Category Archives: Local Businesses

Rising in a hot air balloon

This is the longer version of an article that will run on Friday, June 15th in the Press Democrat, and another version of the personal experience I wrote about in the blog article titled Up, Up, and Away.

Back in 1783, the very first passengers to fly in a hot air balloon were rather speechless about the experience. Of course, this was likely due to the fact that these inaugural airborne travelers weren’t human, but were in fact a duck, a sheep, and a rooster whose flight under a linen and paper balloon traveled two miles within 8 minutes, flying to an altitude of 1500 feet. However, in an age when traveling by air was something that only happened in dreams or stories, the adventure would have left most anyone tongue-tied.

While utilizing heat to make things fly has been traced back centuries in history, this primitive form of air travel for humans is attributed to brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier. The idea was manifested years earlier as Joseph watched billowing laundry rise from the heat of the fire it was drying over, and was later mused upon as a military vessel during a tumultuous time of war. After many experiments of capturing heated air within different types of material and testing the theory with symbolically chosen animals, Étienne flew as the first human passenger in a tethered flight, paving the way to a new method of travel.

Once airplanes made an impact in the way of air travel, however, the novelty of hot air balloons began to wear thin. It wasn’t until the last 50 years when advancements reintroduced hot air balloons as a form of sailing through the air, making it one of the safest modes of aviation.

Today, hot air balloons serve as a large part of tourist attractions in areas where the scenery is exceptionally opulent. Sonoma County is one of those regions, cloaked with rows of leafy vineyards, acres of farmland, and a valley embraced by rolling hills and fair weather. As the temperatures escape the icy cold of winter in favor of cool spring mornings, it isn’t uncommon to see the dawn sky peppered with these colorful balloons.

Those wishing to ride up in a hot air balloon should be willing to get up before the sun, the time of day when the wind is at its most calm. Because balloon flights depend on weather conditions, there is always a chance that the flight will be cancelled and need to be rescheduled. Many balloon companies will call their passengers the night before to confirm the flight depending on the expected temperament of the weather, as well as to offer suggestions on how warm to dress.

Up & Away of Windsor holds their meeting place for those venturing a ride at the Sonoma County Airport in north Santa Rosa. The company has four balloons, one of which holds 10-12 people and one that is wheelchair accessible with room for two more passengers. The latter basket is the first of its kind in the United States, complete with a drop-side that doubles as a ramp meant to easily maneuver a wheelchair aboard. The side of the basket holds a see-through panel to reveal a clear view while up in the air.

As vibrant as the flight is itself, the pre-flight preparations are just as dazzling of a vision. The balloon crew brings the baskets out onto the ground, laying out the deflated balloon envelopes across tarps. An inflator fan is placed at the neck of the balloon, blowing in air to help it billow out properly. When it’s halfway filled, the burner is fired up and starts heating the air inside the balloon. This is when it’s apparent how large these balloons are, seeing the massive giants in comparison to their small surroundings, all as the sunrise casts orange rays against the colorful cloth.

Once filled completely, passengers make their way into the basket. At this point the balloon is firmly secured to ensure it won’t start floating away before everyone has found his or her place. But once ready, the lines are untied and the pilot fires up the burner.

The liftoff happens gradually, floating slowly against the ground before gaining momentum. Because the basket is rising into the air with its passengers, there is very little sense of altitude. However, those more sensitive to heights might feel a bit of flip-flopping in their stomach for the first several minutes of flight. Even Up & Away Ballooning’s owner and pilot Mike Kijak admitted to having a fear of heights despite his occupation. His open confession merely attested to the lessened sensation of elevation while rising 3,000 feet into the air.

Once drifting in the air, the view showcases a much wider horizon than anyone would be able to see from the ground. On a clear day in Santa Rosa, the view can extend from Napa to Bodega and Windsor to nearly Petaluma. The balloon travels with the air current, making the wind virtually unnoticeable. Below, fields of green vineyards stretch in perfect rows with large jackrabbits hopping quickly between the columns to escape the large vessel that looms overhead. On this recent journey, one balloon dipped down towards the vineyards, almost touching the leafy vines before floating back up. Another performed a “touch and go” above a large pond, the bottom of the basket skimming the water briefly before it rose again into the air. All four balloons made their way down the valley in a slow-moving race to the finish line.

It’s audibly quieter that high off the ground. Barking dogs, gobbling turkeys, and crooning peacocks echo from the ground in between blasts of hot air from the burner. As he flies, Pilot Kijak fills pockets of silence with stories that range from the history of ballooning to experiences he’s had in the past 20 years of being a balloon pilot. But often, he remains quiet to allow guests the opportunity to view the world unencumbered by interruptions. For many passengers, this will be their first view of Sonoma County, utilizing the experience as just a part of their vacation before traveling many miles back to where they live. In that, they see our county in a way many lifelong locals have never experienced.

