Here’s a yarn from the writer Bill Gifford: Eight friends went hot-air ballooning in the Poconos on a perfect spring day. What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve done plenty of stupid stuff that could have killed me, everything from backcountry skiing after a snowstorm without avalanche gear (or knowledge), to riding a moped on the island of Mykonos after consuming some sort of blue drink, without lights and late at night. Bad ideas, all. But the worst it ever got, the closest I’ve ever come to starring in one of those two-inch stories buried in the back of the New York Times, happened in the Poconos. In the basket of a hot air balloon.
If you’ve ever been ballooning, then you know that there’s basically nothing less extreme—and nothing more peaceful. You ascend silently, borne up by the power of warmed gases, and then you drift along with the wind, in perfect relative stillness, high above the world and its busy little tangle of people and problems. Cars slow to watch, the people inside pointing and going, “Look! A hot-air balloon!” Many people seem to get engaged on balloon rides; perhaps you did, too. This is the story of a balloon ride gone wrong.
There were eight of us, in two balloons. We were coworkers at a magazine in Philadelphia, but more importantly, we were also friends. The Art Department guys had organized the balloons for a photo shoot, and they invited me, their pal from Editorial. We brought our spouses and/or girlfriends, and headed north to spend the night at a posh-for-the-Poconos resort.
Early the next morning, we were set to fly. Ballooning apparently takes place mainly at sunset and sunrise, perhaps to take advantage of cooler air temps. Not long after six, we clambered groggily into the baskets of the two balloons, with one shooter in each. The idea was that each balloon would take photos of the other, thus doubling our chances of getting good images. So the photographers snapped away, while the rest of us got into position around the sides of the basket.
A hot-air balloon is the simplest vehicle there is. It consists, basically, of an enormous Pier one wicker basket, dangling from the bottom of basically a huge bag of gas. The only “engine” is a sort of gigantic Bunsen burner that sticks up into the mouth of the balloon. When the pilot pulls a handle, or a lever, he ignites the burner and sends a twelve-foot tongue of blue flame leaping into the balloon’s nether reaches, warming the air inside and lifting the basket. As the air cools, the balloon crests and then slowly begins to sink. The pilot’s job is to keep the craft at the desired altitude, more or less.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to it. The cockpit is basically chest high, so most adults can see out but not be in danger of falling out. I wondered if hardcore balloonists ever went flying without their pants, or even had sex in their balloons, because the basket certainly did offer a lot of privacy.
Our pilot was a hobbyist, we learned. At the time, I remember thinking that was sort of a neat hobby. In real life, he owned a couple of Scranton-area radio stations. He was in his fifties, with the ruddy dishevelment that you see in serious sailors sometimes. When he pulled the handle, we could feel the force of the flame warming our eyebrows, and after a few moments delay, the gentle lift under our feet. The ground would fall away, and before long we were high enough that we could look out over the tops of the ridges to the nearly identical ridges beyond. Then, slowly and almost imperceptibly, we would sink back down, so that we could make out individual trees and pickup trucks and dogs running around in yards, barking. Then he would pull the handle and we’d float up again.
A balloon has only two “speeds,” up and down. There is absolutely no way to steer, so flying one does not require a lot of hands-on attention. It is quite safe to send text message while ballooning, or to engage in other forms of multitasking that would get you killed pretty quickly behind the wheel of a car. Our pilot spotted something that apparently needed fixing, so he crouched down on the floor of the basket, and because we were all slightly bored with the scenery by that point, we all watched him fiddle with whatever he was fiddling with down there.
It must have been super-interesting, whatever it was, because we sort of lost track of the fact that we were in a balloon, hundreds of feet off he ground, and still subject to the laws of physics. When I happened to glance out of the basket, I saw that the trees were coming up at us rather quickly. “Hey!” I said. “We’re kind of close to the – “
The pilot didn’t need to hear the rest. He lunged for the handle like a drowning man and pulled it hard, full blast. An enormous, towering flame blasted into the middle of the balloon, so tall I was afraid it might burn the top of the canopy. It wasn’t that powerful, but neither was it strong enough to slow our descent. “Hold on!” I told Michelle, who was already crouched in the bottom of the basket, crying. This was a woman who raced her bike at close to 30 mph, inches away from other riders; I had never seen her scared of anything. But I felt oddly numb.
We crashed into the top of the first tree, snapping branches and sending twigs and leaves tumbling to the ground. The basket kept right on going, before it caught on something firmer, probably a stronger limb. We all held on; if the basket tipped over, we’d all tumble out like animal crackers from a box. But that branch snapped with a huge CRACK, and by then the heated air inside the balloon was pulling us back upward like an express elevator.
Heading up now, we scraped through the branches of a second tree for a few more tense moments before it finally released us and we soared upwards, now with a few leafy branches stuck in our rigging. We looked at each other, and at the pilot, who mumbled an apology and said something stunningly blasé, like “Thanks for the heads-up.”
Michelle’s fingers dug into my arm. Our great balloon ride didn’t seem so fun anymore. Yet I felt relieved, almost giddy, because we’d dodged disaster. But it soon became clear that we had an even bigger problem. There was nowhere to land.
