IT WAS AS IF the hand of God had gently lifted me into the crisp morning air. Objects on the ground began to shrink as the wind blew our hot air balloon toward the horizon. Creeks and fields and farms took on an entirely new appearance, and the red Ford chaser truck looked like a toy as it trailed us along the winding roads below. For those of us in the rattan gondola, life was but a dream.
The balloon drifted across the countryside, floating with a flock of birds. An occasional ten-second blast of propane gas sent eight-foot flames into the center of the towering ripstop nylon bag; the 91/2-story craft rose with the hotter air, then sank softly toward earth as it cooled.
Whenever the burner's roar broke the peaceful silence, the animals below panicked. As we passed several hundred feet above a cornfield, a red fox shot out of his den. He ran a little way and then froze, looking up at us up over his shoulder, and ran again. Cows stopped grazing and lumbered aimlessly, horses ran in circles, dogs barked nonstop.
Before we'd lifted off from a high school soccer field in Neelsville, Maryland, pilot Kevin Poeppelman of Adventures Aloft had warned that the balloon would follow no pre-set course.
It would go, he said, "wherever the wind blows us -- and as fast as the wind blows, too," which is why ballooning is a fair- weather sport. Ideal days have winds of eight miles per hour or less, which usually occur in early morning or late afternoon. Even then, air currents at various altitudes can change the balloon's speed and direction. The pilot relies on his knowledge of wind currents and his skill at altitude control.
"It's a great adventure for people who want to go somewhere and don't give a damn where," said the 33-year-old Poeppelman, who on windier days is a lawyer. But mostly he's an adventurer. "With the exception of bobsledding, all my interests are in aviation, particularly ballooning."
Poeppelman, also a part-owner of the Flying Circus in Bealeton, Virginia, has several balloons in his fleet and usually charges $225 per couple for the ride, which lasts an hour to an hour and a half.
Ascending to 2,300 feet showed the doubters among us that the earth is indeed round. Sunlight glanced from the wings of airplanes lined in neat rows along the landing strips at Montgomery County Airpark. Nearby Rock Creek looked just like it does on the map, a tiny snake twisting aimlessly.
I recalled my earliest memory of vertigo. Mom stood with one hand planted on my shoulder and the other gripping my younger brother as we peered over the railing at Niagara Falls. But Dad, a man who makes his living being inquisitive, stood well back, mumbling about postcards.
I take after him. I hug my painting ladder lovingly, and pay others to do the roof work; Ferris wheels are for stronger stomachs than mine. I'm fascinated by flying and can watch it for hours, from the ground. So it was odd for me not to have a white-knuckle grip on the gondola. But I was enjoying.
As we drifted southeast over the farmland and new housing developments of Olney, Sandy Spring and Ashton, Poeppelman lowered the temperature inside the 146,000 cubic-foot balloon envelope, dropping the giant wicker picnic basket to just over a thousand feet above the rooftops.
Now, not only could we see more detail, we could peer into the very lives of the people. We could easily hear their voices and the clink of their coffee cups; dogs, sent out for their morning runs, barked at us from block to block; one of us barked back. It was like poring over some vast Norman Rockwell painting.
"It's a very passive thing," passenger Debbie Baughman later said. "People think nice things when they see the balloon coming their way." Baughman and her husband Curt Rose, were aboard to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
Some residents who spotted the colorful balloon, stepped out on their lawns to watch and wave. "Where you from?" they yelled with excitement.
"We're from France!" fired back one of the wiseacres aboard. As we moved on, those on the ground were told the balloon was from Uganda and even Bladensburg, all to the amusement of those aboard. By this time, all nervousness was gone and we'd become relaxed and silly.
The balloon approached large clumps of trees and the envelope temperature fell below its normal 180 degrees, allowing the basket to float just above the treetops; passengers picked off the first buds of spring. Balloonists call this "treetopping." John Reidelbach, who operates Balloon-A-Tics in the Virginia hunt country, describes it as going "so close you can kick the squirrels out of the trees."
And had there been squirrels in these trees off Route 108, they would have gotten that big surprise. As the sturdy wicker basket passed over the trees, branches scraped against the gondola's wood bottom. Suddenly we dropped deeper into the trees. Cracking limbs whipped over our heads as we crouched to the floor and Poeppelman quickly fired the burner, lifting the balloon almost at once. For just a minute, it was like riding a chain saw.
We pulled ourselves together and agreed that the incident was the most exciting part of the journey so far, and from that point on it was simply referred to as "The Crash." But it was Poeppelman's most embarrassing moment. Not only did we dip too far in the trees, but he lost his Indiana Jones hat. He also cringed when there was a reference to "The Crash," and begged "don't call it a crash."
Spirits remained high as we searched for a landing spot. Despite the brush with the treetops, Poeppelman is a conservative and safety-conscious pilot who explains the technical aspects of ballooning and informs his passengers about everything he's doing and why. He also keeps a half-hour reserve of fuel should landing spots be few and far between.
But on this morning, Poeppelman quickly found an open field. He radioed Gene McClung, who had followed the balloon in the chaser truck for nearly 90 minutes over 21 miles. Since 1980, when he began working with Poeppelman, McClung has developed a sixth sense that helps him follow a balloon when it's out of sight. However, the radio is used as a safety precaution.
By 9:30 a.m., wind currents on the ground had whipped up and it was obvious that the pilot's skill was our only hope for a gentle landing. Cameras were stowed behind the padded propane tanks and the three men aboard stood in the front of the gondola while the women stayed to the center. Knees were bent and feet braced as the pilot used a row of trees along a cornfield to buffer the wind and break our speed. We zipped through some extended branches -- nothing like the same thrill we enjoyed earlier -- and gently set down on a bed of dried cornstalks. A picture-perfect landing.
And with that, a photographer foolishly jumped out of the gondola to get a shot of the colorful balloon with its passengers and pilot still aboard. The sudden reduction of weight sent the balloon several feet into the air. The photographer, not knowing any better, hung on the outside of the gondola, trying to help bring the balloon under control as Poeppelman opened the exhaust vents. After some hair-raising spins and turns through the cornstalks, the sagging envelope came to a rest against a row of trees.
Local residents who had gathered to watch the landing, saved Poeppelman's $28,000 investment by quickly tugging the envelope off the tree limbs before it became unmanageable.
We packed away the envelope in its storage sack, placed the gondola on its trailor and popped open a bottle of bubbly, helping perpetuate ballooning's slogan; "Champagne and propane: the breakfast of balloonists."