Floating through the air on a recent autumn Saturday, I relished the silence and the fresh air while taking in views of the Santa Ynez Valley still bathed in the buttery light of sunrise, and I had an epiphany: Waking up early isn’t half-bad.
Few things in life could get me out of bed and out of the house at an hour that essentially amounts to the middle of the night. Fewer still, should said middle-of-the-night activity fall on a weekend. But the chance to check out the valley from such a dramatic vantage did-not least because hot air balloon company Adventures Out West is a traveling circus of sorts, bouncing between Santa Ynez, various Colorado locales, and Scottsdale, Arizona, and only spends a couple months a year in our backyard. So, there I was, driving to The Indy’s office with my headlights on to pick up photographer Paul Wellman so that he might document this excellent adventure. Did I mention I hadn’t had any coffee yet?
I collected the man with the cam, and we set out. I steered us along the 154, Los Olivos’s Country Market in our sights, where, by 6:30 a.m., we were scheduled to rendezvous with Greg Wellens, owner of Adventures Out West’s Unicorn Balloon and son of company founder Bruce, who had offered us a chance to go for one of his hot air balloon rides. We arrived prior to the balloon man, which worked to my advantage, as the market was open and in the java. Sweet Colombian relief.
In the meantime, Wellens and the rest of our ballooning party assembled, and we piled into his van. We stopped here and there, on our way to an as-yet-to-be-determined launch site, at which times Wellens and team inflated birthday-party-sized helium balloons and sent them skyward, testing the wind, and eventually descended into a rugged, cowpie-dotted pasture that would serve as our takeoff point. We watched as they began assembling the rig: Out of the van came a wicker basket (startlingly small), and yards and yards of the deflated red, yellow, and black nylon balloon bearing the company’s logo. The unfolding, attaching of burners and cables, and inflating of the balloon-or envelope, as it’s called-was fascinating, but the sun was only beginning its ascent and the temps were chilly, so the ladies retired to the van, where we learned that passenger Lynn Shrogin was celebrating her birthday, and that this adventure would represent the very last item on her list of Things to Do Before I Die.
“What now?” I asked.
“Gotta make a new list,” she said.
Soon enough, the balloon rose, and it was time to board. One by one, we stepped into the foothold and pulled ourselves over the side and into one of the three passenger compartments-narrow spots perfectly sized to contain one standing couple apiece. (In fact, height-fearers should take note: The coziness of the quarters makes for a secure-feeling, vertigo-free experience.) Wellens’s space was smaller, dominated by the propane burners necessary to heat the air and create enough lift for the balloon to fly.
Our bodies in place, Wellens fired the burners and we took off, so smoothly I wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the fact that, all of a sudden, we were drifting past trees, then bracing ourselves for the scrape of their branches on the basket’s bottom-a scrape that never came, as, just as suddenly, we were looking down on them from several hundred feet. And all without a single jolt, jar, or trace of turbulence. By its very nature, the experience is utterly organic: The balloon moves with the wind, so there is no sensation of wind blowing, and its current takes you where it will. (Also organic was Wellens’s “spit test,” used to determine the wind’s direction at a certain point-the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination.)
All of which brings me to the “chase,” which were Wellens’s cohorts tasked with following us in the van on the ground. Wellens attempted to radio the chase several times, to let them know our whereabouts and which way we were headed, but he was generally greeted with static. At one point, we flew directly over them. Wellens tried to connect via radio waves; waving our arms proved more effective. We sailed on as the hills and valleys unfolded beneath us, our shadow sending several deer scampering away. (The cows, true to form, were unfazed.)
After 40 or so minutes, Wellens said we might land in the gulley up ahead, or, should another gust carry us in its embrace, farther beyond. A couple fires of the burners and our pilot determined we’d be landing sooner rather than later. He gave us a briefing-bend your knees, be prepared for some bouncing, and hold on-and we began our descent. We hit the ground once, not roughly, and bounced. Wellens eyed the fence looming nearby, and instructed us to keep those knees bent, while we bounced a couple more times, before settling, a tad precariously, down for good. He enlisted the menfolk to help stabilize the basket, which involved getting out first and hanging on until the balloon retired to its side.
We awaited the arrival of the chase, at which point we were treated to a champagne breakfast and stories about the history of hot air ballooning. And while Shrogin was left to come up with another list of lifetime To-Dos, I was left with the beautiful revelation that, after all this, I still had a full day ahead of me.