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Young Barnes, 27, had been manufacturing sport balloons for a lonely minority of anachronistic adventurers for about five years when he got to thinking about how nice it would be to float clear across the country. Somehow he managed to persuade Lennox Industries, a maker of furnaces and air conditioners, to bankroll the trip. It would take, he estimated, four-to-eight weeks. Why do it? For the challenge, of course, he would answer. For the promotion of his business. Because it hadn't been done before. But why, really? The question would always give him pause. "Flying a balloon," he would say slowly, "gives you a sensation you can't get any other way. You go so slow, you can come down over the treetops and talk to people. Did you ever dream that you could fly like Peter Pan, going in and out of the trees? It's like that. It's as close to being able to fly like a bird as you can get. You have an entirely different perspective. When I drift over a wooded area, with houses and streets mixed in, it's like rowing across a lake and looking down into the water. The sun's shining on the tree-tops and they look like the surface of a lake. You almost have to strain to see between the trees to the houses and people. On top everything's very bright, but underneath it's dark, and houses look like pebbles on the bottom of a lake."
Barnes's voyage began on April 9, 1966, when he turned up at the Del Coronado Hotel, a short ferry ride from San Diego, with a balloon named Firefly 90. Two men were assigned to pursue him in a jeep and camper truck. A well-dressed crowd, including a sulky beauty queen suffering from lack of attention, hustled out to the hotel's private beach to wave him off. A 10-year-old girl thrust a letter at him, addressed to "Elementary School, Atlantic Coast," with VIA BALLOON in big block letters on the envelope. Inside was a request for a pen pal. All was joy and optimism for miles around.
But not for long. Two days later came calamity No. 1. "I thought I'd give one of my crew a ride," says Tracy. "We had to get up to about 3,000 feet and over a small mountain just east of San Diego. But before we got to 2,000 feet a zipper at the top of the balloon worked loose. It was slowly letting more and more air out of the balloon. I figured we had to get back down, but I couldn't control the descent, because air was escaping faster than I could shoot it in. The balloon started to lose its shape, and we were starting down. I told Howard to put on his chute. He had never jumped before. We were coming down at about 500 feet a minute. Finally, at 1,500 feet, he jumped. But he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the chute, so the chute didn't open. The thought went through my mind, boink, he's had it. But finally about 100 feet above the ground the chute opened." A moment later Barnes himself jumped out, and both of them landed safely, within 50 yards of their balloon. The balloon itself was grounded two and a half weeks for repairs.
Tracy Barnes uses the "boink" to describe untoward happenings that befall him in his balloon. He would need it again and again.
Attempting to cross the Laguna Mountains in darkness, he remembers, "I went down to 4,000 feet and saw what appeared to be a desert with shrubs—brownish-gray splotchy areas. I couldn't tell how high above it I was. It turned out that the splotchy areas were boulders the size of houses.
"I came down lower and saw that I was moving faster than I thought I was. There was a wind rolling down from the peaks at about 30 mph. I got caught in it. Then I saw a huge mound of rocks coming up in front of me. I didn't have time to get over it. I had about 20 seconds to brace myself and shut off the valves. There was a terrific impact and a terrible scraping sound, and I felt that the wind was knocked out of me. But after the impact I realized I was still flying. The balloon went on up and over the peak and then got caught in swirling air on the other side. The gondola scraped up the side to the peak and smashed into the boulders again. It happened one more time before the gondola finally wedged between boulders and I rolled out of it. I lay there and watched while the balloon took off again and went through this cycle two more times. It came right back toward me and smacked into the rocks a few feet away from me. It was an uncanny feeling, like one of those movies where a big dinosaur is coming down at you. Then the gondola broke up in the air, and I saw the pieces dropping down."
Barnes lay for 17 hours with a severely wrenched back before help arrived. He was lifted out by helicopter and taken to a hospital in San Diego. It was a month before he was airborne again.
About two months later, on his way across Arizona, Barnes discovered he had crossed the Grand Canyon at night and hadn't seen it. He waited for the wind to change again, doubled back and plopped down in the canyon. He was up again in 30 minutes and down again in 30 more, tangled—boink—in the branches of a ponderosa pine on the north rim of the canyon. Then the park rangers showed up. "They mainly wanted to make sure that we didn't drop any candy wrappers, drive off the road or cut down any trees," says Barnes. "But they finally let us cut the top 10 feet off of one tree so we could untangle the balloon." The balloonist did a quick patch job on Firefly 90, which was beginning to look more like Bedbug 40, and pushed on. That night he came down in Green River, Utah. The night after that? Well, after that he got lost.
Crossing the Rockies, Tracy found a breeze so amiable that he just kept going, landing about 50 miles beyond his intended plopdown point and losing radio contact with his ground crew, far back along the mountain roads. Before the trip began Barnes and the crew had made a solemn covenant: if he became lost the crew would search for three days, then notify the local authorities. But the press learned of his disappearance and began harassing the sheriff in Craig, Colo., a stranger to the balloon world, with anxious inquiries.
The sheriff took it unkindly. "How do I know where they are?" he snorted. "Bunch of knotheads come flying in here with a balloon, not notifying anyone."