I am desperately afraid of heights—always have been. But as I get older, it bothers me more and more that this phobia holds me back from experiencing life in general, not to mention big, bucket-list-type happenings. For instance, when my family took a trip to Ireland a few years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to kiss the Blarney stone, which sits atop a 90-foot tower. (There’s a now-legendary photo of me cowering near the wall while the others gleefully smooch the stone.) Kissing the Blarney stone is supposed to give you “the gift of gab,” which I hardly need, but I did feel a little like I was disappointing my Irish ancestors.
So when I was offered the chance to ride in a hot-air balloon in Albuquerque, N.M.— the world’s balloon capital—I decided I wasn’t going to let my fear rob me of another adventure.
I rose early on a summer morning to take my trip with Albuquerque’s Rainbow Ryders. Most balloon rides happen at sunrise, not just because the view is spectacular, but because that’s when the winds and temperature are most tranquil. Our group arrived at the launch site, a large church parking lot, around 6 a.m. Soon, several vans toting trailers arrived and enormous swaths of brightly colored nylon began to emerge.
I was surprised to learn how much ritual is associated with Albuquerque’s hot air ballooning. For one, it’s considered part of the experience to help set up the balloons. The preparation took about an hour, even with our large group pitching in to help inflate the balloons, attach them to baskets and get the propane burners going. Since hot air rises, heating the enormous volume of space within the balloon (or “envelope”) enables it to lift off the ground, and it’s kept floating by continuing to blast heated air into the cavity (and lowered by letting the air out).
I’ll be honest—the set-up experience is a bit of a blur to me, as I was starting to seriously consider backing out of this ride. In person, the wicker baskets seemed smaller than I’d expected, even though some of them can hold up to 14 people. They looked rather unsubstantial for something I was about to ascend 1,000 feet off the ground in. I inched my way closer to the biggest balloon, thinking that I’d feel safer with more people onboard. The large basket had a divider down the center and a separate compartment for the pilot, filled with ropes and a fierce-looking metal tank. Everyone stands in the basket, and the sides are lined with handles to hold onto for takeoff and landing.
Suddenly, it was no-turning-back time as we were instructed to climb in, so I took a deep breath and did it. There’s no graceful way in and out of the basket, which was about 4-5 feet deep. You have to hoist yourself up and over the side, but the Ryders were happy to help. Once in, I felt a little better, especially walled in on one side by the divider and on the other by people.
Just as we were about to ascend, we learned that one of the other balloons had been grounded because it wasn’t working properly. This news was a little scary, but it was also reassuring to realize how seriously the Ryders were taking our safety. Fortunately there was enough room in other balloons to accommodate the extra riders, or I might have volunteered to stay behind!
As I’d been assured by a few friends who’ve been airborne in a balloon, the ascension was slow and gentle. No one really steers a hot-air balloon but the wind—the pilot can primarily move it up and down by firing up the propane burner or letting hot air escape. He can change directions by moving the balloon up or down to catch wind currents, but it’s nearly impossible to follow a specific route.
As we hovered at about 1,200 feet, I did begin to relax a little. The sensation is a lot like floating, and the ride is almost impossibly smooth—no wobbling or jostling. I still couldn’t bring myself to get too close to the edge of the basket, but the early-morning stillness and gorgeous scenery was serene and soothing. It was humbling to think I was one of a relative few who get to experience such a breathtaking view in this unusual way.
Before long, I realized that in my quest to insulate myself in the balloon as much as possible, I’d chosen the spot closest to the flame. I was definitely starting to sweat, and gladly accepted the bottle of water that the pilot offered. I was glad I’d dressed in layers so that I could slip off my jacket. A few people switched places to get a different view or escape the heat, and my basketmates tried to coax me to the edge, but I wimped out and stayed put. Though I was enjoying myself, I definitely wasn’t magically cured of my phobia.
After about an hour of floating—during which we noticed with delight how clear and crisp sounds from the ground were—our pilot told us he was going to look for a place to land. At this, my alarm started to kick in again. There’s an unplanned element of ballooning that can be unsettling if you’re a Type A. Since you can’t steer, you can’t pre-designate a landing spot. So the pilot is constantly scanning for a good place to set the balloon down, and the length of your ride depends on when he finds one. When he locates a spot, he communicates with the ground, and a “chase crew” heads that way to help with the breakdown.
In our case, the pilot spotted a large empty lot behind some houses, and when we got above it, he began our descent. We got a little safety lecture first, and were instructed again to hold on, and also to bend our knees as we touched the ground to help brace the impact. This sounded terrifying when being described at 800 feet, but in the end, it was actually my favorite part of the experience. We touched down on a pile of sand and bounced slightly to the side before hitting the ground and bouncing a few more times. Maybe it was just the fact of being on the ground again, but I felt giddy—what fun! I wouldn’t say I’d conquered my fear, but I was thrilled that I’d tamped it down enough to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime ride.
The chase crew promptly helped stabilize the basket and we climbed out one by one (again, not gracefully). Then began the breakdown, where we got a bit of a workout helping stuff the giant nylon balloon into a large bag, and hefting the basket back onto the trailer.
Our adventure wasn’t quite over, as it was time for the final ritual, one that balloonists take quite seriously. With champagne glasses raised to the skies, we recited a prayer:
The winds have welcomed you with softness
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands
You have flown so high and so well
That the gods have joined you in your laughter
And set you back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth