Hot-air ballooning was a dream come true

I have no idea whether the painter Marc Chagall ever took a balloon ride. Had he done so, he would, I strongly suspect, have felt it was perfectly normal to be held aloft in a basket by nothing but hot air trapped in a multicolored globe-shaped tent, drifting over villages, hills, and dales, impelled by currents of invisible air, answerable to no one. It would have exactly suited his "inner world."

"Our whole inner world," the Russian-born artist once said, "is reality, perhaps even more real than the apparent world."

Maybe he found the "apparent" world disappointing. The pull of gravity, for instance, seems to have struck him as unnatural. Why should an artist be unremittingly earthbound?

Chagall was a master of flights of fancy. Flying figures inhabit his dreamlike pictures as ubiquitously as insects colonize summer afternoons. Acrobats and dancers persistently appealed to him; but while they were artists who aspired to lift off, Chagall found nothing to prevent him from visualizing a world without gravity.

Figures float and flit in his "inner world" with the natural ease of swallows. "It's not really my painting that's fantastic," Chagall once remarked, "even when it represents flying donkeys.... What is really fantastic, for example, is that we should be sitting on the terrace of a sidewalk café. It's improbable. We ought to have our heads pointing downward, and be spinning, since the earth spins. But we don't. We ought to fly, and we don't."

Well, we do sort of fly, technologically speaking, and have from the Wright brothers onward. But I know what he meant. We don't fly without ingenious assistance. We don't just flap our arms and soar.

To me, a balloon ride approaches as near as anything to the most natural kind of flying - though, admittedly, I have never been in a glider and never had the faintest wish to hang glide. Ballooning suits me fine. I am an addict now. I have been up twice.

The thing about balloon lift is that while it is happening, you find it hard to believe it is happening. It feeds straight into the realm of imagination. Yet there is something strangely familiar about it. It feels as if you are rediscovering your native element. Why do we have arms if we were not meant to be birds? Are feet designed to be always on the ground? Aren't they really just landing gear?

Hot-air ballooning, as a technology, is wonderfully primitive. Yet it remains awe-inspiring. Looking sideways at my fellow passengers closely packed into the basket, it seemed to me that, somewhat silent in our shared awe, we were captivated by some sort of rejuvenated recollection - though what it was, I had no idea.

Ballooning always involves the unplanned; it by no means entails scheduled flight times or predictable destinations. We flew over the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. Even Peter, our balloonist, had never been precisely on a flight like ours before, and he has made countless flights in the area, having turned his addiction into his profession.

The Pentlands, undulating below us like a contour map, all greens and russets and burnt umbers, seemed deserted that evening. We had a marvelous sense of being entirely away from the rest of humanity.

But then at one point we looked way down and spotted a lone Lilliputian cyclist pedaling away along a one-lane rural road. He was traveling much the same direction as we were in the balloon above him, so we watched his progress for quite a while. I did not get the impression that he knew he had airborne spectators. I believe he must have thought he was quite alone in the world. All along his road, he encountered no traffic, no people, not even a stray sheep.

For a reason I did not grasp then, I found this coincidence of upper- and lower-level travel completely absorbing. Again it seemed as if I had been here before.... I couldn't put my finger on it.

The cyclist eventually disappeared into a woodland. We continued on our gentle way, relishing every shift in our view of the beautiful topography below us. Then at last Peter decided it was time to start our descent. Lower and lower we quietly went until we were now no more than a few feet above the rough turf and heath. I was all ready for a bumpy drag across this terrain - and then Peter announced he was going to stay up a while longer and look for an ideal place to touch down.

This proved to be the most amazing, magical part of the flight. We floated just above the ground. Probably we were near enough now to jump out of the basket safely. But we continued to float. I had no idea that a clever balloonist could so precisely control the height of his balloon. Peter fired judicious boosts of flame every so often. The surrounding air moved us very slowly, always at the same level. It was as if we were going for an aerial stroll across the moorland, but without bump or jolt, without awkward hummock or impeding tussock. We smoothed forward - walking on air.

And then I realized: Everything connected. The sense of being in a dream, the cyclist, this air walk. This was as near as I could think to one of my most enjoyable childhood dreams.

I would be poised at the top of the stone steps in the garden. I would start to move my arms up and down, and I knew if I did it properly I would suddenly be up in the air, flying. Down the steps, across the lawn, through the gate, turn left and down the gentle gradient of Villa Road. Like a barn owl I would turn my head to the left to look at our garage as I flew past, and then I would continue my exulting flight down to the very end of the road.

At the time, I didn't know that many people have "flying dreams." Nor did I realize, as I now suspect, that mine was linked directly to my cycling. We used to race down Villa Road endlessly. It was an enormous excitement. My flying was always just a few feet above ground, never higher. My flying was really cycling, but without pedals, wheels, or any other technology to assist. I flew ... because I could. I have Peter the balloonist - an artist - to thank for bringing back vividly that sweet dream.

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