Fear of death aside, balloon ride a marvel

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I don't have a "bucket list" because it would be too long. I'm a guy who tries to not pass up an opportunity to experience something new.

I want my headstone to read, "Been there, done that." Sure, I'll eat a bug, provided it isn't a kind I've already tried. If I did have a bucket list, riding in a hot air balloon would be on it.

I'm not a morning person and not overly fond of heights. Six in the morning is usually the time of day I listen to NPR on the Internet. Today is different: a ride in a hot air balloon! I have that nervous energy that is enjoyable but tinged with trepidation.

I tend to sing when I am nervous. Being somewhat in control of myself, I decide to keep it to myself. You're welcome. Fifth Dimension and Nena are both competing for airtime on my inner radio. Since I don't know the lyrics to either song, I oscillate between the two. Tom Petty tries to interject himself. Get out of my head, Tom! The cacophony is relaxing, or so I try to convince myself.

It is cold this morning. There is dew and some frost on the grass at Davis Elementary School on day one of the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. The captain of the balloon does a pre-flight orientation.

He asks if anyone has flown and jokingly asks if anyone is afraid of heights or has uncontrollable urges to leap from baskets. We set departure time for shortly after 6 a.m. In a nod to air-travel of yore, we are all given a bottle of water and a small bag of nuts.

The balloon is large. It is the largest balloon in the area. It holds 10 passengers and the pilot. There are five sections in the balloon, one for the pilot and four for the passengers. I am in one section with a lady who has flown before. She is my new best friend. In we go.

There is no ceremony for takeoff. The burners are ignited and we are quickly aloft. A few claps and waves followed by cameras snapping photos is the fanfare. The Hindenburg probably had fanfare, so I appreciate the low-key sendoff. The heat from the burners is really hot on the top of my head, painfully hot. It is not until I register how high we are that I am grateful for the distracting quality of the heat. It took my mind from the rise.

Immediately, I want off. I really want off. My voice catches in my throat and I am unable to demand landing. My eyes scanned the ground looking for a place to land. It is then that I catch myself and pause in my fear. I am OK. I am really OK. It is not the height that is bothering me. Nor is it the fear of falling. It is not that bad.

Just then, someone moves and jostles the basket. This electrifies every nerve in my body. The fight-or-flight reflex inside me is abuzz again. However, it is conflicted because there is no threat to fight and nowhere to flee to. I finally confess aloud, "I am really afraid." My partner reassures me. We are at 1,000 feet.

One observation about ballooning: The change in altitude is not noticeable. There is no ear-popping or tummy flutters. The ground looks as small from 2,000 feet as it does from 1,000. The shaking of the basket remained unnerving the entire time. Lectures were being shouted in my head. I tried to distract myself with the scenery. Someone really needs to attend to pool maintenance; green is not the proper color of a pool. Also, why would someone want two trampolines in their backyard?

The wind is not cooperating. We wanted to head toward the airport. Instead, we began by heading southwest. A change in elevation altered the direction northward. At one point, we thought we would fly over the penitentiary.

All on board agreed that this would be improper. Eventually, we made a descent near the landfill. It was a soft landing. We floated over the stubble in a field for 100 feet before lightly touching down, just shy of a road. The landing crew came and met us with smiles and light refreshments. We were asked to give thanks to the early pioneers in ballooning as we toasted them with sparkling cider.

The captain referred to ballooning as a sport. I don't consider it a sport. No one keeps score and the rules seem to be more concerned with fling regulations.

Does a sport usually involve caramel-covered apples and Goldfish crackers? Ballooning is a diversion, wafting aloft on the winds. It is wonderful and worth doing again. It is a good thing I have no bucket list to cross it from. So I can justify another trip.

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney who writes legal columns for the Walla Walla Valley Weekly. He can be reached at askjohn@wwub.com.

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