An abandoned airstrip in southwest Santa Rosa is the end of the journey. On this trip, Pilot Kijak lowered the balloon expertly, but got caught in what’s called a “box wind”, a current of air that travels in the opposite direction of the air above. As a result, the balloon traveled backwards and away from the airstrip. To compensate, he brought the balloon back up and overshot the strip before lowering the balloon once again. This time the balloon caught hold of the box wind and traveled back to the airstrip where the chase crew was waiting. The landing was wonderfully uneventful, without even the hint of a bump as the crew grabbed hold of the basket and lowered it gently to the ground. They relieved the balloon of all its air before rolling it up and packing the balloon away.

Many of the local balloon companies in Sonoma County finish the adventure with a special brunch before sending their guests on their way. Up & Away serves a delicious homemade brunch made by Mike Kijak’s wife, Patty, of quiche, coffeecake, chocolate covered strawberries, and more, offered alongside mango mimosas on the beautiful grounds of Kendall Jackson Vineyards. The workers shed their tough exteriors to join in on the fun with guests and their coworkers. Many of the staff began working with Up & Away because a family member invited them.

“I just came to see the balloons,” Gaby Vargas, a balloon chaser and pilot told me as he shared the story of his cousin inviting him along for a ride. Ten years later, he is still showing up every day “just to see the balloons”, as well as to fly or chase them.

The adventure ends when the crew lifts their glasses and Pilot Kijak offers a traditional Irish blessing to all the passengers who rode in one of the four balloons that day.

“The winds have welcomed us with softness. The sun has blessed us with its warm hands. We have flown so high and so well that God has set us gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.”

A huge thank you to Up & Away Ballooning in Windsor for giving me this opportunity.

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


Get the most out of the JBF consignment sale

The Just Between Friends kids & maternity consignment event is coming up again starting tomorrow, Thursday September 8th and running till Sunday, September 11th.  The first day is dedicated to a select group of people including military families, teachers, first-time parents & grandparents, and adoptive or foster families.  But the last three days are open to the public.  See the schedule for each day’s special events and times.

This is one of my most favorite family consignment events, and every year it grows larger in size.  Of course, it’s easy to also get overwhelmed because the sale is so huge.  So to help us out in getting the most out of this sale, I’m turning this blog over to Jennifer Hundley, a local mom here in Sonoma County AND the co-founder of the Northbay’s Just Between Friends sale event.

Tips to Getting the Most out of the Fall/Back to School Just Between Friends Kids & Maternity Consignment Event
by Jennifer Hundley

Preschool started one week too early in our household.  Digging thru my three-year-old’s closet revealed shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, pants two inches too short and more shorts!  Reality is, the Just Between Friends Fall/Back to School event this week can’t come fast enough (Sept. 9-11).  If you haven’t been to a JBF sale, get ready to be ABSOLUTELY FLOORED!  Imagine 27,000 square feet packed with bargains on clothes, toys, books, games, DVD’s, outdoor equipment, boutique items and well, just about everything you can imagine you might need for your growing family.  This isn’t just an event for preschoolers, but for expecting moms, babies, kids and preteens and it only rolls around twice a year.

Here’s my top 8 tips to maximize your children’s and maternity consignment sales event:

*Bring a List – 27,000 square feet full of 55,000+ items can be overwhelming. Look in your kids’ closets to see what they already have and what they need. The bargains are just too good.  Last thing you want is to get home only to realize you forgot to pick up rain boots or a warm jacket. Make sure you know your kids measurements (waist, inseam, dress length, arm length) and shoe size.

*Volunteer – Want first crack at the best selection and biggest bargains?  All you have to do is volunteer a few hours of your time and you’ll earn a pass to shop early!

*Head Straight to the Big Items 1st – These tend to go fast and you stand to save the most money on nursery furniture, strollers, bassinettes, pack n plays, bikes, car seats, etc.  Next check out the toys, bedding, books and DVD’s before scouting out the clothing.  The clothing is amazing, but there’s always racks and rack to peruse after you’ve laid claim to the big-ticket items.

*Holidays – think it’s too early to shop the holidays?  Think again…Halloween is next month.  Pick your little monster up a pumpkin outfit.  Why break the bank this holiday season? You can always find brand new and gently used toys, books, DVD’s, etc.

*Use that smart phone – Want to know if that BOB stroller really is a steal?  Free apps such as RedLaser allow you to scan the original barcode providing you with pricing and other helpful information.  I found a new Ergo carrier still in the box for 50% off at the last sale!  I wouldn’t have known what a bargain I was getting without this nifty (and fun!) technology!

*Shopping Bags/“Vessels” – Be green.  Bring a re-usable bag (or bags) to shop and to bring your bargains home in.  Laundry baskets with a belt or rope work great to pull your items instead of carrying them.

