Soaring on the Wings of ... Hot Air

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

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.

"Thrilling to fly over snowy landscapes," says Nick. "Dress warmly."

I don't like cold. My snowsuit - which would fill all the space in the basket - balloons in the attic closet, beside cross-country skis. Meanwhile, I'll stay warm, think lofty thoughts, anchor my feet on Earth.

It's only August when Henry announces an afternoon off.

"Since we're driving to Stouffville anyway for my violin lesson with Sergei, we might as well see if they've space in that balloon."

They do. The sky is nearly cloudless, first time all month. Even warm.

Today's launch site is a field south of Stouffville. We unload the heavy duffle bag and wicker basket onto alfalfa. Metal apparatus is wrestled into place atop the basket. This time the weather report remains excellent.

Suddenly there is a loud and terrifying swooosh. Flames leap from twin burners atop the wicker basket, spurt high.

"Just testing the equipment," Nick assures us. Still, every time there is another swoosh, we jump.

Again we unroll hundreds of yards of nylon sailcloth, unfurling the huge sack across the meadow. We hold up the heavy canvas edges of the throat, where Nick aims a large fan. A mere fan, for heaven's sake!

Slowly, airily, the material begins to take on a life of its own. It trembles, shakes, begins to inflate, whips around like a spinnaker in a squall, billows like psychedelic bread dough with too much yeast. It balloons.

Soon it is a tent big as a geodesic cabin, house, or barn. Nick directs the electric burners inward to warm the air, and the balloon begins to tug at guy ropes ... to rise. No restraining it.

"Quickly, climb into the basket!" We scramble aboard, distribute our combined weight evenly among the three compartments. Nick and his tanks of propane fill the first.

Suddenly we're lifted from the field, over the farm house, barely clearing orchards, dovecotes, silos. "Great photo ops," Nick says. I forgot to bring my camera.

So be it. I'd be fussing so with dials and lenses, I'd never see anything. Even if I wanted to.

"You can still make out every daisy," Henry exclaims.

I'll take his word for it. No way I'm going to peer over the waist-high edge of this fragile basket.

Some friend, that Custis.

Every time there's that unexpected swoosh of the burners, I nearly jump out.

We rise higher and higher.

"One thousand feet," Nick informs Henry, who cares about numbers.

I clutch the leather throngs, glue my back against the inner wicker wall, keep my gaze upward. Blue sky, wisps of clouds. The sunset will be rosy.

Henry is also hugging the inner wicker wall.

There is occasional chatter on the little radio: Nick must keep contact with the van that will meet us - wherever we may land. Otherwise, we are so quiet up here. Sonatas of silence.

Green hills loom on the encircling horizon. I can look straight outward and still see farms, fields, groves of trees.

Black-and-white cows are grazing with their famous peacefulness, but our alien presence agitates them. If the moon were to emerge, they'd jump over it.

Horses canter around the pastures. Dogs leap skyward barking. Finally, satisfied they have scared us off, they resume their activities. Soon we rise too high to hear or disturb anyone.

"Fifteen-hundred feet," Nick remarks.

We waft along, over green, so many shades of green, with intervals of yellowing fields of mustard, goldenrod, tasseling corn, greens and yellows punctuated by red barns and white spires. Nearly every farm and townhouse has an azure swimming pool. Maybe we'll overfly Lake Simcoe, Lake Huron, or Hudson Bay.

Henry is suddenly hanging over the side with evident fascination. Then I too seem to be looking out more than intended. And I seem to be enjoying this more than intended.

We are losing altitude; earth is looming; trees are rising; bushes, daisies.

"Prepare for landing," Nick orders. Tersely. "Squat in fetal position, brace yourselves, and hang on."

Wait, wait, I'll stay up a bit longer.

But no, we hit the ground, as they say, running, or rather, bouncing. Nick later admit this wasn't quite the meadow intended, too rutted, swampy.

The wind isn't ready to let go, but helps Henry, Nick, and the ground crew drag and guide the basket from rough terrain to a gentler meadow. The woven willow basket proves tough enough for bumps.

From the nearby farm a gaggle of boys aged seven to 10 runs up the lane wild with excitement. They have only seen balloons in movies. They are thrilled to help wrestle this one to the grass, roll over and over to squeeze out the air, fold, and bundle it up.

"But weren't you scared?" they ask me eagerly.

"Scared?" I shrug. "Of what? It's great up there."

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