Owning a newspaper with a skimpy budget and few people besides yourself to fill the pages with on-deadline content requires wearing many hats. The one that fit me best was ‘ace (make that only) reporter,’ though I also did graphic design, sold advertising space, and cleaned the toilet. Like the publisher in my mystery novel, The Song of Jackass Creek, I interacted with the spectrum of people who lived just outside Yosemite National Park in the 1980s. One of the area residents was a hot air balloon pilot, opening the door for my opportunity to take part in an annual hot air balloon race without any relevant experience, wings, or a parachute. But anything for a story.
It started in Porterville, a small valley town just north of Bakersfield, on a warm and windy summer dawn. Leagues of rainbow-colored nylon balloons were festooned across a grassy field with their wicker baskets and tanks of liquid propane waiting to take flight. My pilot was well experienced; eager to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with this reporter. I got a basic briefing as the ground crew readied the craft for liftoff. There would be three of us in the basket – also called a gondola.
Teams hovered around their separate work areas. A giant fan filled the envelope (aka balloon), and when it inflated, one of the ground crew blasted the air with heat from the burner. The hot air lifted the balloon to its classic upright position as ropes attached to stakes in the ground kept it earth-bound. We climbed aboard – the pilot, his mate, and me with my heavy bag of cameras and cassette tape recorder. The starting gun sounded, and the ground crew undid the ropes. We started to gently rise into the air along with more than a dozen other beautiful balloons, gracefully spreading out across the central California sky.
Just as I was soaking in the peace of the ascent, the pilot pulled the chain on the burner to urge the balloon to rise higher, faster. It was a full-on shrill scream from a mini-blast furnace that caught me by surprise and made the pilot laugh. “Yeah, people think this is a quiet, easy ride,” he said. “Nope. Not.”
Balloons generally go with the wind, and I was confused about how anyone could actually ‘race’ and head toward a destination. The best pilots assess the wind speeds and direction at various altitudes and try to catch the ones best suited to get them where they intend to go – rather like a surfer catching a wave, except you can’t fall off the balloon and swim to shore.
In between blasts from the burner, it was, indeed, peaceful and, due to the high level of risk involved, also terrifying and exhilarating. People and cars were ant-sized, hills looked like folded cake batter, and the fields were quilts of gold and green. I took lots of photos and chatted with the pilot. We were so deep into our conversation that he seemed to have lost interest in the racing part of the event. In fact, so excited about explaining the nuances, thrills, history, and dangers of ballooning that he failed to notice we’d dropped significantly in altitude. It was a shout from his mate on the craft of “SHIT!” and urgent use of the burner that brought our attention to the power lines directly in our path. One of the “dangers” my pilot had just described.
Since I am writing this now, you can rightly assume that we missed the electrifying death trap. By mere inches, in fact. We mutually decided that landing the craft was likely our best option since we’d also lost sight of the other balloons, and this reporter was stifling desperate screams. We rose mere inches to clear the lines, caught a breeze, and glided over a field of corn that had been cut down and bleached almost white by the sun. Ragged stalks stood upright like little swords, and there was no flat, cushy place to land the craft that was still speeding forth in horizontal flight. As we continued to lose altitude, the field became a blur, and the pilot shouted “Down!” We crouched and almost immediately crashed into the dying field of corn. The stalks cracked and popped like fireworks under us. Finally, the basket violently tipped on its side and dumped us all out. We tumbled across the ragged bed, feeling tiny piercings from the spent crop. I rolled to a stop, still clutching my Minolta (I had priorities), and looked for my team. Slowly each of my mates sat up and looked around, dazed but mostly unharmed. The basket and balloon, alas, fared worse.
Our unplanned landing had been monitored by another balloonist who radioed to get help for the idiots in the cornfield. I could see him hovering above, waving, and laughing.
Satisfied to be alive and still in possession of my camera with its roll of black and white film, I counted the assignment as a success, even though my buddy, who owned the aircraft, appeared close to tears. Deflated, much like his rainbow-hued balloon spread flat upon last season’s crop of corn.