The hotel lobby at 4:15 a.m. was soundless as I awaited pickup for a sunrise hot air balloon ride above the Sonoran Desert. A massive SUV rolled into the circular driveway to meet me. A half hour later, we arrived at the Rainbow Ryders headquarters near the Deer Valley Municipal Airport in Phoenix. The sky had turned from indigo to heathery gray.
Five balloons were flying that morning, with 12 passengers and a pilot each. We waited while trucks and trailers were loaded with baskets and balloons. Indemnity waivers were signed. Then we formed a caravan and snaked our way to a desert clearing. A small helium test balloon, called a pibal (for “pilot balloon”), had earlier computed wind speed and direction to determine our optimal takeoff and landing sites.
The chase crews unfurled the balloons on the ground and hitched them to the wicker baskets, or gondolas. Next, with super-strength fans, they filled the balloons with thrusts of fiery propane until the checkerboard-patterned envelopes teetered upright. (Hot air rises, as you recall from grammar school.) They called for us to climb aboard, which we did, enabled by a small footstool and toe-holds cut into the chest-high rectangular basket. We were packed six to a side. Our pilot, Taylor Aldous, the company’s chief operating officer, who has been flying since age 14, was stationed at one end. The sky was now peachy pink.
A fellow passenger chattered nervously about the bumpy takeoff she imagined. I interrupted to tell her we were already in the air, and she hadn’t felt the tiniest sensation. For the next hour, we alternately floated and soared, depending on how much propane Taylor released into the burner above his head. We rose 3,800 feet in height and covered a distance of more than six miles. Up high, we viewed the metropolitan panorama and its surrounding mountains. Down low, while passing over a residential neighborhood, we waved to swimming pool-cleaners and laughed at the yapping lap dogs pursuing our shadow. We drifted over enclaves of flowering saguaro and jumping cholla cacti and the occasional jackrabbit. And a bold yellow sun broke through the horizon.
The entire ride was slow and serene. When another Rainbow Ryder balloon threatened our air space, Taylor assured us: “This will be the most boring mid-air collision you’ve ever seen.” True enough, the two balloons merged briefly and imperceptibly. A “kiss,” he called it.
Taylor kept us a steady stream of banter, relaying stories of past rides and riders. He has witnessed dozens of proposals of marital engagement and, as an ordained minister, has officiated ceremonies aloft. When a passenger queried whether he has a license to fly the balloon, he quipped, “This is not a good time to ask me that.”
As we descended toward the waiting chase crews, Taylor asked whether we preferred a hard landing or a soft landing. “If it’s a soft landing, it happens because of pilot skill,” he deadpanned. “If it’s a hard landing, it’s because of Mother Nature.”
Our landing was soft, just as unremarkable as our takeoff. Chase crews re-folded the balloons and ferried the baskets. The pilots set up folding tables and presented us with a spread of oven-fresh bagels and muffins accompanied by jams and cream cheese. They expertly popped champagne corks and filled glass flutes with our choice of chilled sparkling wine or fruit juice or both.
Then Taylor raised his glass and offered a toast–or a prayer, if you prefer. “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
“Here, here,” we responded.
1725 W. Williams Dr., Building D, Suite 39
Phoenix, AZ 85027