ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I tell people I’m afraid of heights, but I’m starting to think I don’t know myself very well.
When my editor asked if I wanted to ride in a hot air balloon this year, my acrophobia seemed nonexistent and I quickly made plans to get up before the sun and drive to Balloon Fiesta Park.
We met our pilot, Scott Appelman, on a chilly Saturday morning and were given a forecast of clear skies and calm winds. The nine of us who were set to ride together piled into a Rainbow Ryders van and headed for our launch site, which was moved to a parking lot a few miles south of the field to accommodate for north-blowing winds.
After signing away our lives – a waiver alerting us to the potential risks including death and great bodily harm – we clambered over the walls of the gondola and into what I could only think of as a rickety wicker basket. In reality, the baskets are probably more sturdy than most cars, and Appelman stood at the helm confidently. My hands were embarrassingly shaky as I fastened a GoPro to the edge of the basket and hit record, telling myself, “breathe.”
We rose about 1,000 feet in a matter of minutes, which left my head clear and clean as if the sudden change in altitude knocked any and all worries off their feet.
The air was crisp and the world was largely silent, save for the burners of neighboring balloons pumping out fiery propane flames and lifting their respective baskets so high it felt like we could sail over the Sandias. I was glad I decided to leave my pom-pom-adorned hat at home, because I was more worried the hairs on top of my head would singe under the heat from the two burners directly above me than I was about hiding my bed head or keeping warm.
The sun greeted us with soft rays as it broke over the mountaintops, warming us and illuminating the tiny homes and even tinier cars speckling the city below. As we drifted slowly toward Rio Rancho, dogs below barked at the shadow of our balloon. We looked down to watch them run in circles in their yards, saw people walking in their pajamas to fetch the paper, and caught sunbeams bouncing off the Rio Grande as a gaggle of geese burst up toward us from a sandbar.
I didn’t realize quite how high we were until the geese flew under our feet. Looking to the mountains for reference, I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’
Before I was ready, we were scouting a landing site. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the open air I had been secretly scared of in the days leading up to our ride. The pink sky turned to its usual blue, and overnight clouds sank to rest under the horizon line as we “hopped” over a tree and hit the ground with a very soft “thunk.”
We cheered, and Appelman and his crew helped us out of the basket and began to deflate the big yellow balloon. Soon we were back in the van on the way to our cars, and I caught myself starting to nod off as I pressed my head against a back window. It was an early morning, a good morning, and I wanted to go again.
A champagne toast awaited us at the end of our journey, and we were given certificates earned for our guts and gusto.
Watching the big balloons from the ground is one thing, they get smaller and smaller as they float up, up, and away and into the sunlight. But sitting in the basket and hanging an arm over the rim is nothing less than a breathtaking experience.
There aren’t many things that can pull me out of bed before dawn, and I never thought I’d willingly get into a hot-pocket of air tethered to a basket, but now I catch myself wondering if I should send well wishes to my coworkers and sign up for a balloon ride around the world.