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All I got was a blank look. "The meteorological reports," said Ian, explaining as to a child, "the ones that tell us how hard the wind is blowing." It seemed to Hamish and me that it was more likely that there wasn't enough wind. It looked so calm up there that the local golden eagles might have had trouble taking off because of lack of lift.
Neverthless, we couldn't begin our race that morning, Ian decreed. We would have another shot at it when the wind dropped in the evening—in Scotland at midsummer the light lingers until past 11 p.m. And that was that, aside from a 10-minute dissertation on just why winds tend to drop in the evening.
It was unjust, I felt, that Ian wasn't present at around 6 p.m. when Hamish and I, abstemiously sipping cider in the bar of our Fort William hotel, noticed that the pine trees we could see through the window were moving quite a bit. We walked to the door. The gold had gone out of the evening, the temperature had dropped, and a nor'easter, 30 knots of it, was whistling down the Great Glen. We put our helmets away and stopped ordering cider.
The nor'easter stayed with us for three days. Not only was it strong, it was a seaward wind as well; though, as I pointed out to Hamish, the north in it gave us a sporting chance of making Greenland rather than Labrador.
The three-day break also gave me a chance to talk with my pilot. John seemed a little overshadowed, a little diffident, when Ian was around. But on his own, he was different. He was a full-time professional balloonist, I learned, and had flown in New Mexico and California, as well as Europe. All that flight experience made up a little for the shock I'd had when I saw the basket we were to fly in.
It was high-sided and very small, with barely room enough for its two passengers to stand upright, hemmed in as they were by the four cylinders of propane gas that fueled the burners supplying the hot air for the envelope. With difficulty I climbed in, grabbing some of the entrails of the craft for support. "Leave that hose alone!" John said sharply. "And that red line! That's the rip line. If you pull it, you let the hot air out. Please, please, don't hang on to it accidentally."
The lecture proceeded, but it was a lot more purposeful than Ian's earbenders. I listened with undivided attention. "If it gusts like it's gusting just now," he was telling me, "when we hit, the basket is going to tip over and drag. Get inside it. Right down. Hold on to something. Not the gas hose! Don't jump out or fall out until the balloon stops or it'll shoot up in the air again—with me in it. If we get sudden gusts or changes of wind direction at low level, the sides of the balloon could collapse. Don't worry! We have two burners, just like a twin-motored aircraft. We can blow it up again fast."
I should have studied all this months ago, I reflected, instead of nourishing those Aquarian fantasies. When we hit, indeed! It might be fun dragging across pasture land, frightening the cows, but this was the Highlands, very little of which is flat. "What if we hit a mountainside?" I asked.
He considered the point judiciously and then said, "Well, you do get this kind of curling effect of the wind running up a valley. It could happen. We could get stuck up on a ledge. But we have a helicopter following."
Being picked off the side of a sheer granite wall running with water would seem to involve hazards for us as well as for the helicopter. I was ruminating on all this when, with unerring timing, Hamish arrived with the news. "We'll fly tonight!" he exulted. "The Mets are looking great!"