A Flight and a Life Lesson

They slipped the surly bonds of earth

And touched the face of God

Those words from an old poem were made famous by President Ronald Reagan. The space shuttle, Challenger, had blown up 72 seconds after lift off killing everyone on board. He was speaking at a memorial service for the astronauts when he said those words.

Those words became real for me recently. I had the opportunity to go aloft in a hot air balloon in line with this adventure we call life. I originally intended for this article to be in a quirky and hum ours vein, but I couldn’t write it in that light. Then I thought about just a face-based boring article filled with lots of facts and figures. But I couldn’t write that either. So it’s evolved into what it is.

I met with the balloon crew about 6am outside Mountain Java in Candler. A bunch of great folks – but more about them in a minute. There were four balloons going up that day, so there were more than just myself there to be a little nervous. After we introduced ourselves and made some stupid jokes to mask our nervousness, Rick Bowers, Managing Member, stepped into the circle to give us an orientation about what to expect.

The orientation was good in a technical sense. All the bases were covered as far as what to do if the pilot passes out, how to survive a possible rough landing and even how to make the most of it should we come down in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest. The orientation didn’t cover – or at least I didn’t hear – how to survive the aftermath of the event. But looking back on it, I don’t think there’s anyway that someone could be adequately warned of the aftermath.

We got our balloon and pilot assignments. I was assigned to a balloon piloted by Danny Smith. Danny’s been around balloons since he was eight years old. His next door neighbors, Dave and Irma Woods owned the balloon company and Danny would hang around the shop watching, listening and learning. As he got a little older, he would barter doing yard chores in exchange for flying lessons. In 1981, the Woods’ decided to retire and offered Danny the chance to buy the company.

He jumped at the chance.

Rick Bowers got involved in the company in 2002. After a living for awhile in Florid and doing leadership seminars, Rick decided to move to Asheville. Having had a commercial pilot’s license since 1982, he was looking for the next thing in life to do. And, as so often happens in life when we let go of the need of control, Serendipity stepped in and introduced him to Danny. Together they’ve continued to build a business, Asheville Hot Air Balloons, that is unlike any other business I’ve ever seen.

But first the flight.

Danny lit off the burners to heat up the air inside the 180,000 square foot “envelope” – the term balloonists use for the balloon part of the vehicle. And then the magic started.

There was absolutely no sensation of rising. It was if we were being held in place by a giant, unseen hand and the earth was dropping away. The only way that I could tell we were getting higher was by watching the landscape – the roads, the forest, the river, the houses, the horses – recede into the distance below until it felt like I was looking at an incredibly detailed model of the earth. But even then, there was no physical perception of getting higher – you feel more upward movement in the elevator at the BB&T building than you do in a balloon.

And then I broke rule #1. During the orientation, Rick stressed the importance of keeping everything inside the basket. Don’t lean over, don’t hold anything like a cell phone or camera outside of the basket – things like that.

I grabbed the shots that you see with this article and was almost half way out of the balloon trying to get just the “perfect” photograph. I don’t know why I took the risk – I guess I tend to live on the edge like that. Even at 6000 feet.

In a balloon, there’s also no sense of movement. Again, it’s as though you’re in a stationery object and the earth is turning slowly beneath you. If you ride the road at 40mph and stick your hand out of the window, you feel the wind and air pushing against you. On a balloon, you’re part of the wind. There’s is no feeling of the breeze blowing you along. You’re riding the wind – you’re surfing the unseen updrafts and breezes and you become part of them.

In a way, balloon riding is like setting and talking to a pretty lady. An hour goes by in five minutes. It was time to let the earth rise back up to meet us.

Danny guided the balloon into a space that was about twenty feet wide and we landed perfectly on someone’s driveway. There wasn’t a bump. There wasn’t a nudge. It was like the earth had come back up to meet us and gently cradled us in a big, open hand. The only way I could tell we were back on the ground was the feeling of disappointment I had when I realized the trip was over.

But the trip wasn’t over. I had more to learn.

I hopped out of the balloon like I had been doing this my entire life. I started circling the basket and began shooting while watching the chase crew start to secure the balloon as Danny pulled this rope and tugged that line letting the hot air out so the envelope would collapse. Once the balloon and basket were stowed in the trailer, it was back to Mountain Java for some coffee and some conversation.

With me around the tables were Jim Barnett, Pilot; Buck Egerton, Pilot; Louise Egerton, Pilot; Olivia Bowers, Chaser; Phil Smith, Crew Chief and Kyley Cross, Chase Crew.

Here’s where the story takes an unexpected twist and what makes me say that it’s unlike any experience I’ve had over the past few years in this shared journey we call life.

I fully anticipated being regaled with all the facts and figures of the business. I was ready to hear all of the reasons why people should choose Asheville Hot Air Balloons over any competitors. I kind of also expected an attitude of – “Look at us, aren’t we great”. I didn’t get any of that. Instead, I was with people who gather around the magic and spirituality that is ballooning.

Setting around the tables with these folks, I came to see them as a family that loved each other and whose lives were centered around the magic that is ballooning – and the desire to share that magic with others.

Stories? Yes, I heard stories. Funny ones like the time one of the ground crew members grabbed a line to steady the balloon upon landing and when the wind kicked up was drug across the field, on their belly as they were drug through briars, over rocks and yes, even through cow dung.

Touching stories also like the blind lady that went up one day. Even though she couldn’t see the landscape, she could smell the adventure in the air.

Then there was the time they took up a gentleman was was terminally ill. He wanted one last adventure in life before he moved to Maine to be with his family when he died. The man looked perfectly healthy when he arrived for the balloon trip. He didn’t have any appearance of being sick, and despite the crew believing they had a freeloader on their hands, they took him up anyway. Later, they got a note from the man’s family telling them the man had passed away. They said his last thoughts and words were about the great adventure of ballooning and the folks in Asheville that made it happen.

Now, what was the spiritual lesson in all this for me? Too many to count as I set here at my favorite table in Firestorm writing and reflecting.

The Creator, or whatever name you want to use, is to us like the wind was to the balloon. The wind made the decision on what direction we were going, what we would see and where we would land. Danny could only adopt a general goal – get the balloon airborne and then bring it safely down. Everything in between was up to the wind. Yes, there were some adjustments Danny could make to the balloon elevation and yes he had to be constantly alert for changing conditions along the way. But the final adjudication was in the hands of the wind.

We can fight the spiritual forces that guide us. We can insist that we’re going to live here or live there, We can insist on choosing one lifestyle over the other. And we can even demand that we’re going to have or not going to have a relationship with a certain type person. But if we take a demanding attitude, then all we do is end up throwing ourselves on the rocks and not enjoying this adventure called life.

I’ve been fortunate in life. The list of what I’ve been able to do on this journey is long. I’ve been to the top of the Pyramids, I’ve swum the Nile, I’ve seen Stonehenge, I’ve hiked from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I’ve fallen asleep beside the Mississippi with a freight train in the distance, I’ve played stick ball in the Dallas ghetto, I’ve camped in the Australian Outback. I took a powered glider to 4500 feet on my maiden flight. And like the old song says, I’ve lost a wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way.

But this journey called life continues. Except now I have a great appreciation for what it means to let the Creator guide and direct.

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