It’s pitch black and serenely quiet outside. Well, it is the crack of dawn. Such is the sacrifice that one must make to experience the joy of hot air ballooning. I am picked up at my hotel promptly by Keith, a transplant from Virginia, who fell into the balloon business, but since working for Hot Air Expeditions for several years, couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “You never take off and land at the same point. We scout several different locations, sending test balloons up into the air to gauge the wind, before we decide on the point of departure,” says Keith as we drive to several possible takeoff points before finally deciding on a final take off spot.
The sky morphs from pitch black to an earthly pastel pink and we meet our captain, Patrick Stevens, a native of the Phoenix area. Petrified about the open air flying concept, I am reassured by Stevens, that “ballooning is more like a feeling of gliding through the air rather than flying.” Suddenly my nerves are eased. Eventually, in the air it feels as if I can touch the saguaro cacti (the ever present symbol of Phoenix that has made an appearance in many icon Western films) as we lean over the edge we feel entirely secure, nestled in what could only be described as an oversized straw basket. We drift over a prison. Stevens, who could easily have a second career in comedy, refers to it as “an involuntary resort”; when passing over a shooting range reassures my fellow passengers that “we try our best not to land there.” Captain Stevens continues with a sardonic take on how one can spot a pilot, (“he’ll tell you”), and the difference between pilots and God (“God knows he’s not a pilot”).
We touchdown in what seems the middle of the desert. Out of nowhere a meal appears and Captain Stevens says the balloonists blessing. Our lavish breakfast includes chocolate croissants, quiche and sparkling wine “courtesy of one of the finest chefs in Phoenix, Vincent Guerithault,” advises Stevens, an avid foodie in his own right. As we eat and talk the Hot Air Expeditions team exchanges quick one- liners with one another (at one time referring to one of the other balloon captains, Jim, as “stitch” due to a laceration on his forehead). The roars of laughter from the guys and the guests are a testament to the entire experience. These are the kind of folks you feel like you want to hang out with. From beginning to and the experience is seamless. It’s a once in a lifetime feeling of soaring amongst the clouds.
2243 E. Rose Garden
Loop, Suite #1, Phoenix, AZ
Read more in the Summer 2011 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.