Last week our management team held a retreat so we could concentrate on thinking ahead for the next five years. On the final day we were told to bring warm clothes and soft-soled shoes. I thought we were going for a hike – you know, an orchestrated bonding experience. Instead, we were marched to a meadow where two hot air balloons were waiting for us.
I’ve never been in a hot air balloon.
It was a perfect evening to see our beautiful Berkshire Hills in all their late summer glory. At least, that’s what I repeated to myself as the balloons were inflated and my knees shook. Did I tell you I’m a nervous flier? I’ve been in all kinds of planes from two-seaters over the African jungle to jumbo jets around the world. I’ve even been in a glider. I’ve sat in 747 cockpits with jet pilots while they expressed their adoration for all those dials. I’ve taken the joystick of a two-seater in an effort by the pilot to have me “feel her soul.” I’ve read all the books and I understand why planes stay up there. As a friend of mine says, “Planes fly because of the laws of physics, not in spite of them.”
Nothing’s worked. I still experience at least one moment of abject terror every time I fly and that’s if there are no bumps. It comes down to this - I just don’t trust those engines and I don’t like knowing that I’m 30,000 feet in the air with no way out. (I always choose an aisle seat because looking down reminds me that we’re not on the ground.)
So, riding in a hot air balloon powered by a propane flame thrower, with a pilot dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and being told that it would be better if my partner and I didn’t travel in the same balloon together wasn’t my idea of must-have recreation no matter how glorious the early evening light was!
And then we had to sign those releases. You know, the ones that tell you that you can’t hold the pilot responsible if you impale on a church steeple or the balloon goes up in flames. I made light of it, of course, because everyone else was being so carefree and also because I knew they were watching me. Gaily, I jumped into the basket and fell into deep prayer wishing I’d taken a seasick pill.
It makes a lot of noise when they pump that blow torch to keep the air in the balloon warmer than the ambient temperature. “Heat rises, cold sinks” became my mantra as we floated gently away. When the blow torch wasn’t in operation and singeing the top of my head, things were blissfully quiet and serene. The hills revealed their secrets, unfathomable from the ground. We discovered grand houses tucked into hillsides; formal gardens; lakes and ponds. We floated over trees so close we picked leaves from their very top branches. We looked for bear and deer in usually impenetrable woodland.
Our beautiful Berkshires Hills – the roots of mountains that used to be higher than the Rockies – spread out all around us in a shimmering blue light. Yes, this was worth it. This was actually fun.
Oh, I forgot to tell you that balloons can be made to go up and down but not sideways, so when I asked the pilot, “Where are we going to land?” His answer was, “I haven’t got a clue.” He did reveal that he planned to fly over the upcoming ridge. A slightly frantic, I thought, pumping of the Bunsen burner gave us enough lift to float over the ridge with not much to spare. And we did bump into our sister balloon as they got caught up in an air current that drove them backwards and into us. We have handprints on our balloon to prove it.
It eventually occurred to me that perhaps we were running out of propane since we had switched to the second tank and there’d been quite a bit of flame pumping going on. Sure enough our pilot started to make noises about looking for a field. In case he missed them, we were happy to help and pointed to several large, green, soft spaces close at hand. Remember I said that a balloon can’t go sideways? This is when I fully appreciated the phrase, “So near and yet so far,” as we had to leave a number of tantalizingly close meadows behind.
I have no sense of direction so trying to figure out where we were was impossible and everything looks so different from a hot air balloon. However, I did know that we were dangerously close to heading for the State of New York and hundreds of acres of dense woodland. But those puckish air currents just wouldn’t cooperate. Then, suddenly we were headed for a lush alfalfa field – the last green space before we hit NY. We were instructed to bend our knees and hold on tight. No problem. We bounced a few times and were down, exhilarated, congratulating each other and talking about when we could do it again. Now here comes the good part.
This unpredictable, uncontrollable balloon had landed in a field next to the house where I started the company fifteen years ago! It’s true. (My neighbors came running out to welcome us.) I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s almost as if the balloon had deliberately taken us back to the beginning to show us how far we’d come. Lots of hugs and tears.
Our fifteen years since we started the company have been a soaring balloon ride with risk, unpredictability, adventure and quite a bit of hot air thrown in. But more than anything else it has been a ride full of beauty and discovery and connection.
Who needs to go sideways when you can go up?