*Be Flexible & Plan Enough Time to Shop – Carve out some time to shop. Don’t put yourself in a rush or you may get frustrated. JBF is a big sale and you may have to wait in line to check out.  Be sure and wear comfy shoes!

Book the Sitter – You may find it easier to shop this event without your children.  If you must bring your kiddos, be sure and bring snacks and drinks for them.  The sale can be overwhelming to kids.

First time moms, grandparents, adoptive or foster parents, teachers/daycare providers/homeschool teachers and military all get to shop the presale.  SCORE!  However, if you want first dibs on some of those items like kids’ furniture or boutique clothing, you might consider volunteering.

Last sale I overheard a mom on her cell phone telling her friend “It’s just like Black Friday, but the deals are even better!”  This put a smile on my face as this is exactly how I feel about Just Between Friends!

Here’s a link to register:  Got any helpful tips?  Did you find any great bargains at the last sales?  I’d love to hear about them, so do share!

Jennifer Hundley and her husband Matt organize the Just Between Friends North Bay events.  Jen is a native Sonoma County resident and a mom to a three and a half year old.  She and her husband are proud to serve their community via their consignment events and by volunteering for their local Active 20-30 service club.  When not working or volunteering, you’ll find Jen and her husband running after the seagulls in Bodega or playing at Howarth Park with their son!

The Just Between Friends Sale will be held in the Hall of Flowers building at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa.  See the schedule for each day’s special events and times.

To see photos of past Just Between Friends sales, click here.  Here are some from previous events:

Family fitness at University of Sports

Health is a huge deal in my family. And I know it is in your family too. So when University of Sports contacted me to let me know a little bit more about their fitness club, I was definitely intrigued.

First of all, I had no idea what to expect. I was totally anticipating just a normal gym with all the fixings that make it a place to work out. I was wrong. I mean, sure, they have cardio machines, a weight room, and space to stretch and take an organized class. But there’s so much more than that.

First and foremost, University of Sports has dedicated the gym to meeting the needs of families. For a mom with young kids who just needs a break to regroup and take a moment to focus on herself, this is huge. They have developed a whole family membership program that includes structured play for kids while mom and dad work out. Kids will be taken to their indoor soccer field, basketball courts, or hang out in the kids room to have fun. An after-school club for kids called Generation Next has just recently been introduced to offer monthly sessions that have kids First – Sixth Grades getting help on their homework as well as taking part in a fun activity. They also offer additional classes for kids, as well as hosting all-sports camps and birthday parties.

Second area of interest is their retreat area – otherwise known as “The Spa”. This area is complete with a large spa to relax in, a sauna room, an area for massage, a nutritionist, a place to get a mani/pedi, and more. Think about this. Normally you would have to drag your child with you or scramble to find a sitter if you needed a bit of time for pampering. But all your beauty and relaxation needs are right here at the gym. Book an appointment, then let those kids have fun in the Kids Program while you take some time for yourself in The Spa!

Third favorite place to hang out was at the Café. Here they offer a bunch of healthy goodies to keep you fueled and able to have the energy to make the most of your workout. Their wide array of smoothies made my mouth water…

And, of course, the actual purpose behind University of Sports – fitness.

The first and second floor of this fitness club hold plenty of cardio machines to ensure everyone has a chance to sweat it out or get in a little circuit training. These overlook the indoor soccer field where they hold classes for kid and adults, including “KinderKicks” for the young’uns. To the side of this field is a TRX training area. If you’re not familiar with TRX, this is the latest fitness program that gives a core workout using suspension and your own body force. In the back of the gym is an indoor basketball court. Upstairs is where you can take part in an exercise class like Pilates, kickboxing, martial arts, spin, Zumba, or various other fitness classes. And in a separate room is the “grunt area” where you can get pumped up on the weight machines and free weights. University of Sports also offers fitness and nutrition consulting, as well as personal training.

Beyond that, they hold numerous special events throughout the year like family movie nights, parties, and Parent’s Night Out.

Obviously I was really impressed with how much UofS went out of their way to cater to families. They’ve made it really easy for those with kids of any age to still find time to stay fit and healthy while encouraging movement as a regular part of their children’s lives. And since a family of 4 can get a membership for as low as $105, just about anyone can afford to join.

For a limited time, moms can check out University of Sports for free with a 10-day membership by texting “TRYUOFS” to 96362. This free pass includes classes, lounging in the Spa, and every other part of a regular membership – including use of the kids’ daycare while you workout.

University of Sports is located at 555 Rohnert Park Expressway W, #C.  It’s easy to find, to the left and behind the movie theater.

Visit University of Sports at, or “like” them on Facebook at

Photo Gallery of JBF sale

Today is the first of three days that the Just Between Friends Sale is going on at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The sale is taking up the entire Hall of Flowers building, filled to the brim with consigned items – clothing for kids and maternity, strollers, high chairs, car seats, toys, small play structures, safety equipment….and more.

