Most of my adventures are the gentle sort. I won’t be climbing Mt. Everest, or even Mt. Rainier in my lifetime. I have zero interest in bungy jumping, roller coasters, or even in riding the London Eye. And I always said they’d have to pay me to get me into a hot air balloon.
So how did I find myself in Turkey, in the wee hours of the morning, on my way to my very first hot air balloon ride? My son Eli really wanted to go, and as I get older, I find myself experiencing more “What the heck!” moments. At 5:30AM, I got into a van with sixteen other people. The vehicle was lit by an eerie red light, as if we were about to be launched into some weird sci-fi adventure.
We arrived at dawn, with the balloons still being filled with hot air generated by propane gas.
It was hard not to imagine them as living creatures, struggling awkwardly to their feet like a camel.
I was privately terrified, but climbed into the basket along with Eli and the others.
Our captain’s name was Mustafa. Mustafa said he’d had to go to the US to get his training, and he’d been doing this for eight years. He had shiny gold epaulets on the shoulders of his white uniform, so I listened carefully when he told us there were only two rules. The first was to remain in the basket at all times.
The second was what we should do upon landing. We were to grab the rope handles on the inside of the basket, hold tight, and lean away from the ground when the basket went scudding across the landing spot. I’d always envisioned balloons at the mercy of the wind, floating above a flat landscape, coming down wherever the wind took them, retrieved by trucks that followed behind like tornado chasers. But we were in Cappodocia, a land of many valleys, and strange rock formations.
Where would we even find a flat place to land?
The beast roared, and I felt its hot breath upon my neck. The captain loosened the reins…
…and we were airborne.
The sky brightened, and we saw balloons rising everywhere, like at a party or a parade, where scores of balloons are released at once.
Slowly, gracefully, we glided on the air currents.
I wasn’t at all afraid. I sensed only calm and wonder. The landing might be rough, but I was living in the moment, taking in the colors…
… and the scenery.
I watched other balloons glide above us…
They were like gentle ghosts…I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better….
…the sun rose in a burst of color and light.
The valley was flooded with a golden warmth…
…and the windows in the village below glistened like diamonds.
When it was time to land, I watched as Mustafa used bursts of hot air to lift the balloon over each new ridge. Once he radioed another pilot for his visual take on our position in relation to a particular outcrop. The pilot assured him that we could clear it. At first I was disconcerted, but I do the same when I am parallel parking in a tight spot. “Eli, stick your head out the window and tell me if I can get past that car’s fender.”
The wind was not cooperating, and our hour in the air stretched out to an hour and a half as Mustafa maneuvered the stubborn creature, but he clearly knew what he was doing. We came to a plateau, where I recognized our crew of balloon chasers, and prepared for impact.
The captain lowered a long sturdy rope, and used what he called his “three horse power” landing gear, his three crewmen to haul the balloon while Mustafa kept us just high enough off the ground for them to maneuver the basket toward the truck.
It was skillfully and artfully done, a perfect landing, directly onto the trailer. After disembarkingwe found a surprise awaiting us. The breakfast of champions!
This experience was life-changing for me, as if a switch inside me turned on to the world’s possibilities and opportunities.
I probably won’t climb Mt. Everest in my lifetime, but I might yet take a ride on the London Eye.