Thirty-three years ago I went to my first Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, NM. At that time, there was no grandeur. There was simply balloonist who gathered together to FLY. Alone, I walked out to the open field in the dark. Crews were busy getting their gear ready for the sunrise launch. I, along with other spectators, sought a warm beverage. With a hot tea in hand, I watched the crews work diligently to prepare the hot air balloons for launch.

Living in New Mexico throughout my therapy training, I watched hot air balloons floating on air most mornings and evenings. A  snapshot in my head is the multicolored balloons set against the Sandia Peaks. It always looked like grace in the sky.

One day my brother Ronny and I were standing in his kitchen talking when the room went dark. Ronny and I looked at each other and then we looked up at the skylight overhead. It was then we heard the “chuuchuuu” of a hot air balloon as the gas was lit. The balloon lifted and light returned to the room. The balloon touched down on the land above Ronny’s house. Moments later, the chase crew arrived to retrieve the party.

I have attended countless balloon glows where they tether the balloons to the ground after sunset and set the flames firing to light up the brilliantly colored fabric. I have stood in a gondola and posed for a photo as if I were in flight. On March 29, 2018, I took my first flight in a hot air balloon.

Sedona, AZ was the backdrop. Quite honestly, you can’t find a better venue than the red rocks of Sedona. My sister Jan and her husband Dale accompanied Beth and I. This was my 50th B-day present, 5 years late due to extreme winds that kept us grounded in 2013. A white van picked us up around 6AM. A bunch of young, strong men, the chase crew, joined us at a parking lot and we were off to the launch site.

Watching the operation, start to finish was amazing. The young men sprung into action as they wheeled carts stuffed with colorful material away from the gondola. I never saw a basket like the one laying on the ground on its side. It was rectangular, divided into four quadrants with a large space filled with gas containers in the middle. Once the balloons were unfolded, the fans were fired up to fill them. Slowly, the colors started to appear as the balloons began to take shape. Then came the FIRE ~ “chuuchuuu” “chuuchuuu” “chuuchuuu”. . . .

With the basket upright, we were welcomed aboard. Jan, Dale, Beth and I, gracefully and not so gracefully, climbed into our section of the gondola. Simple instructions were given: Stability is not based on your weight, feel free to move around, the balloon will turn for everyone to catch every view, enjoy the ride… “chuuchuuu” “chuuchuuu” “chuuchuuu” … AND we rose from the ground… just like that.

The crew was working feverishly on the ground to launch the other two balloons in our party. By then, we were seeing the sun softly touching the red rocks of Sedona one ray at a time. It was magical. When Mark, the pilot, hit the gas fieriness from the flame warmed our necks. With no engine, only the sound of our party and the flames hung in the air.

Ballooning left me feeling as though I was floating in mid-air. It was as if I were on a rotating pedestal 1,000 feet above Sedona where nature called to me. I answered the call by taking in the scenes through my eyes and letting the awe seep into each and every cell. Magnificence!!! Mark maneuvered the balloon just as he promised. A tug on a rope and the view changed, nothing dramatic, just a slow-mo panorama of a stunning piece of Earth with the sun lighting up different sections as it rose higher in the sky.

As a fox was spotted, my attention was drawn to the ground. I caught a glimpse its fluffy tail as it scurried behind a green bush, its head turned to the monstrous balloon overhead. Mark said, “This is how I like to go hiking. You can see everything and you don’t stress too much physically.” Floating high above it all, everything changes.

The other two balloons caught up with us though they were on another thermal in the distance. Capturing them on film with the red rocks behind them was magazine worthy. Beth caught the shadows of the balloons as she was fascinated with what was happening on the ground. To see the paths, the greenery, the wildlife, by air, that drew Beth’s attention.

Jan and Dale were beaming. We were a little nervous with Dale as he claimed “fear of heights.” Mark’s talk made him realize that he is not afraid of “heights,” he’s afraid of EDGES. Even Mark, a hot air balloon pilot with 28 years under his belt claimed “fear of edges.”

Love filled my heart. The silence, the stillness, the grace of being above it all and taking in the divine… WOW! Hugs all around. Gratitude, so much gratitude for my life that I even texted Lor, my mother, when we were on the ground; “Thank you for my life.”

Mark went through the landing procedures as our flight was coming to a close. “There are straps on each side for you hold on, please stay in the balloon once we touch down, we’ll let you know when it is time to exit.” Everyone found their straps and then we all laughed as we neared the ground and Mark instructed the chase crew to pull us over to a flat parking area. “Wait, what?” Three young men did as instructed and pulled the balloon filled with 17 people and supplies across the street and into the designated area. Mark said, “This is good.” The next thing, we touched down. Mark laughed, “I guess you didn’t need those straps after-all.” It was so gentle, that we barely noticed the difference between hovering and landing. Mark said to the crew, “Now, somebody needs to go pick up that cow-pie because it’s in line with where the balloon will come down.” Shovel in hand and the cow-pie disappeared. The crew already worked hard but that was just the beginning of the end. A little fun comes with the job. One guy had a rope that was attached to the balloon. With the rope in hand, he ran away from the balloon and he is airborne, flying in a circle in front of us with a BIG smile on his face. Mark invites a teenager in our group to give it a try. Grinning ear to ear, he gets out of the balloon and he is off to be lifted. The teen needs more practice but the experience made his day. A piece of history is etched in his gray matter.

Mark asks us to exit the gondola. As the balloon deflates, the chase crew feverishly works to get all the air out, roll, fold, and stuff the balloon back into the cart. The teen, now an unofficial crew member lends a hand. The gondola is next to be loaded. Three guys in front to lift, three in back to tilt it. Mark drives the van with the trailer back and the front of the gondola is in. The van powers back and the crew lifts the back of the basket into the trailer. As we load into the van it feels like Game Over but Mark drives over to other balloons and his crew jumps in to help. It was quite the operation.

The magic didn’t end there. Everyone met up at a picnic area for the traditional champagne toast. “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 gently set you back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.” For that and so much more, I AM SO GRATEFUL!!! Be well… Nancy T