Taking flight over Walla Walla in a hot air balloon

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My alarm is yelling at me at 5:45 a.m., and I am very confused. It takes me a moment to realize the alarm is my ally, that it is waking me up at this heinous hour because on this magical morning, I am going to ride in a hot air balloon.

The image that comes to mind as I gather essential possessions in anticipation of the 7 a.m. flight is a scene from the end of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass," in which the young protagonist Lyra floats above the frozen North in a hydrogen balloon piloted by the famous Texan pilot Lee Scoresby, along with a benevolent witch and Iorek Byrnison, a talking polar bear. I know I won't be accompanied by a polar bear on my flight, but I am expecting a great adventure nonetheless.

I mount my trusty station wagon and head to Howard-Tietan Park, where I meet Jerry Cummins, the very spirited captain of the Spirit of Walla Walla, and his crew of 10 or so friends and family members. To my surprise, two other balloon clans are also in flight preparation, and together we form a veritable balloon squadron.

Jerry is the only one of the three stationed in Walla Walla; the others came from Portland and Eugene. He likes to fly with other balloons, though I'm not sure why, as there was essentially no social interaction before or after the flight, and the balloons flew on very different courses. I determine that it must be an aesthetic preference.

As the crew scurried about to get ready for take-off, I noted with slight concern that the three-foot wide basket of the balloon was literally made of wicker. I thought that was just how it is in cartoons, and that in this day'n'age we would have switched to some really slick material, but it turns out that wicker remains the perfect combination of lightness, sturdiness, and flexibility.

After the balloon and the basket were attached, a giant fan was brought out to inflate the balloon -- "cold-packing" it's called. The balloon looked enormous on the ground, and with its thick stripes of bold color, I was reminded of the parachutes they entertained us with in elementary school P.E. classes. I had an urge to climb inside, but it was squelched almost instantly, as soon they were running the raging flame of the burner, the "hot air" part of this endeavor.

The burner, Jerry tells me, is so powerful that if you could harness its power for 10 seconds, you could heat the average house for one winter day. I believed him when I climbed into the basket and felt its heat on top of my head.

Along with Jerry and me there is also in the basket Walla Walla resident Kelly Budau, who earned his flight by volunteering at the balloon stampede. Having done nothing whatsoever to earn my flight, I feel guilty. Feelings of guilt are amplified by the fact that Jerry's crew got up before the sun to do manual labor that allowed me to have this unparalleled experience.

But then, suddenly, we are airborne! Just a few feet at first, and then up and up and up! The sun's rays are peaking over the hills to the east and suddenly the park is steadily growing smaller and smaller.

At first, we seem awfully close to other balloons, so I ask Jerry about balloon on balloon crashes. It's called "kissing," he tells me, and I gather that if it's called kissing it can't be all that dangerous.

We continue to drift toward infinity and I'm amazed at how gentle is the ride, and how peaceful and quiet is the toy town below. I thought that the only sound from up above would be traffic, but while the cars murmured in the background, it was the barking of dogs that became the voice of the world below. Jerry says the sound of the burner makes them bark, and then once one dog starts barking it sets off a chain reaction to form a canine orchestra.

The yellow balloon takes off, and the sight of it floating above Howard street sets off some latent nostalgia that makes me want to cry. I decide this is not appropriate, take a picture and turn away.

Hot air ballooning really hasn't changed much since its birth in 18th century France. There is no way to steer; the balloon can go up turning on the burner or down by pulling a rope that opens up holes in the balloon. It's all about finding the right elevation to catch the wind, and the wind determines the direction of flight.

For this reason, all balloon landings are considered "emergency landings," and therefore can take place anywhere. I find this highly amusing and ask Jerry about the places he has landed before, and he said he's landed in a handful of back yards. I imagine sitting in my living room and seeing a hot air balloon float into my yard and decide that is the second best balloon experience one could have.

We hover over Pioneer Park for a long time, trying to find the wind that evidently the other two balloons caught long ago -- soared off towards the wheat fields like airplanes, they did! But the stillness is suiting me just fine, and I look at all the meaningful places in my Walla Walla life with a sort of aching fondness. Apex Food Store glows from above with a light of perfection. And Mill Creek, snaking off into the distance, is no longer just a concrete canal, but the great waterway that bisects our beautiful city.

Eventually, Jerry realizes that the good wind is up high, and so he runs the burner takes us up to 2,500 feet. There, we catch the glorious northbound wind and sail across the rest of town and out into farm country.

It is time to land, and as we gradually drift towards the ground, Jerry reminds us to bend our knees, grab hold of the basket and whatever we do DO NOT get out of the balloon. I should have gathered from these instructions that the landing would be rough, but I really wasn't ready for the sensation of the ground yet, and so the landing feels more than a little abrasive. We bang back on the earth, the basket sways around like a bucking bronco. Later, Jerry points out a sticker on the trailer that says something like "Flying is the second greatest thrill for a balloonist. Landing is the first."

The field we land in is moist, and so, worried about leaving tracks in the owner's land, Jerry decides that the balloon must be "walked out." I don't really know what this means, but he radios the crew (which has been following us in cars all along) and out trot six or seven helpers. As they approach, Jerry croons out to them, "Don't you want to ride in my beautiful, my beautiful ballloooooooooon!"

With the basket floating two feet above the ground, the crew members push and pull us to the edge of the field. It is clearly a tiring task for them, and their laboring while I stand in the luxurious wicker basket makes me feel like some sort of imperial princess.

When we get out to where the cars are parked, I stand around while they all pack up the balloon. I am confused by an intermittent popping sound, until I realize that we are out by the shooting range.

We drive back to the "hangar", where Jerry and company hold for Kelly and me a ceremony of sorts. I hear rumors about the "full tradition" -- something about champagne on the head, so I am sort of dubious when Jerry has us kneel before him. But alas, it is just Martinelli's, and perhaps Jerry senses that I am not the kind of person who likes champagne in my hair before noon, because he pours us glasses and we have a toast.

We all mill around the bountiful spread of snacks and Jerry presents me with a certificate that welcomes me into the "Elite Society of Distinguished and Dedicated Aeronauts." And last but not least, he gives me a Spirit of Walla Walla pin, which I proudly tack onto my sweatshirt so that I can tell everyone about how I rode on a hot air balloon.

Iris Alden can be reached at irisalden@wwub.com.

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