not recommend them more.  The whole crew was absolutely amazing and really personable.  Many of them even got their family members to join the Up & Away family, really enhancing it as a family business. 

I will be writing the official story for the Press Democrat, and it will publish in the June 15th Entertaimment section. Look for it then! (Or read the longer version HERE)  In the meantime, here are some of my favorite photos of the morning. You can see the rest at http://bit.ly/M3ZSHb.



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