Things I did before I died

Brady J. Frey & Sheryl Jang Estimated Time of departure: 70 years

Wish: Ride in a hot-air balloon

Accomplished: May 26th, 2007


The idea of a Hot Air Balloon ride was something I occasionally thought of as a kid; mostly a romantic after thought influenced by Disney movies and fantasy books. Lately I’ve become bored with thrills like Six Flags, coupled with City Living and hours designing/developing on a computer, the idea of branching out again from the commercial entertainment of my life to something this antiquated and natural seems a welcomed blessing.

I would be lying, if I hadn’t wanted my first adventure to be a bit more wild… but after discussing the ambition of skydiving first with Sheryl, I agreed that a Hot Air Balloon would be a good primer for future aviation exploration.

That discussion happened on a Tuesday, and I wanted to do this on the upcoming Memorial Day weekend; which meant my spontaneous intentions would be either expensive or without a hotel room. I investigated Hot Air Balloon companies in Napa, and found the competition steep. Most offered the same feature show, but reading through the marketing slogans you find that the main ones are large businesses herding you in up to 16 people wide baskets that float into the air. Since this was to be my first attempt, I had no interest in pop tart experiences. Searches and reviews led me to Napa Valley Drifters; listed as a small local company, ran by a life long local, with an intimate knowledge of the location and it’s amenities.

I called Napa Valley Drifters, and reached the owner and lead pilot Terry. He noted that he has a slot for Saturday or Monday open for two people, and I said I’d call him back right away to confirm a Saturday, so long as I found a hotel.

2 hours later we found a local Bed & Breakfast, double the nightly price, but only for a friday (saturday was booked city wide). I decided to go for it, and confirmed Saturday with Terry.

To Napa

We left around noon on Friday to Bel Abri, our Bed & Breakfast (I know, they shouldn’t be using a splash page anymore, it loses visitors, but some people choose aesthetics without understanding function). The haul was quick and painless until we reach a 29/12 intersection… 5 miles that took over a half hour. Nevertheless, we made it in an hour and were well on the way to an evening in Napa.

Upon checking in the owner of Bel Abri was at the front desk, didn’t welcome us, and when we introduced ourselves, she politely asked us to hold on or she’d lose her train of thought. I assumed this just a quaint oversight, but as the next two days wore out we found her to be professional and polite, but her mannerisms without warmth or sincerity. This is something I’m accustomed too in retail environments; not necessarily a Bed & Breakfast in the wine country. Since we were leaving for a Hot Air Balloon ride, the owner informed us we would miss the ‘Breakfast’ portion of our stay, as it’s delivered from 8 to 9am. No offer of an alternative accommodations, possibly leave it in our room or extend the delivery time. Regardless of the busy time of year, I’d assume a bit more care in their customer service – as people in our location typically visit a couple times annually.

The location itself was indeed European in decor. The rooms were standard living size, but elegant and kept, though not without it’s ironies. The 1980 remote control (clear taped shut because the back was lost some time ago I imagine) sat on a hand crafted oak table.

We showered and walked to the local street event in Napa, where we tasted wine and shopped at a quality Rockabily clothing stored called ‘Wildcats’. The event was short lived for us, however – though it was 3 blocks, it was clearly just local merchants and food. Most of the merchants seemed bothered by the sheer amount of bored kids (I’d say atleast 70% were unattended local kids just trying to find something to do) – and you can tell that the heads of the event were out of touch conjuring up ways to deal or distract with the age group not necessarily in their target demographic. Considering we had to be out the door tomorrow at 5:30 am, we returned to our hotel after a meal of local kielbasa’s and wine (cultured, I’m sure), and fell asleep watching our Governor on cable.

Morning Pickup

Four A.M. alarm hits – my body knows little about how to function at this hour. I shower, as does Sheryl, and we wait downstairs for Terry. He’s already informed us the day before that Napa’s fog filled weekend is unsuitable for Hot Air Balloon rides, and we agree to launch at their alternative location an hour outside of Napa in the Yolo County aviation field.

A tall and stocky man, Terry has a warm personality that suits dealing with a variety of people. We hitch ourselves in his well maintained 1984 Silverado along with his partners Jeff and Luis to the Yolo Launch site.

Break Out the Balloon

With relaxed company, we reached the site (followed by 2 other passengers on our trip who’s names escape me). Another balloon company is on site (apparently the locals are friendly in their competition), and all of the teams prep for launch.

After signing the typical life waiver forms for this type of event, Terry mounts the propane jets on the top of the basket with haste so Jeff and Luis can shift the basket from the truck bed onto the tarp covered grass field. They lay the basket sideways and stretch out the elegant 120,000 capacity balloon for what they call a ‘cold inflate’: filling the balloon with cold air in preparation of filling it with hot air.

Sheryl takes the farthest side away from the fan, and I’m placed on the side closest to the fan (my body weight will offset more pressure than Sheryl easily). The gas powered fan is bucked into action, and begins to fill the balloon for the next 5+ minutes until the basket finds itself standing upright and ready for the hot air. We break for a quick pit stop prior to launch (yest ye find yourself stuck in the balloon for the next hour) in the airstrips yellow public bathrooms (complete with shower, and at this morning, someone in that shower).

Quickly returning, Sheryl and I hop into the basket, next to our 2 new companions, and Terry as Pilot. He hits the triggers above and starts firing the burners (warm enough that even at high altitudes, you don’t need a jacket – and lucky I brought a hat for my shaved head). Before you know it, you’ve lifted 10 feet off the ground and you hadn’t noticed.

A Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

For the duration of the trip, Terry tells us the details of flying a Hot Air Balloon, and explains the intricacies of the land. The baskets are heavily inspected and hand woven – with the current capacity of our trip being 6 bodies, where some of the alternative baskets can be as large as a bus for their 16 people crew. The wind shifts more in the low altitudes and can stop you flat when you go further up (as we experienced) with little to no movement. Lighter than air, the balloon flight is a peaceful 5 mile journey over beautiful fields, farm animals, houses and in our case passing near a primate lab for UC Davis – who apparently hate balloons flying lower than 500 feet or it spooks the monkeys!

The Balloon is dead silent, and it’s a serene airborne adventure. The sound of the burners kicking in is quick and does nothing to destroy the intimate setting (though the horses and bunnies below jump around for a moment). We volley from over 1500ft to as low as 10 feet, and glide above the ground for a well rounded perspective of flying. After an hour of site seeing and beautiful views too poorly pronounced in writing, we slowly settle down in a farmer’s cleared field, and pack up for home.

I step out first to help secure the weight of the balloon – and offer to help do some of the labor of getting everything back in storage (as both kindness and learning – how better to understand a process if you don’t get your hands dirty). I help Jeff and Luis wrap up the balloon back in it’s heavy canvas sack, and shift up the basket onto the Silverado.

Our two companions, who for the most part were a little up tight although overjoyed during the trip, hurried out rather rudely during goodbye and jumped into their car.

No bother, we were too entertained by the moment to care, and we took a toast with Jeff, Luis, and Terry who recited the The Balloonists’ Prayer for us:

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 He has set you gently back again
into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

We packed up the truck, and took a slow drive back to the hotel – rich with new meetings, experiences, and a beautiful California day thanks to Terry, Jeff and Luis of Napa Valley Drifters.

Brady J. Frey