Just Between Friends Sale schedule:
Mar 4:
10am – 7pm $2 -100% admission benefits Active 20-30
Mar 5: 10am-3pm Free admission!
Mar 6: 9 am – 2 pm 50% OFF SALE, FREE admission!

Yesterday was the pre-sale, and the room was already packed with those who were lucky enough to get a first glance at all the sale had to offer, as well as booths of some of our local businesses that have vital services for families.

Quoted from a couple shoppers:

“I just came back from the pre-sale and WHOA!!!!!!! The stuff available for sale is AMAZING!!!!!! (Get there early tomorrow)” Gay Lynn Duel

“It was flying off the racks!!!!!!” Reesha Ruel

Take a peek at the sale through the photo gallery:

Win Tickets to Shop the Exclusive JBF Spring Presale!


Thank you everyone who entered!

How would you love to win tickets to the Just Between Friends pre-sale next Thursday, March 3rd?  If you win, you would be able to go to the event a whole day before the public, receiving first pick on everything that is being consigned.  Read on for details on the contest.

If you’re not familiar with the Just Between Friends event, let me give you a hint – this is the must attend event for young and growing families.  Twice a year, consigners gather up their gently used kids & maternity clothing, books, strollers, games, furniture, outdoor play equipment, sporting goods, arts & crafts, mommy supplies, and more, and then sell them at prices much lower than what they sell for new in the stores.  And everything sold is in excellent shape!  Let’s face it, raising a family is expensive.  That’s why I’m a huge believer in this cost-saving avenue. 

Why buy something new when you could buy something barely used for a fraction of the cost?

It’s not just cost that makes me enthusiastic about this sale (though, let’s face it, I’ve always been a girl with an eye for a bargain).  I love that this sale promotes community and sustainability.  A high chair that one family has grown out of is being offered to another family that is just entering that phase.  A mother of older twins can sell her top of the line double stroller to a younger family who maybe can’t afford the high retail cost of a new stroller.  And I know many of you understand the concept of kids growing faster than their clothes wear out.  The racks at Just Between Friends are filled with these clothes, some of them never worn even once, and all of them in great condition.  This includes school clothes, play clothes, dress clothes, winter jackets, and even Easter outfits with a lot of life still in them.  How’s that for a little earth conscious shopping?

Just Between Friends isn’t a new concept, but was actually thought up by two moms 13 years ago.  The first sale was put on in a living room, a handful of moms sharing items and clothing.  Today it has expanded to over 100 franchises across the United States.  The North Bay division was put together by Matt and Jennifer Hundley of Petaluma last spring when they came away from another Just Between Friends event in Sacramento.  So impressed were they with the whole concept, they believed that we needed an event like this here in the North Bay.  The concept caught on like wildfire as families rushed to consign their used items, and came to the sale for bargains.  The Hundleys, as well as volunteers of the event, personally inspect every single item that comes their way for the sale, ensuring that it’s in excellent condition before being placed on the floor for sale.  The average consignor at the fall event came away with $340.  The top consignor made over $3,000.  And the money saved by consumers is huge.

JBF also promotes help in the community.  Any items left over after the sale are donated (with consignor permission) to Our Kid’s Sake, who in turn donates them to over 1,000 homeless children here in Sonoma County.  And the Just Between Friends sale donates proceeds from admission to the Active 20-30 service club, a group that serves local underprivileged youth in Sonoma County and Napa.  Last year, 4,000 items were donated to Our Kids Sake, and JBF donated more than $1,750 in cash to Active 20-30!

Dates of the 2011 spring event:
Mar 3:  Presale – details online*
Mar 4: 10am – 7pm $2 -100% admission benefits Active 20-30
Mar 5: 10am-3pm Free admission!
Mar 6:  9 am – 2 pm 50% OFF SALE, FREE admission!

Event will be at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in the Hall of Flowers.  This year they are debuting Mommy Mart, Gift Again, Crafter’s Corner, School Supplies & more.

To view a full photo gallery of last season’s sale, go HERE.

So about that pre-sale contest….  The day before the sale is only open to volunteers, consignors, and a select few concumers, allowing them to peruse the packed building first and snag items they want before the public sale Friday through Sunday.  But we have tickets to the presale to one lucky winner to join in on the pre-sale fun.  Want to win them?  Then answer the following question:

What are you hoping to find at the Just Between Friends Sale?

Comments left in this blog, or on the forum found HERE at, will be entered into a random drawing to win two (2) pre-sale tickets to the 2011 spring Just Between Friends sale event held on Thursday, March 3rd from 3:30pm – 8pm at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.  Contest ends Tuesday, March 1st at 4pm.  Winner will be announced on Wednesday by 11am. 

See HERE for official rules.

Good luck!