The lift-off from the ground is imperceptible. I just notice that the ground is a little further away and moving underneath us now. We met at 6:30am on a cold, clear morning to go on a hot air balloon ride along the Teton mountain range just outside Jackson, Wyoming.
When I awoke this morning, the sky was black and full of stars in the depth and breadth that makes one feel small and enveloped by the universe. The sun’s first rays paint the mountains in pink and the cold, cloudless night caused a thin fog layer to hang among the trees along the Snake River. Fall is coming to the Tetons.
We met up with the Wyoming Balloon company van and two other guests at Teton Village and drove to our lift-off site. About half the time, they get out there and don’t fly because the conditions aren’t favorable. Today, we’re in luck. The basket (“gondola”) is unloaded from the trailer and the heavy bulk of the balloon unfurled precisely on the ground. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process to get it all hooked up and airborne. The bite of the cold just seems to make it take longer.
The balloonists and Rob hold the bottom of the balloon open so the fans can begin to expand the fabric and pull it off the cold earth. The balloon is immense. It will take a lot of air to fill its space. As the balloon begins to peel away from the ground and take shape, the gondola burners are lit. Flames shoot sideways toward the mouth of the striped nylon dome. It’s filling faster now and slowly tilts toward the sky.
At the same time, our pilot pushes with all his might to tip the basket upright as the balloon aids his efforts. And then it sits on the ground for the final safety checks and boarding (which involves climbing over the side).
The balloon can hold six passengers and the pilot. It seems like that would be awfully cozy and I’m glad there are only the four of us with our pilot. The pilot fires the burners and we lift off. The movement is imperceptible. The movement of our shadow marks the departure. There is a small pond surrounded by willow bushes and one cottonwood tree in the otherwise empty agricultural field. Our gondola grazes the top of the tree as we climb. This is why the weather needs to be perfect. Even then, you only have so much control.
We climbed a thousand feet starting from a valley floor at 6,300 feet. It is silent up here except for the intermittent roar of the burners. Since we are moving with the wind, the air is still as we’re pushed southward. It’s a surprisingly tranquil experience.
We saw three large herds of elk, fallen trees along the Snake River, and cows grazing in the fields all with the dramatic shadows of early morning light.
As we approached a neighborhood, we dropped down to blow north toward the Jackson Hole Ski Resort.
Expansive runs carve through the trees. Lower on the mountainside are ski-lift-accessible mountain bike trails where Rob will gear up like an armored prince and tempt fate. It’s fun to see where he’ll ride from this perspective.
We rose up once more and rode the wind south toward our landing spot. The van is in a field waiting for us. As we drift closer to the ground, our pilot tosses a long strap down to the team.
They pull us to just the right spot where we alight as gently as we left an hour ago. There is champagne and this “commemorative” aeronaut certificate waiting for us. The van takes us back to our car while the crew begins the tedious task of packing it all away.
Hot air ballooning is a unique way to see the landscape. There’s no better place to do that than in Jackson Hole.
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