Make that two problems: There was no wind. We were floating high above the glinting Delaware, but we weren’t moving relative to the ground. We rose up, then sank back down, like a giant, sleepy yo-yo. Could we land in the river? It seemed a bad idea. But there were trees and mountains all around us – without a single field, or pasture, or even a small clearing nearby. Our pilot seemed distracted, muttering to himself. He took us up again, higher now, searching for a puff of wind. But the Gap was dead calm. We sank back down, all of us watching the pilot intently. He kept his hand on the throttle now, but admitted a third problem. “We’re running low on fuel,” he said.
Michelle’s fingernails were making crescents in my bicep.The pilot took us low now, almost treetop level, and it turned out there was a little bit of a breeze down there. We started to drift along again. That was the sort-of-good news. The less-good news was that there was still not much in the landing zone department. We drifted slowly toward the middle of the Gap, where the river somehow punched through the rock of Kittattinny Mountain, eons ago, creating a cleft just wide enough to accommodate Interstate 80.
Even then, I failed to realize what our pilot was trying to do. Gripping the throttle, he fired off short bursts of the blue flame, letting us drift lower and lower toward the busy highway. We looked at each other, thinking, What the…? He said there was a “rest area” by the highway, but I saw only a small patch of grass on the far embankment. That was to be our landing zone. Our pilot was going to try to put us down by an interstate highway.
Coming in low, we drifted across the eastbound lanes first. A truck appeared around the bend, our balloon no doubt filling his windshield, and the driver leaned on his horn for three long, angry blasts. We watched the top of his trailer pass maybe twenty feet below the basket. We were now fully committed. We crossed the narrow median, getting lower with each second, and then we were over the westbound lanes. We were silent. Someone was probably going to get fucked up, we knew. And each of us hoped it would be someone else. Our friend, not us.
Luckily there were no San Francisco-bound trucks coming just then, just cars with startled-looking drivers. We could look down into their faces, looking up at us in horror. Then we braced ourselves for impact, making sure to keep our hands and fingers inside the basket as it slammed into the roadside embankment and dragged across the grass.
We were fine. Nobody was fucked up. And we all wanted out of the balloon, badly. “Don’t move!” the pilot shouted. He knew it wasn’t over yet. The balloon canopy was still filled with air, and now it acted like a gigantic spinnaker, dragging us up and over an eight-foot-high chain link fence before the damned thing was finally stopped, caught in the embrace of two giant trees. It was over.
Looking back, I remember feeling almost no fear that day. I felt invincible, like I could do whatever I had to do to survive. I was barely thirty then, and only later did I realize how foolish that was.
A few weeks later, when I sat down to write my sappy travel piece about the tranquil pleasures of ballooning in the Poconos, I realized how profoundly scary the whole experience had been. Had we hit the first trees differently—struck a stronger branch, for example, or come off balance a bit more—we would have been toast. Shattered femurs, broken backs, bodies toppling out onto the midriver rocks—my mind conjured one awful sequence after the next. And holy hell, I thought: Did we really land a balloon on the Interstate?
It’s been a decade, and my memory of that day stays with me, refusing to fade. I moved away from Philly and drifted away from my friends and fellow passengers (and from Michelle), but when we run into each other, the Great Balloon Disaster invariably comes up. They can’t stop thinking about it either.
Because of that balloon ride, I have a lot more fear of the world than I ever did before. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of being older and wiser now, and having taken a few hard impacts and broken a few more bones, but when I get into a dangerous situation now, I find myself obsessing about everything that might go wrong. I quit bike racing, a sport I loved, because I couldn’t muster the courage to ride in the pack anymore. (Also, I sucked, but that’s another story.) And the fear has all but crippled my skiing.
Just this past winter, I stood atop a chute at Taos, looking down at terrain that I knew I could have handled on cross-country boards. But I was utterly frozen. Peering down between my ski tips at beginner and intermediate skiers poking along on a catwalk, far below, I envisioned disaster: I’d lose a ski or catch and edge and tumble all the way to the bottom, my broken body landing in the middle of a church-based ski club from Texas.
I stood there at the top there for nearly 45 minutes, as the afternoon shadows crept up the slope, carrying on an angry debate with myself: So what if it’s a little icy? You learned to ski in the East, asshole! Even if you fall, you’ll just slide a little – no big deal.
To which my reptile brain replied, You want to spend the rest of the winter in Taos Hospital, eating green chili through a tube? What’ll they do when your COBRA runs out?
It was there, on that ridge, that I finally realized the lesson of the red balloon. In the end, it all came down to the difference between extreme and stupid. Sedentary people often confuse the two, especially anonymous online commenters (check out the comments to almost any Shane McConkey tribute video, for example). In fact they are polar opposites. Extreme is about control: knowing your skills and seeking new ways to put them to the test. Stupid is when you relinquish control, like when you get into a hot-air balloon with a dubious stranger for a pilot, in an area with few good places to land (and no BASE-jumping parachute on your back).
In other words, extreme is dropping into that chute with rock-solid skis on your feet and a near lifetime of steep skiing in your legs. Stupid would be dropping into it on a plastic saucer, drunk.
You can do this, I growled, then pushed forward and hopped off the cornice. On the first turn, I lost an edge and slid backward down the slope, coming to rest against a small tree a good thirty yards downhill. It wasn’t so bad after all. —Bill Gifford is Editor-at-Large of Men’s Journal and author of Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer