Up, high and bright, or low and building, or descending rapidly into traffic – the hot air balloon has long been a human fascination. Ever since one nearly landed on the roof of my house in the fourth grade, they have been a fascination of mine. Playing in the sand with a twig one Saturday morning and hearing that repeated whoosh-hiss as the pilot attempted to maintain enough height to clear a few houses and make it to asphalt, I was quite startled. My sister and I could clearly see the occupants’ faces – including their expressions of concern and frenzied activities. Balloons, while filled with air, are not light on the ground, or a roof top. On the ground, deflated, the typical balloon system weighs around 600 pounds. In the air, fully inflated, add the weight of the encapsulated air – then the balloon weighs closer to 2.5 tons.
Now, if I had known that little snippet of info a few years ago when a balloon landed on the North-South I-25 as we were going through, my eyes might have bugged out a bit. It was the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta weekend and balloons speckled the sky. I remember trying to take ridiculous photos of these tense, worried humans that were only a few tens of feet above me as all traffic slowed to less than 20 mph, waiting to see where this aeronaut would be able to set down. In a situation like that, I would hate to guess which is the lesser evil – set down in traffic or risk the power lines.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, and I was driving the lonely backroads of northern NM to meet a lady with a heavy, unidentifiable accent to buy an electric fence system. The meet had been arranged through several emails responding to a Craig’s Listing and a handful of garbled phone calls. The nice lady wasn’t too sure herself where she was on the backwoods map. So I packed my cash, a good audio book, and a little semi-auto protection and went on a cruise on a set of roads less traveled to a destination I was pretty sure about. Mostly. But why didn’t I take the camera? Sigh.. For out there, having only seen one other vehicle, was a hot air balloon landing nearly on route. Big and mostly yellow, that tower of deflating nylon was nodding towards my beat-up truck as I first slowed and then sped up to go under it. After meeting the once-sheepherding lady for the electric fence, I headed back the same way, followed by a chase vehicle – which was a large pickup in this case – which pulled off at the appropriate location and assisted the ballooners in packing up their ride.
Enough about my fascination with hot air balloons. These simple wind-born rides have caught the imagination of science fiction and fantasy writers for generations. Probably the most well known is Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, which entails an English and a French man traveling around getting into and out of all sorts of trouble (and happens to be a Darkcargo YOBC selection). Jules Verne also incorporated a balloon in Mysterious Island, in which some American prisoners escape via balloon and after several days land on an unknown island.
Mary Shelley wrote more than the classic horror story of Frankenstein. She also wrote The Last Man, an apocalyptic plague-ravaged science fiction novel in which the technology of balloon flight is integral. Part of Edgar Allen Poe’s belated recognition was due to The Balloon Hoax. This was a fictional account of an European crossing the Atlantic in 3 days in a balloon, which was printed as a true account in 1844 in New York newspaper The Sun. There is also the Texan aeronaut Lee Scorsby from Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials.
You might think that hot-air balloons are so blase, so two centuries ago. But think about it. How many times would you willingly get into a flying vehicle who’s speed and course is determined by the wind? I think travel balloons capture the very essence of adventurism. If you are the adventure type, and end up in Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta, you can take a morning to fly about the NM skies.