My First Ride or How I Got Over My Fear of HeightsDad kept saying, “They’ll ask if you want a ride. You should go.” Then he would go into the story, poking fun at me for crying when he released the burner on his balloon. I was two and never did get that ride. So this was my chance, right?
I attended my first Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta the year we moved from the suburbs of Cleveland to the high desert of New Mexico. We would arrive before dawn, walking the grounds eating breakfast burritos and drinking hot chocolate. As the hundreds of balloonists prepped for flight we weaved in and out of the balloons as they filled with cold air then hot and took off from the field. It was beautiful and mesmerizing. I could only imagine flying in one.
My friends and I continued the early morning tradition through college then we all went our separate ways. I moved to Chicago and have been back to the fiesta a few times in the past decade. A few years back my wife and I had an opportunity to ride in our friends balloon, weather permitting. We never did get that ride.
Three years ago, Leo landed on my Dad’s property. From that day forward Leo and his wife Danielle have been launching from the Back 40 during the special shapes and competition days of the fiesta.
The weather called for thunderstorms the morning Leo and Danielle were supposed to come. But when I woke, it was beautiful, clear and crisp. Perfect for flying. They pulled in first followed by their chase crews. Leo and Danielle drive the 40 hours each year from Montreal with their handmade balloons in tow.
Balloons had begun launching from the field a couple miles west of the Back 40 by the time they began prepping Monarque (Danielle) and Dragon Fly (Leo). Their crews were fast at work; laying out the tarps, prepping the baskets, attaching the burners, and filling the balloons. Before I knew it Leo said, “Would you like to ride?” I don’t think he finished asking before I said, “Yes.” I thought, “When will I ever get this opportunity again?” Next thing I know, the balloons are filled with cold air, the burner is ignited, and the basket is upright. It’s time to go. I hop in the basket with another first time rider and our pilot Leo. We are off.
We are weightless, flying above the Back 40, Albuquerque, and north to Cerrillos. My fear of heights was gone. I’ve seen Albuquerque from its streets; north, south, east, and west. From the top of Sandia Peak, but that was nothing compared to flying above it at 1500 feet. The mountains, Bosque, downtown, foothills, and Rio Grande came alive in the morning sun.
We rode the wind for an hour or more before Danielle found a field to land in. Leo navigated our balloon to the same field and landed within 20 feet of her. Our chase crew found us along with all the neighbors. Everyone pitched in putting the balloons away for the next day’s flight. Champagne was poured and Leo recited the balloonist’s prayer in French while Danielle said it in English.
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 in your laughter
and set you gently back
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.