“Slipped the surly bonds of earth … and touched the face of God.”
These words from an old poem — made famous by President Ronald Reagan during a eulogy for the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion — became real for me recently when I had the opportunity to go aloft in a hot-air balloon.
I met the crew outside Mountain Java in Candler around 6 a.m. After we’d introduced ourselves, making stupid jokes to mask our nervousness, Rick Bowers of Asheville Hot Air Balloons tried to prep us on what to expect.
He covered all the bases: what to do if the pilot passed out, how to survive a rough landing, and even how to maximize our chances if we came down in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest. What he didn't discuss was how to deal with the aftermath of the experience. But looking back on it now, I don't believe it’s even possible to cheat time that way.
I was assigned to a craft piloted by Danny Smith, who's been around balloons since he was 8 years old. His next-door neighbors, Dave and Irma Woods, owned the company, and Danny would hang around the shop watching, listening and learning. As he got a little older, he started doing yard chores in exchange for flying lessons. In 1981, the couple decided to retire and offered to sell Danny the business.
He jumped at the chance.
Rick got involved in 2002. After living in Florida and conducting leadership seminars, he’d decided to move to Asheville. He’d had a commercial pilot's license since 1982, and he was looking for a new challenge. As so often happens in life when we let go of the need to control things, serendipity stepped in and introduced him to Danny. Together they've continued to build a business that’s unlike any other I've ever seen.
But first the flight.
Danny lit the burners to heat the air inside the 180,000-cubic-foot “envelope” — and then the magic began.
There was absolutely no sensation of rising. It was as if we were being held in place by a giant, unseen hand as the earth dropped away from us. The only way I could tell we were getting higher was by watching the landscape — the roads, the forest, the river, the houses, the horses — recede until I felt I was looking at an incredibly detailed model of the earth. You feel more upward movement in an elevator in the BB&T Building than you do in a balloon.
And then I broke rule No. 1. During the orientation, Rick had stressed the importance of keeping everything inside the basket: Don't lean over, don't hold out anything like a cell phone or a camera. But I was halfway out of the balloon trying to get the “perfect” shot. I guess I just tend to live on the edge — even at 6,000 feet.
There's no sense of movement in a balloon, either. It's as though you're stationary and the earth is turning slowly beneath you. If you’re driving 40 mph and stick your hand out the window, you feel the air pushing back. But in a balloon, you're riding the wind, surfing the unseen updrafts and breezes till you become one with them.
In a way, it’s like sitting and talking to a pretty lady: An hour goes by in five minutes. Suddenly it was time to let the earth rise back up to meet us.
Guiding the balloon into a puny space, Danny made a perfect landing on somebody's driveway: not a bump or a nudge. It was as if the earth had come back up to meet us, cradling us gently in a big, open hand. The only way I knew we were back on the ground was the disappointment I felt when I realized it was over.
But it wasn't: I had more to learn. Because once the balloon had been stashed in the trailer, it was back to Mountain Java for coffee and conversation.
I’d fully anticipated being regaled with facts and figures, and told why folks should choose Asheville Hot Air Balloons over the competition. To be honest, I was also expecting a “Look at us — aren't we great?” sort of attitude. Instead, I found myself among a group of people who were clearly enthralled by their mutual passion. I soon came to see them as a family, defined by a love of one another and of the magic that is ballooning — and the desire to share it with others.
Sure, I heard stories. Funny ones, like the time a ground-crew member grabbed a line to steady the balloon and, when the wind kicked up, was dragged across a field, over briars, rocks and cow dung.
Touching stories, too, like the blind lady they took up one day. Even though she couldn't see the landscape, she could smell the adventure in the air.
Then there was the terminally ill gentleman who said he wanted one last adventure before moving to Maine so he could be with his family at the end. He looked perfectly healthy when he arrived for the balloon trip, but even though the crew believed he was a freeloader, they took him up anyway. Later, they got a note from the man's family saying that he’d passed away and that his last words were about the great balloon adventure and the folks who’d made it possible.
And now, as I sit at my favorite table in the Firestorm Cafe, writing and reflecting, there are too many lessons to count.
The Creator (or whatever name you want to use) is like the wind, and we’re the balloon. The wind decided which direction we could go, what we’d see and where we’d land. Danny could only adopt a general goal — get the balloon airborne and then bring it safely down. True, he could adjust the altitude, and he had to be constantly alert for changing conditions. But the rest was out of our hands.
We can choose to fight the spiritual forces that guide us, deciding to live in this place or that, to pursue one particular lifestyle over another. We can even insist on having (or not having) a relationship with a certain type of person. But that amounts to throwing ourselves on the rocks rather than enjoying this continuing adventure called life.
I've been fortunate: The list of what I've been able to experience is long. I've been to the top of the pyramids, I've swum the Nile, I've seen Stonehenge, I've hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to bottom. I've fallen asleep beside the Mississippi with a freight train rumbling in the distance, I've played stickball in a Dallas ghetto, and I've camped in the Australian outback. On my maiden flight, I took a powered glider to 4,500 feet. And as the song says, I've lost a wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way.
But still the journey continues. Only now I have a greater appreciation for what it means to let the Creator guide and direct.
Asheville resident Jerry Nelson has traveled the world chronicling life’s joys and sorrows with his camera. You can view his online gallery at http://JourneyAmerica.org.
It was as if we were being held in place by a giant, unseen hand and the earth were dropping away from us.