June 07, 2009

Adventure Is Out There! Wine Country Edition

As I approach turning 34 and my metabolism slows, my joints ache and my hair sprouts bright white roots every three weeks, I think my brain tries more and more desperately to retain its childlike appreciation of the simpler excitements in life. Whether that’s by way of making up for lost time by driving me to do things now I never did as a child, or by clinging to those things that I always loved as a child, there’s a big part of my mind that feels and thinks exactly as it did when I was a child.

I still can’t get enough fireworks.

I’d been campaigning to myself and others around me for a while to take a hot air balloon ride. After my 30th birthday skydiving trip when I realized that I liked the gentle parachute sail down a lot more than the dive itself, I figured a nice relaxing lift into the sky would be nice, especially when lifted by a nylon rainbow. A couple years ago I actually booked a ride in Jamesville over Maria’s birthday weekend, but the weather forced a last minute cancellation. Since Maria was terrified – though very willing – I didn’t push the issue again.

It seems like since then, brochures, flyers and advertisements for balloon rides have been dropping from the sky all around me, so when I saw that the annual Temecula Balloon & Wine Festival was this weekend, I couldn’t resist going.

Ballooning is a relatively common and popular activity over wine country, so I suppose I could have gone any of the times that I was in San Diego County last year, but booking our ride as part of a festival seemed like such an event. When we were driving our Malibu at 5:30 a.m. down Warren Road in Lake Skinner National Recreational Area along with a line of other cars, we thought, “Are all these people ballooning too? Or just coming to watch?”

We had plenty of fellow aeronauts join us for sunrise, not only in our own balloon’s gondola (which fit 12 plus the pilot) but for lots of balloons – more than 20 of them ready to launch around the same time as us, some from the festival grounds, some from a vineyard a short drive away.

It seemed like we drove around forever looking for the right spot to launch our balloon. Our driver would pull our van over, inflate a small black balloon, get out and release it and watch which way it went. As the wind shifted from southernly to westernly, so did our plans and we did more than a few U-turns to pick a new spot.

A few of the passengers got antsy in the van, asking a ton of questions, requesting the windows to open, shifting around in their seats, but I just kept telling myself it was worth the wait. As the sun rose higher in the sky, other balloons started popping off the horizon all around us – a blue one with a yellow star and moon they called “Fantasia,” a bright yellow one marked “California Dreamin’” after the company responsible for our launch, and even one with a lion’s head on it. They all sailed off into the cloud line as we watched our crew inflate our rainbow-colored balloon with a sunset on it, called “Daydreamin’ in San Diego.” Perfect.

When we finally climbed and crammed ourselves into the gondola, I felt like I should have been wearing flight goggles and a helmet, or a lifejacket or some kind of World’s Fair-era protective gear for our “first flight.” The physics of the hot air balloon are relatively simple, but it still baffled me into a blissful, wondrous state.

The Temecula wine country is gorgeous – beautiful, rolling hills with green orchards and vineyards and mountains in the distance. Our pilot chose to give us the most scenic view possible rather than letting the balloon sail to too impressive heights. We probably never got above, say 1200 feet off the ground, but it seemed like we went far, and we saw a lot. No scary acrobatics for this pilot: he gave us the smoothest ride he could, enough so that when we poured our champagnes and mimosas mid-flight, we lost not a drop.

All of the balloons were quite an attraction locally. People pulled over their cars and got out to watch. Workers at the wineries waved hello and shouted greetings up to us. I’m sure the other balloons watched our flight pattern as much as we watched theirs, marveling at the balloon-dotted sky and at our own shadow on the rugged California terrain below.

On our return trip, we got almost as far as the lake, but ran out of juice just before it, so our pilot targeted a thistly hill upon which to set us down. Caught up in some crosswinds and what he kept referring to as a “thermal,” our balloon touched down on top of the hill, then lifted back up, touching down again and eventually sliding all the way down. I positioned myself at the back of the gondola, so when we were landing with a gentle crash, I saw the brown, twiggy earth rising before my eyes as our balloon descended farther and farther down. Just enough peril to make a great story.

Over the crest of that hill, we saw another balloon close by getting ready to take off again, and we watched it lift off and sail right towards us. We all cast our gazes upwards to watch their gondola graze our deflating balloon, which had started to whip in the wind and seemed to thwap them a little bit. No harm done. Just a little balloon traffic in the sky today, folks.

After we were returned safely (and a little drunk off champagne) to the festival grounds, I didn’t really want to do anything else. I didn’t even want to leave the balloon behind. We finished the last bottle of champagne with another couple and the pilot and exchanged stories and let the feeling of the ride – that gentle lilt – linger just a little while longer.

For more photos, click here.
For video of the takeoff, click here.
For video of the landing, click here.

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