Strawberry Heights on the rise
It had been a great flight, my first-ever in a hot air balloon. Our pilot, John Leisok, had been the first off the ground. He had glided our balloon, the Strawberry Heights, in spiraling patterns as we waited and watched while five other balloons filled and circled up, up and away.
My co-passengers, hot air newbies Lloyd and Melissa Wedblad, and I gawked and snapped photos as our balloon (the color, shape and size of a gigantic strawberry) floated in the skies above the Running Y Ranch launch site outside the southern Oregon city of Klamath Falls.
"My wife said, 'I've always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon," so I said, 'Let's do it,' " Lloyd explained of the incentive for taking the ride. "Me, I think it's the opportunity of a lifetime."
After an hour that passed too quickly, John gently lowered the Strawberry Heights onto a snow-covered field at the south end of the sprawling ranch.
But when his radio and cell phone failed to work, and when his crew failed to show to retrieve us, John grew increasingly antsy. Suddenly, after mulling his options, John declared, "Let's head over the mountain."
That's when the real adventure began.
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Riding in a hot air balloon has been termed, with both respect and trepidation, "traveling into the domain of the gods." Humans aren't physically designed to fly, so the earliest balloonists were unsure if they might be violating nature and invoking the wrath of greater beings. The earliest hot air balloon experiment, John told us later, involved using smoke from a fire to "fly" a pair of ladies bloomers.
When it comes to hot air balloons, the Leisoks and I are late bloomers. We had put our faith in John, who began flying in 1981. "My Dad and I trained together," John told us. "It was a father-son activity."
His father had taken an impromptu ride in a tethered hot air balloon. That night at the family dinner table, he announced his plan to fly balloons, and recruited John. A short time later the two were preparing for their first free flight. "The excitement hit me so hard I had to pee," John admitted.
* * *
We experienced a different sort of excitement as our soaring Strawberry reached new heights, passing over the tree-covered ridge and free-floating higher and higher 800 feet, then 2,000 feet and more above the ground. When we reached 5,000 feet, John decided we needed to become part of the mile-high club. He manipulated the burner to send us further up, 5,280 feet above the ranch, where we celebrated with a traditional mile-high group hug.
From our lofty perch, a panorama of sights opened and expanded. To the north were Upper Klamath and Agency lakes, pyramid-shaped Mount McLoughlin, the mountains that surround Crater Lake and snow-tipped peaks even further north Diamond Peak, Bachelor Butte and the Three Sisters.
To the south were open farmlands, the winding Klamath River, the massive form of Mount Shasta and, closer, Round Lake, an oasis in the forest with a golf course, houses and ranches.
John aimed the Strawberry Heights toward the settlement. Sailing along, he dropped the Heights to exciting lows as we sluiced through tall ponderosa pines, sometimes intentionally allowing the basket we were riding in to nudge tree branches and close enough for Melissa to nab some needles and Lloyd a tiny cone.
John guided the Strawberry Heights up and down, searching for winds he hoped would whiff the balloon ever closer toward the Round Lakes community.
Finding those winds wasn't a breeze. We landed on an open field.
Lloyd hopped out and towed the balloon, which John kept a few feet above ground,
south toward the gathering of houses. As he tired, I disembarked and, using
a long line, helped pull while stumbling over the snowy, icy meadow and tippy-toeing
over ice-fractured drainages.
John's crew rumbled down the road, honking and waving. Because of fences and ditches, Lloyd and I continued towing until we reached a fence where John's pickup and balloon trailer could enter the field. Then the work began deinflating the balloon, stuffing it into a huge sack, then hefting the sack and, later, the basket, to the trailer.
"It was awesome," Melissa chirruped afterwards. "I really enjoyed it." "It's more peaceful than I though it would be," John said, a sound of "Wow!" in his voice. "You couldn't know to expect how peaceful it is. It was worth getting up at 5 o'clock."
Four hours after lifting off, we were back at the Running Y. Lloyd and I kneeled on a carpet section while Melissa, still numb from the hours of below freezing temperatures, stood.
John reverently recited a brief history of ballooning then poured small offerings
of Martinelli's sparkling cider into small paper cups. We were instructed to
pick up the cups with our teeth and, tilting our heads backward, try to down
the drink without spilling. A successful drink means smooth flying in future
balloons. A mistake and, well, maybe another activity is a safer idea. Lloyd
downed his dose easily, then held Melissa's cup, which she chugged. I tried,
but dropped and spilled the cup after gulping only a small portion.
Our certificates commemorating our first flights arrived by mail several days later, but I was still emotionally sky high. It's impossible to be soarly disappointed flying in a hot air balloon.
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Lee Juillerat lives in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he's been accused of being full of hot air for the stories he writes and tells. He is a long-time contributor to High On Adventure and is a frequent freelance writer for various regional magazines, including Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast, Range and Horizon and Alaska airlines in-flight magazines. He can be contacted at email@example.com