A wash of gray covered the land, and the lines of mountain and desert were still vague. Inside the lodge people were sipping coffee. It was 5:30 a.m. and The Balloon Ranch was slowly coming to life. The ranch, in Del Norte, Colo., on the western rim of the San Luis Valley, is a 5-year-old resort where city folks come to experience the wonders of hot-air ballooning in a pristine setting some 40 miles east of the Great Divide. My own introduction to the sport and the ranch came several months previously. Conditions had been fouled up for days. Even though the crews got up before daybreak to beat the thermals, rough swirling winds that interfere with balloon activity, the wind was turbulent enough to force the cancellation of many flights. Chief Pilot Frank Rider, who recently left the ranch but is due back this summer, was the only one unconcerned; he accepts getting "winded out" as part of the sport. "At first," Rider said, "I would run around yelling, 'Too much wind, there's too much wind.' But one thing ballooning has taught me is patience. If we can't go up I have as much fun just talking about it." He pointed out the window at an orange wind sock dancing lazily on a pole. "We may be grounded again. Ten miles per hour is our upper limit for safe winds. Beyond that, take-offs and landings get to be more work than fun."
But half an hour later the sock hung perfectly limp. Rider loaded the guests into a pickup and drove along an unpaved road to an open field littered with scrub and shotgun-blasted Coors beer cans. The sun was up, giving a pale-gold cast to the dusty ground. We hauled a large bag off the truck and began to unravel the brown, orange, white and red polyester balloon. It was a Barnes AX-7 named Afternoon Delight. (Balloonists argue the virtues of Barnes, Raven and Piccard the way sports car enthusiasts debate Ferrari, Porsche and Maserati.) The balloon covered more than 4,000 square feet and lay on the desert like a pop-art tarpaulin over an infield.
The crew had already lined up the large, three-cornered wicker gondola under the balloon's opening. Rider untangled the maze of steel cables and attached them to the basket, which was tipped over on its side. When he started a large motor-driven fan at the base of the balloon, the inert envelope smacked and billowed like a sail; after only five minutes it held two tons of air and looked like a giant 47-foot punching bag lying on its side. Then Rider lit a propane burner attached to the overhead basket support, aimed it directly into the mouth of the balloon and started blasting. A 15-foot flame shot out, followed by a roar that might have come from a medium-sized blast furnace. Immediately the balloon began to rise, pulling the basket upright. We jumped in and were off.
The basic principles of hot-air ballooning are surprisingly simple and haven't changed much since the Montgolfier brothers launched their first balloon at Annonay, France in 1783, some 120 years before the Wright brothers' adventure at Kitty Hawk. In what can now be viewed as a brilliant miscalculation, the Montgolfiers figured that smoke caused balloons to rise and that the best source for smoke was damp straw, chopped wool and old shoes. They were actually demonstrating the simple fact that since hot air is less dense than cold, a volume of hot air trapped in a balloon will rise to seek an equal density. Cool the air and the balloon will come down.
Rider directed flames into the mouth of the balloon at rapid intervals, burning every minute or so to gain altitude, until we had climbed 1,000 feet. We could see the entire San Luis Valley. The 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were half hidden in haze to the east; the San Juan Mountains rose abruptly from the valley floor in the west.
Rider kept up a steady monologue about his love affair with his sport. "I enjoy turning people on to ballooning," he said. "Just seeing the delight in their faces makes it worthwhile." Beneath the chatter he was cool and professional, though he hasn't always been as prudent as he is now. In 1976 Rider decided to fly a balloon over 60 miles of ocean from Bimini to Florida because "I wanted to do something adventuresome." He waited five days until the wind was right, and then he inflated. During inflation the wind kicked up to a violent 35 mph, almost tipping him into the water. He managed to get airborne, only to discover that there was a 10-foot gash at the top of his envelope. He wanted to abort the whole plan but nobody answered his radio calls. Frantic, he attached SOS notes to his lunch pail and dropped it into the water. Naturally, no response. So Rider, accompanied by the frightening flap of the rent, flew on, burning every 10 seconds to compensate for the massive heat loss. When he came to a crashing stop against a tree in Florida, he had only 15 minutes' worth of fuel left. An experience like that makes a man cautious.
Now Rider burned some more and took us up to 1,500 feet, where we caught an easterly current and started drifting lazily toward a town called Center. The air was pure, the mountain peaks rose in the distance like sentinels—and the experience was completely baffling. We had prepared for dangerous sport; ballooning was placid. There was absolutely no sense of movement. The balloon had become part of the surrounding air mass. A balloon traveling 20 mph relative to the ground is stationary in relation to the wind, and that results in some curious violations of ground-level physical laws. For example, a balloonist can light a match in a brisk wind and it will keep burning.
Riding in the balloon was like being suspended from the sky by a huge chain while the earth revolved slowly underneath. It was as though one had drifted away from the world into a soundless (except for the burner) dreamscape. Ballooning is a meditative activity, as much a state of mind as a sport.
The other balloonists felt the same. To one from Texas, ballooning "was even better than a fantasy. There was no sense of vertical movement. It was like being in a cloud." A former network radio producer who became a professional balloonist in Oakland found it beautifully impractical. "It's a gentle, irrelevant activity," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with anything else. You never know where you're going; you just float around."
After an hour Rider began to burn less frequently. He took us down to 1,000 feet, caught an east-west current, and we drifted over an abandoned church and past the Del Norte town dump. As the ground came up, Rider said, "We have to avoid those power lines over there. I've heard stories of power lines shearing right through a balloon's suspension cables." We drifted a few hundred feet above the lines and made for a rocky, untended field as the chase truck sped toward us, trailing a film of dust in its wake. "Be ready to flex your knees when we land and, no matter what happens, do not leave the basket," Rider said. "Without your weight, I'll bounce 200 feet back into the air." This was the only time his tone was severe. We wouldn't have left the basket if it had caught fire.