Gravity, Heaven

Park City Balloon Adventures

I bolt out of bed at 5 a.m., stunned by the alarm clock. Pulling on my pants, I look out the window: it is dark still, but I can see that the sky is cloudy. I take a shower, dress warmly, feed Porter, have a piece of toast, and at 5:30 called Park City Balloon Adventures. A sleepy voice answers the other end. Yes, he said, the weather is fine. I grab a jacket and head out the door, on my way to take a sunrise hot air balloon ride.

Two hours later, with sunlight drifting underneath the high clouds above the ski and resort town of Park City, myself and about two dozen others are standing in a plowed parking lot just south of town, and balloon crews are pumping the balloons up with huge floor fans, occasionally sending a burst of propane-driven flame into the cavernous opening. Within a few minutes the balloon, on its side, fills and slowly rights itself. Eight of us, plus our pilot and company owner Miles Ivers, step over the high wicker sides and into the basket. Miles holds the trigger open on the propane tanks, and a 10-foot tall line of flame is swallowed by the balloon.

We are used to flight on jets, big ones, where becoming airborne happens after a long taxi, a roar of the engines, and a mile or so of furious speed. Then, the jet screams into the sky and banks hard away from the airport. In a balloon, flight is markedly different. Miles held open the propane line and before I knew it, without any noise or rush of speed, the balloon lifted off, and the people below were waving at us. Park City and the Wasatch Mountains took on a new perspective.

The Joys of Sunrise

I called this a 'sunrise' balloon ride but in reality almost all hot air balloon rides are sunrise journeys. That is because sunrise is typically heralded by the day's calmest winds. Calm winds and good weather are precursors to hot-air balloon flights, and that is why I called Miles at 5:30 this morning. By then he has contacted the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City and received detailed wind summaries for the air over Park City, as well as a forecast for the coming day. The world of balloon riding is an early one.

A balloonist for 14 years, Miles got his start by taking a job as a sort of balloon gopher. Though only the pilot is needed to guide the craft, there is also a support team on the ground to help with herding the clients, filling the balloons, and then meeting the balloon as it lands, only to deflate it, pack the ensemble up and drive back to the shop.

Six years ago Miles, a long-time Parkite, opened Park City Balloon Adventures, though before this he worked for balloon companies in Aspen, Napa and Palm Springs. Park City is good for flying, he says, because of the fine weather, open space, and market base, which converges here in winter for skiing at three world-class resorts and again in summer for the cool days, festivals, mountain wildflowers and shopping. His company has been growing: he now has two big balloons and one smaller balloon; this morning, both of the big ones are in the air. His balloons have been seen in movies and television shows, like 'Touched By An Angel,' which films in Utah, and 'Promised Land.'

Higher

Park City sits at 7,000 feet above sea level, and Miles has clearance to fly as high or even higher than the surrounding mountains, which top 10,000 feet. This morning we rise briefly to 10,000 feet; the Wasatch eyes us, and Park City appears like a tidy, small town. Up high, surprisingly, it is barely colder than down in the valley, and the wind is strangely calm. It is serene, but in a tenuous sort of way; only the thin walls of the basket separate me from the empty space beyond.

Occasionally, Miles pulls the trigger and lets out a stream of flame-heated air. Hot air balloons work on the principal that the heated air pools within the balloon, making it lighter than the air around it. As the air cools the balloon falls at a rapid though mostly unnoticeable rate; let in more flame and a moment later the balloon levels, then rises.

Our balloon, 'Dream Keeper,' is a big one. Ninety feet tall and 80 feet wide, it holds 245,000 cubic feet of air. Looking up into the balloon makes me dizzy; on the top of the balloon is a smiling face peering back down to me. On board this morning are tourists from California and Minnesota, plus three locals; a reporter, a sound tech and a six-foot tall runway-quality camerawoman. They are here from Park City Television, channel 8, to do a story on Articles. (I try to act normal.)

Up at 10,000 feet we drift with the breeze, south, then east. Below, fallow meadows with a thin coat of spring snow lie silent; to the east is Jordanelle Reservoir, the Heber and Kamas valleys, and the Uinta Mountains, the highest range in Utah. All around snowy peaks mark the horizon.

The Loving Arms of Mother Earth

Miles rotates the basket using a web of ropes inside the balloon which, when pulled, open shutters to allow air in. But the craft itself is not steerable unless a pilot can find a favorable current of air that goes where he wants it to. Forty-five minutes into the flight, Miles begins to lower us into a neighborhood of huge and spectacular homes on a mountain bowl above Deer Valley called Solamer. There is a park ahead, but the wind is not taking us there. Miles calls his ground crew on a radio and they speed to Solamer to meet us. The balloon won't make it to the park, and Miles lowers it gently onto a hillside free of snow. People come out of their homes to wave as us, and one woman, still in her nightgown, holds up a tiny girl and tells us it is her birthday. Then, Miles hucks out a rope, and the two guys on the ground grab the rope and pull us toward a road. The balloon sets down on the road and we climb out. It's colder here on the ground.

As the support crew is deflating the balloon, packing it up, and waving through the occasional car that drives past, I get interviewed for the story. Miles pops the top off of a bottle of Champagne and toasts the ride. The first balloonists, he says, were nearly attacked by frightened farmers who though the craft was an implement from outer space; Champagne showed the farmers that the balloonists were civilized. Miles recites the toast, called A Balloonist's Prayer:

The Winds have welcomed you with softness.
The Sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so well
that God has joined you in your laughter
and He has set you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

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