Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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My brother, Larry, lectures on cruise ships. He has for years. Totally surrounded by water, he is truly happy. When he was little, he built a boat in our house, but it was too big for the doorway to get it out of the house. He was not happy in a boat surrounded by house.

Although he doesn’t currently pilot boats, he maintains his Captain’s license and can navigate by the stars. He carries sextants with him on his cruises so he can teach to use them whoever wants to learn. Besides his presentations (which always fill the space, and often overflow), he gives star parties on deck.

On a recent trip, a woman from Albuquerque who crews for a local balloon pilot, spoke to him after a presentation. Larry mentioned he had always wanted to go up in a balloon. Maybe because sky and ocean are both blue, sky seems to him equal to the sea.

My brother and I are quite opposite. I have never wanted to go up in a balloon. (And I get seasick just looking at a boat.) But I love the beauty of balloons, the history of them, the hopeful daring they represent. During Balloon Fiesta, an annual October event in Albuquerque, we watch hundreds of balloons fly over our house. Some are low enough that people talk to us. "Could I pick an apple from your orchard?" one man asked. Another morning, a different man, seeing us drinking our coffee on the patio, asked if he could have a cup.

Larry and my sister-in-law, Marlene, who runs the computer for the visual component of his lectures, were scheduled to visit us in mid-May. Knowing this, the woman he met on the ship phoned to invite him, and the rest of us, to fly with Elaine, the pilot for whom she crews.

David was delighted. Marlene said she would go if I did. I said, "I am not going up in a balloon." Marlene was quite relieved.

We met Elaine and the crew at a field about ten minutes from our house at 7:00 a.m. The balloon basket, with the balloon and all attendant equipment, was quickly unloaded from the back of a pick-up and placed in the field. The balloon – composed of squares and rectangles of yellow, red, orange and purple/brown sewn seemingly randomly into the long nylon strips that form the 90,000 cubic foot balloon – was carefully stretched out (a long way) on the ground. At this point, the basket lies on its side. A separate gasoline engine-powered propeller blows air into the balloon, filling it sufficiently to allow the balloon’s specially designed propane burner to function properly. The gasoline engine is then removed, and the propane heater tied to the basket below the opening in the base of the balloon operates, fully inflating the balloon with hot air. The balloon rises, righting the basket.

Elaine, who is a tiny woman in her 70s, climbed into the basket easily, followed less gracefully by Larry and David, sitting on the edge of the basket, then swinging their legs over. Elaine told them that if they noticed anything untoward looming (an electric wire, an eagle, etc.), they should tell her about it.

In a balloon, you go where the wind takes you. That said, by selecting wind currents –letting air out to descend, or filling the balloon more to ascend -- you have some degree of choice. Other balloons visible from the basket give information on the direction of the winds at different altitudes. Chase vehicles follow as best they can on the ground, aiming to end up at a landing site unknown in advance, to assist in the landing and the repacking of the balloon. The pilot keeps the chase vehicles basically informed of her direction via radio, although eyeballing the balloon is important.

We watched the balloon rise into air, lifting gently, absolutely into sky. "Goodbye, David," I said, thinking how easily possible it was to simply rise and rise forever, floating into heavens hardly dreamed. "Goodbye, Larry."

The balloon headed south and slightly east, toward the Rio Grande. The chase vehicles took off without ceremony. Marlene and I followed one of them down Coors Boulevard – a major north/south street in Albuquerque. We could see the balloon to the east of us, smaller and smaller. Or rather, Marlene could see it. I was intent on chasing the chase vehicle, into cul de sacs and malls where we quickly reversed directions or, occasionally, stopped to sight the balloon. Once we saw it through trees directly over the river. We followed it down Coors to the Open Space Center and, a few miles farther south, to St. Pius X High School. At St. Pius, the balloon lowered enough we thought it would land on the large campus, but it lifted and went on. Concerned I would lose the chase vehicle, we careened around corners, through an (almost) red light. At last I could make use of training I’d received from Saab one winter in Sweden. Learning to race cars on ice, I learned to focus behind the wheel, to not get left behind, to not crash. Entering into my personal French Connection, I had an instant of wondering what would happen if a police car gave chase, although police in Albuquerque are rarely present when someone is actually driving in what might be considered an imprudent manner.

We just made it to a field on the west side of Coors as they landed. They were out of the basket by the time we parked and climbed over a fence to reach them. Their shoes and pant legs were wet. Elaine had put down (lightly) on the Rio Grande, a feat known in the sport as a splash and dash, and considered a special and coveted treat. It scared David (although he never stopped photographing) and delighted Larry. What could be more perfect for him – he was in a balloon and surrounded by water.

Afterward, in the patio of a crewmember’s nearby house, there was a ceremony for the two First Time Balloonists. They had already each been wrapped in the balloon as they were helping roll it up. Now, kneeling, with a glass of champagne on the ground in front of them, they were instructed to lean forward, pick up the glass with their teeth, and drain it. This they did. (Champagne is an important part of ballooning. Ever since an early 18th century flight landed in a French field, scaring the local people so hugely that they ripped the balloon to shreds, balloonists have been carrying champagne to assure the locals balloons are o.k.)

Their initiation complete, Elaine recited to Larry and David the Balloonists’ Prayer.

The Winds have welcomed you with softness
The Sun has blessed you with its warm hands
You have flown so high and so well,
That God has joined you in your laughter,
And set you gently back again
Into the loving arms of Mother Earth

Could any of us receive a better welcome . . .

Copyright © 2010 Ruth Rudner