There are things you don’t say no to. Or at least you shouldn’t. Going on a hot air balloon ride is one of them. So when the Public Relations person for the Fairmont Scottsdale asked if my 11-year-old son and I would like to go on a hot air balloon ride over the Arizona landscape, I didn’t consider my fear of heights. I thought of my son, who is thirstily drinking in every experience that can be thrown at him. I thought of his fascination with flying, his enthusiasm for just doing things. I said yes.
When you first look at the Sonoran Desert – say, in an airport shuttle going from the Phoenix Airport to a hotel – it looks desolate, and almost depressing. Sort of brown and scrubby. Gleaming new strip malls are plunked down, as incongruous as, well, a strip mall in the desert. There is a lot of space between things but it seems sad and empty, rather than natural and alive, at least to the eyes of this East-coaster.
When we get to the launching area for the balloon it’s not what I expected. I’d always envisioned serene travelers sitting on benches in the basket. To assuage my fear, I even sometimes pictured seatbelts. But it’s nothing like that. One after another, people climb into the basket, until there were 12 passengers, including a group of German tourists, and Mike, our gruff, bearded captain. As body after body squeeze into the basket I start to imagine clowns in a phone booth. I’m one of the last to get in. I’m glad I had my camera out of its bag already because there’s no way I would have been able to bend down and pick it up once in the basket.
The moment we leave the ground is almost a non-moment. It’s so gentle, the rising. We’re cactus height and then above the cactus. We’re aloft. We rise so gradually, so silently, and the basket is so still that I have no fear at all.
Maybe being wedged buttock to buttock with the Germans provides some feeling of security to me. There’s no way to fall out of this basket.
Except for the occasional roar when the fire is released from the fuel tank to raise the balloon, it’s calm.
My son grabs my arm. “It’s too high!” He buries his head on a middle railing so that he doesn’t have to see anything.
“I just wish we were going lower,” he moans. “I didn’t think it would be this high.”
At that moment Captain Mike booms, “We’re more than a mile high now!”
I didn’t expect that my son would be the one who was traumatized. But what can I do? So I take in the landscape. The mountains are a crayon box of hues, blue and gray. Each cactus, from the tall saguaros with their spiny, outstretched arms to the deceptively cute teddy bear chollas, cast shadows on the ground. We drift lower, close enough to the ground now to make out details on individual cactuses. My son lifts his head, now recovered from the initial shock of being so high in the air.
A hawk swoops down silently, and a rabbit dashes from one brushy bush to another, vanishing into the camouflaging dirt. The half-moon is still visible in the cloudless morning sky.
My son and I watch the life beneath us, the hunters and the hunted, the plants with their defenses and beauty. Neither one of us is afraid. And the desert isn’t empty.