This adventure began two years ago when I won an auction item at a charity event: a night at a Napa hotel/spa and hot air balloon ride for two. When I won, my friend Danielle said, “Whoa. That will be the best date ever. If you don’t have a boyfriend, can I be your back up?” A year later, I called her and asked her what dates she was available to go to Napa. We went, and the weather gods didn’t cooperate. We were grounded.
A couple of weeks ago, I called the hot air balloon company. “That certificate expired six months ago.” “Oh. Hm. I didn’t realize that. Is there any way to extend it?” With a harrumph, she said that they’d still honor the certificate. We made our way up to Napa, once again.
Sunday morning at 5:45 am came way too early. We stumbled out of bed, quickly ran a brush through our hair, and made our way to the meeting point, the Marriott hotel. As we were walking towards the sliding glass doors, I mumbled to Danielle, “This feels so deja vu. I’m experience PSTD. No, that’s not right – PTSD.” We made our way into the lobby and were greeted by the same smiling woman in the “Balloons Above the Valley” sweatshirt as we had been greeted by last year. She signed us in, and invited us to help ourselves to coffee or tea. As we sat down, she began her spiel. “As you noticed when you drove in this morning, there was mist and fog…” I turned to Danielle. “We’re being cancelled.” The guide continued, “So we’re going to go to Windsor, about 45 minutes from here, where we’ll launch.” Danielle turned to me. “This is the same spiel we heard last year.” We boarded the vans. And waited. And waited some more. Our driver finally told us we were on standby. The fog had rolled into Windsor, and they weren’t able to launch. Danielle turned towards the window as she said, “If we’re cancelled today, I’m not coming again. It’s a sign. We’re not meant to do this.” I closed my eyes.
A few minutes later our driver told us we were cleared to go. I was reluctant to get too excited. As we drove towards Windsor, I noticed the fog like I see in San Francisco so often. Thick, opaque, zero visibility fog. I wasn’t optimistic. I was tired.
Forty minutes into our drive we crested a hill. And, like magic, there was no more fog. As we arrived to the launch site, the balloons were growing as fans blew air into them. We followed JP to our basket. We awkwardly climbed in. And then, a few minutes later, we rose, ever so slowly, ever so gently. Like magic, our basket ascended into the air, slowly at first, then more quickly. Higher, higher, higher. We watched the other balloons launch below us.
And then all was still. There was no wind. Which evidently isn’t a great thing when you’re in a hot air balloon. So we hovered in the sky, thousands of feet above the barren fields, which once housed tomatoes, rice, or other crops. Nothing could be heard except for the intermittent roar of the gas burner, heating the air in the balloon. We drifted slowly over more barren fields, then the highway, then agriculture processing plants. We hovered above the eery wisps of fog, blanketing the earth.
We didn’t go far. Maybe a quarter of a mile. The pilot said it was unusual, but we had to work with what we had. We watched other balloons ascend, and hover above their launch area. No balloons moved much.
After an hour of hovering, we began our descent, floating down quickly, skimming an alfalfa field and a couple of flocks of sheep and baby lambs. The taking off and the landing were my favorite parts, those transitional moments when you were just airborne, or just about to be grounded.