Enjoying the ride

Tall balloon

The quiet surprised me the most.

The first time we took a hot air balloon ride (over Napa Valley, back in our dating days of 2012), we were in a large basket with at least 10 other adults. It was crowded, everyone was chatting — and Spencer I wound up in different compartments on our ride.

(Side note: I was somewhat convinced Spence was going to propose on that fateful ride, but that moment would come six months later. Also, if he had wanted to pop the question in that balloon, it might have been mighty awkward. We would barely have been able to reach each other and hug.)

Back on our honeymoon last November, Spence and I booked a second ride over Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Having had so much fun the last go ’round, we were hoping for another memorable experience. Alas — cold and wind kept us grounded that trip, meaning we had to reschedule . . . for nine months later.

We certainly could have gotten back out to Woodstock, Va., before last weekend, but it’s a long trip — and I knew we’d be in the area for an annual ham radio event Spencer loves on Sunday. The stars finally aligned for us to get airborne once more.

Climbing into the basket (I have stumpy legs — it’s a process), I felt a rush of nerves as our balloon was untethered and the ground crew below us began to fall away. When a hot air balloon is released, everything happens really quickly; one moment you’re on the grass, the next you’re airborne and looking down at the world you thought you knew.

Everything looks different from above.


Blowing up balloons

Mountain view

Church sunset

Farmland


I thought I’d be scared, but somehow . . . I wasn’t. On paper, this looks like exactly the sort of experience that would push me into a fetal-position panic attack (extreme heights, lack of protection/parachute, risk of pilot error and, um, horrible fall to imminent death), but I didn’t even hesitate to ungracefully get in.

Not even after signing my life away in a series of legal documents.

Unlike our large ride in California, only five of us — including the pilot — shared this basket. Without the occasional bursts of fire from the burner keeping us afloat, it was silent . . . or close to silent, anyway. Even from high above we heard cars on the highway, cicadas in trees, dogs barking below on working farms. It was peaceful . . . almost holy.

No one said much. We were smashed with strangers, for one, but more than that? It just didn’t seem like the time. I was too busy gazing at the mountains — ones we were almost even with, it felt — and taking in the low clouds cresting the darkening mountain peaks.

Though only in flight for about a half hour, our view from above was totally different from our sunrise trip in Napa — but just as exciting.


Hills and house

Shadowy hills

Red house

Balloon landing


And this time? I totally wasn’t analyzing Spencer’s every movement, waiting to spot the glint of a diamond. That was a beautiful thing.

We’re married now, I thought. This was an experience we were scheduled to have had in the early days after our wedding, but I suddenly felt grateful it hadn’t worked out.

We needed this break. From the house, from our worries, from work. Though it hasn’t been so very long since our Yosemite trip, the summer has been brutally busy — and this balloon ride, though brief, was almost medicinal.

I didn’t even panic as we sank toward the ground, our basket just clearing the treetops as our pilot prepared us for landing.

For once, I hadn’t worried about the ending.

I just enjoyed the ride.


Hands


Prescription: balloon ride

Balloons


I feel like I should be talking about Christmas, but all I’m thinking about are balloons.

It’s been seven months since Spencer and I sailed above Napa Valley in a hot air balloon — for, like, 45 minutes. Total. But those 45 minutes were absolutely life-affirming, and if I’d ever had any doubt that sometimes serenity can be found in the oddest of places? That would be it.

Eh, I’m dealing with some not-so-fun health issues at the moment. Nothing serious, don’t worry, but it’s jarring to find myself making medical appointments and getting tests and looking up insurance stuff. Filing claims — and realizing that I am the “policy holder.” It makes me feel both impossibly adult and impossibly young. I keep waiting for my organized, efficient and awesome mom to swoop in and handle all this for me, you know?

Sucks growing up.

I realize I’m pretty fortunate to never have had a brush with medical problems before — aside from some carpal stuff from too much crochet and piano in my youth. Never broke a bone, never stayed in a hospital. Aside from a few falls off the ol’ bike and the skinned knees that accompany them, I graduated from youth without any major setbacks.

Though I will be A-OK in no time, I feel weird and a little scared — because I need to start making some major life changes. That’s what’s shaken me up, I think — not even the problem itself, but what it means. Now in my late twenties, my body’s youthful exuberance is no longer something I can take for granted. When I talked to my friend Brandon about my current troubles, he smiled sympathetically. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “It happens. It’s just, you know, part of getting older.”

Getting older.

I won’t just “bounce back” from illnesses. Poor diet choices won’t just . . . melt away, dissolved by walks around campus or the playground. I mean, I’ve gained a significant amount of weight since college. Forty pounds, actually. Forty pounds.

Wow.

So: balloons! I return to balloons. They’re colorful. They make me happy. They’re something to remind me of all the fun life has to offer — the unexpected adventures; the good times and moments of Zen. Riding in that balloon with Spencer was quite Zen for me — so much so that I have a big print of the balloons next to my desk. I look at it often, especially when I’m feeling less-than-sparkly, and I remember.

What it was like to drift with no particular destination — and no control over how you’ll get there.

And I know I’ll feel that warm sun on my face again.


Colorful balloon


Still looking up


On your bucket list: Ride in a hot air balloon.

Standing on a precipice looking down, I get what can only be called “tingly feet.” In addition to my sweaty palms and upset stomach, my toes literally begin to tingle — almost as if they know what it’s like to fall.

It’s a pins-and-needles sensation I know all too well. Like many a reasonable human being, I’m afraid of heights. I remember willing myself to step out onto the glass floor of Toronto’s CN Tower and feeling like I was going to be sick. In Chicago, looking down from atop the Sears Tower (or Willis Tower? When did that name change happen? Oh. 2009) gave me a raging case of tingly feet. It’s vertigo to the extreme.

So why do I then insist on partaking in adventures like hot air balloon rides? Because I don’t want my nerves to run me. Like most of my weird anxieties, I’m locked in an eternal struggle trying to act like a rational person . . . so I can’t let my mind and its always-on panic button keep me from trying things. If my crazy brain had its way, I would be locked up tight in my childhood bedroom clutching my sock monkeys and a list of pros/cons for taking a shower. The point is to open the gates and seize the day, just as the Newsies insist.

So when Spence and I were in California, we signed up to take a hot air balloon ride in Napa Valley. Rising for an awful 4 a.m. wake-up time that morning, I tried to piece together why the balloon escapade seemed like such a brilliant idea — but when we made it outside of Winters, Calif., and stepped into the brilliant sunshine, I remembered why I’d been so excited about the ride in the first place.

We almost didn’t get to go. Stepping out of the shuttle van on site, thick fog was rolling into the valley. Clouds hovered, blocking the colors of sunrise, and our group of six worried we wouldn’t have time to take the balloon ride and get back with our tour group by 9 a.m. Some schedule finagling fixed that, though, and I was back to being giddy when we arrived to see the giant, colorful balloons inflating against the crystal blue sky.

Up in the air, I wasn’t thinking about heights — or falling. I wasn’t thinking about fear. I was looking out at the city in the distance, at the farms and fields below us, at my boyfriend with a wide smile on his face. “I can’t believe how quiet it is,” Spencer said, and he was right — nothing but vast and epic silence as we drifted on a breeze, all of us snapping photos and staring with open mouths. It was the most at peace I’ve felt in months.

The next time you’re updating your bucket list, grab your pen — or your typing fingers — and add “HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE” in fat block letters. Don’t overanalyze it. Even with a bumpy landing that sent me sailing against the rigid basket, I was pumped enough to have gone straight back up into the air.

And I never did get tingly feet. I was only looking out — and up.