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Soaring on the Wings of ... Hot Air

By Elisavietta Ritchie / October 20, 1992

`NO, we don't care for heights," I admit to my friend Custis, "Why?"

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So why is she giving us a first anniversary present of a flight in a hot-air balloon?

"I didn't think you needed more wedding presents."

Some gift. I thank her with extreme politeness and worry about her extravagance. She lives in California where they enjoy stunts like hang-gliding and bungee-jumping. True, while visiting the Napa Valley, Henry and I exclaimed (obviously too enthusiastically) over huge colorful spheres bouncing through the skies, great to photograph from terra firma.

True, I was always the fastest to climb the highest pine. Following my father's example, I scaled a mountain or two: at 18, Fujiyama. And I taught my children to spring from the high dive.

Since then, I've wised up.

When I must visit Manhattan, however much my hosts extol their pricey skyline vistas, I have sense enough to hug the back wall of the room: "I can view whatever view I want perfectly well from there, thanks."

I'd rather walk across all of Moscow and St. Petersburg than brave those endlessly steep and speedy subway escalators.

When the children graduated to rock climbing, and later admitted they had not once but several times clambered up the enormous crane constructing the Washington Cathedral, I was appalled.

And though I've lived in Toronto one year, I've excused myself from escorting guests up the tallest free-standing tower in the world. Go climb your own flagpoles.

As for that Jules Verne stuff - "Around The World In Eighty Days" was a fine book, a splendid film, but life doesn't have to imitate art. My husband, Henry, doesn't like heights either, but he will take the wheel when we cross high bridges.

Flying, I love. I always request a window seat. A rush of excitement every takeoff. Of course, planes are more detached from earth than skyscrapers, but - don't ask me why - flying seems different. I've never been as exhilarated as when we flew in a tiny plane over Alaska's snowy tundra.

Custis promises this time the setting will be warmer, more pastoral. She's contacted some balloon outfit in Whitchurch-Stouffville, a rural township north of Toronto. She knows I chafe at being stuck in cities, so this is my excuse to see the countryside.

But from a hot-air balloon?

Finally we phoned Nick, the designated pilot. "See you at 6 a.m.," he said. "Or 6 p.m. for a sunset flight?"

"Uh ... sunset."

"Good time for photos, at least," Henry admitted. "Frankly, I'm not sure about this wild idea of yours."


"Custis is your old school friend."

Blame everything on me, as usual, I considered retorting, as I packed sweaters, binoculars, cameras. What size parachutes?

"A balloon!" exclaimed various people. "You wouldn't get me up in one of those flimsy things!"

"One can stand a lot of danger for a minute but one whole hour of torment?"

"And what if you change your mind?"

"Captain, Captain, stop the ship, I want to get off!"

Or were these only the voices echoing inside my own head?

SO on a July evening, with immense trepidation, we drive north from Toronto. Not even the usual traffic jam to save us.

Nick is waiting. Tall, rosy-cheeked, English - he can't be over 25. Do they give them license to fly that young? Fortunately, storm clouds are gathering. Nick hopes they will dissipate. He issues instructions on behavior aloft and disclaimers to sign in case we fall from heaven.

His ground crew assembles. Everyone piles into a van, towing a wooden trailer. It contains a wicker basket and a duffle bag, both the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and other mysterious equipment. Our supposed launch site is a broad lawn situated, perhaps symbolically, between a junkyard and a churchyard.

I snap 36 photos while Henry helps to unroll the enormous bundle of red-white-and-blue nylon across the grass, and attach various short poles or struts to the basket frame. The basket, woven of willow switches, seems too delicate to bear a butterfly.

"Save your film for when we're aloft," Nick advises.

The winds pick up, and the clouds become heavier. Nick again radioes for the latest weather report. "Sorry, the flight is scratched for today."

What a relief.

On the next date we set, the flight is washed out by a beneficent monsoon before we even leave Toronto.

"When shall I reschedule you?" inquires Nick. "Your gift certificate is valid for one year."

Given winter blizzards, spring rains, and our unpredictable travel schedule, we could keep postponing ... .

"Oh, sometime in January." We might be in the Caribbean, or anywhere else, all January.