Skip to content

Up In the Air

August 8, 2011

One of my favorite TV shows when I was a little kid was 3-2-1 Contact, an educational show on PBS that featured three teenagers who explored a new scientific theme in each episode. Their exploits were hit or miss in terms of holding my interest, but I always sat through the whole show anyway just to see The Bloodhound Gang, the mini-show within the show, which featured young detectives solving mysteries. Still, occasionally the main part of the show would grab my attention. One of those times was an episode about wind currents in which one of the girls on the show learned how hot air balloons work and then rode in one. I don’t know if I was more amazed that people could fly simply by heating air or by the sight of a couple of people floating gently through the sky, but ever since the day I saw that episode I’ve desperately wanted to ride in a hot air balloon. If I were the type of person to have a bucket list, a hot air baloon ride would be somewhere near the top.

When I first started planning this trip it never occurred to me to try to fit in a hot air balloon ride, but then I started researching a pretty little lakeside town in the Idaho panhandle, called Coeur D’Alene, that we’d be passing through on our way from Helena to Seattle. On the Coeur D’Alene tourism website they mention hot air balloon rides. I started thinking about how fantastic it would be to ride in not just any old hot air balloon but one that’s floating above picturesque scenery like a lake surrounded by mountains.

The I figured out that we wouldn’t have time to stop in Coeur D’Alene for long enough to take a balloon ride. Lucky for me, Lake Tahoe also has balloon rides. Even better, Lake Tahoe also has a picturesque lake surrounded by mountains–some say the most beautiful lake and mountains in the country, if not the world.

Of course that became the plan for Lake Tahoe. We’d be getting to Lake Tahoe on a Thursday night and staying until Sunday morning before heading off to Salt Lake City, so Friday would be a perfect day for a balloon ride over the lake. I found the best balloon company to use. It was expensive, and the rides go out at sunrise to take advantage of lighter winds, so we’d have to wake up ridiculously early. But bucket list items don’t come along every day. I called them to make a reservation, only to be told they were already overbooked for Friday, with a long waiting list that they would never get through. If I had just called a few days earlier …

I was heartbroken. There had to be a way. I pleaded. No deal. The woman said they had availability for Sunday morning. Great! The only problems were that (1) we were supposed to leave the area to head to Salt Lake City Sunday morning, and (2) we had already changed plans slightly and would be staying in Carson City Saturday night, which is about an hour northwest of Lake Tahoe. That meant we’d have to wake up an hour before ridiculously early.

Screw Salt Lake City. And screw sleep. I made the reservation for Sunday morning.

We were all packed up and in the car by 5:30 am, well before sunrise, and headed to the Tahoe Keys Marina. Why the marina? Well, instead of launching the balloon from the ground and landing on the ground like every other balloon company in the world, these guys launch and land from a boat in the middle of the lake. So there we were, out on the lake as the sun rose above the mountains, watching our morning activity inflate.

A few months back there was an article in the New York Times Magazine about writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams in which there was much discussion of the great value Abrams places on continued mystery. A central anecdote involved a childhood trip to a magic shop:

He recalled getting something called a mystery box. On the outside it had a big question mark, and on the inside it had . . . what? Toys, presumably. Tricks, maybe. If you shook the box, you heard them rattling around. But their precise nature wasn’t known. That was the thrilling part, the part that held your imagination captive. You purchased a mystery box because you wanted to be surprised.

For Abrams’s TED talk, he actually brought his boyhood mystery box onstage. And the kicker was that some 35 years after getting it, he still hadn’t opened it, because once he did, its spell would be broken and its power surrendered. In its closed form, he told the audience: “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.”

J.J. Abrams would hate this road trip. In a sense this trip is about opening every mystery box we can find. And now it was time to open another one. Sleep still in our eyes, the Hamster and I climbed into the gondola (along with eight other passengers and the pilot). The crew unstrapped the gondola from the deck. The mystery box opened.

It was exactly what I’d hoped it would be. We just sort of … floated up into the air. We were on a boat, and then seconds later we were a thousand feet above a crystal blue lake, being gently blown by a breeze we didn’t even feel because we were moving along with it.

The views were extraordinary in every direction. Just for fun, the pilot took us down and briefly landed the gondola on the water, which was Sam’s favorite part. Mine was when he took us in low over a marsh and then floated us back over the treetops. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was just like I remember them doing on 3-2-1 Contact.

The Hamster and I were also in complete awe of the science behind it all, repeatedly staring up at the flames every time they shot us higher into the sky and marveling at the pilot’s ability to steer only by lifting and lowering us into different wind currents.

We didn’t talk much; we were both too curious. We just looked out, or looked up, and took it all in.

By the time we were back on land we didn’t care that we had already been up for so many hours. We didn’t care that we were going to be spending the rest of the day driving 600 miles to Utah. Well, truthfully, we still weren’t thrilled about driving to Utah. But we were on such a high that it didn’t matter. It was a very different rush than we got from the dune buggy ride. There was no adrenaline at play here–just the knowledge that we had flown up into the air powered by nothing but hot air, that we had done something we never thought we’d do, that most people had never done, that we may never do again, and that was absolutely fantastic. That we had opened the mystery box and loved what we found inside. We were both still grinning when we got in the car.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: