We hit with a bump and lurched forward at a 45-degree angle. Two crew members grabbed the basket, and Rider pulled on a rope to open the flap at the top of the balloon. The hot air started to escape and we came upright. One of the crewmen grabbed a pull rope, which hung from the top of the balloon, and held tight to the line while Afternoon Delight struggled like an enraged sea beast. Rider continued to yank the deflation panel; the balloon's sides began to collapse. Suddenly Afternoon Delight quivered like a jellyfish, gave up the fight and settled to earth.
The Balloon Ranch is the creation of Link Baum, 32, an intense young man with fragile good looks and a faraway manner. He is already a living legend among balloonists. In 1970 Baum became the youngest man ever to cross the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, an achievement he dismisses casually. "As far as I'm concerned, the Channel was just another balloon ride. It's much more impressive that I got into ballooning so early. When I crossed the Channel there were only 60 balloons in the whole U.S. Now there are around 3,000."
After the Channel crossing, Baum moved to Denver with the vague idea of starting a ballooning resort. He saw the San Luis Valley in 1974 and was impressed. "It was big and wide and protected," he explains. "As soon as I saw the valley I knew it was the promised land." A year later Baum started an inspection tour at the top of the valley and worked his way down. On the third day he came upon the site he was to pick, an overgrown 144-acre sheep ranch with an old two-story barn stuck in the middle. He put down enough money for the barn and 22 acres, then called David Levin, a childhood friend, and asked him to buy the other 122. Levin came out from Boston, where he was attending law school. The two friends started at one end of the property, paced the entire perimeter and, by the time they were finished, Levin was sold. He put up the money and went back to law school, intending to be a silent partner in the ranch. But he quickly learned that his future was in balloons, not court. "You tell people you're a lawyer—so what. But you tell them you run a balloon ranch, that's something special," he says.
Levin took over full ownership of the property in 1978, and while Baum still spends time at the ranch, he has no active part in its operation.
The Balloon Ranch accommodates 32 guests in a 14-room chalet and a few cabins that sit in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains. The amenities include a tennis court, a Jacuzzi, a redwood hot tub and a pool around which one can sit sipping margaritas. But since ballooning usually ends by 8:30 in the morning (except in winter, when winds die down at dusk), the ranch provides other diversions—technical rock climbing, Jeep tours, horseback riding, rafting down the Rio Grande—all of which are more strenuous activities than ballooning.
Originally, Baum intended the ranch to be a resort where experienced flyers could totally immerse themselves in ballooning. But hard-core balloonists are often attached to their own clubs and balloon ports. The Balloon Ranch caters almost exclusively to tenderfeet. So far only 25 people have completed the certification for a private license (10 to 15 hours of lessons, plus ground training at a cost of $1,500); Rider estimates that only one guest in 20 takes an introductory lesson ($125). People are content to have the ranch pilots squire them around the sky for $85 a ride, which is dirt cheap as ballooning goes.
My introductory lesson was scheduled for a Saturday morning. I attached the burner and fuel lines as Rider had instructed and stood off to the side while he routinely set up the cables and began inflating the balloon. Afternoon Delight was reacting to a northwest wind. David Levin was piloting Baby, an impressive 105,000-cubic-foot balloon (about 30,000 cubic feet larger than Delight), some 40 feet to our right—too close I later learned—and about half inflated. She looked like a seven-story multicolored wave about to break. Then the wind shifted suddenly. It swung Baby to the left, where she wallowed on top of Afternoon Delight. Rider ordered, "Get in the basket." I jumped in as he told the crew to pick up the basket and walk it forward. Four men pulled us free of Baby and started trotting with the wind to negate its velocity. "I don't like this at all," Rider muttered. He was half standing, half squatting on the rim of the basket, fighting with dozens of steel coils that seemed to be attacking him.
Afternoon Delight was not fully inflated when Baby hit, and now, like a Venus's-flytrap, she threatened to close completely. Our balloon also was missing its "Nomex" skirt, a bottom layer of highly fire-resistant fabric, and to shoot the flame would be hazardous. Rider was aiming at an opening only 60% as large as it should have been, and taking a big risk that sections of the fabric would melt. He fought the wires, shooting the burner when safe. He finally got the bag inflated and Afternoon Delight righted herself. Everything would have been fine if the wind hadn't kicked up just at that moment and started bouncing Afternoon Delight around like a beach ball. "Get the other passengers," he yelled. "I can't wait any longer." Two men ran up carrying a young woman from Philadelphia and threw her into the basket like a duffel bag. There was a look of pure fear in her eyes as she sailed over the edge. The basket started to skid along the ground, bumping every few feet like a young bird learning flight. As it rose, Charlie Schulze, a fellow passenger, grabbed the basket and, in full stride, vaulted himself neatly over the side. Suddenly we were airborne; all movement stopped and the ground dropped away.
After a few moments Rider let me take over. I grabbed the overhead propane burner and squeezed the trigger steadily until we got to 1,000 feet. Then I leveled off. Down below, Baby straightened and began to move up like a tear-shaped air bubble. Rider turned to me and asked, "Are we rising, falling or staying level?" I looked west at our shadow. It was rising briskly. "Rising," I said. "Never judge by your shadow," he warned. "Look at the mountaintops." I looked in time to see us slowly sinking into the valley, so I blasted the burner until we started moving up again. For the next half hour we went gently pogo-sticking through the sky while I consistently burned too late and then frantically overcompensated so that we shot past our mark.
Flying a balloon, I was learning, is not a precise science, though some pilots would differ. Since there is about a 15-second delay between the time you start a burn and when the balloon finally responds, one needs a feeling and intuition for up-and-down movement. And because a balloonist has almost no horizontal control, going in a chosen direction takes savvy and more than a little luck. The best a pilot can do is search for the right wind current and hope it takes him where he wants to go. Since wind is very fickle, balloonists do a lot of searching.