I never knew I had phobias. Pretty much not afraid of things. During Christmas, I discovered I had a major phobia thanks to a very creative, thoughtful gift which eventually scared the hell out of me.
Our family has decided that experiential gifts are the best. We’re all nearing retirement, or are already there. No little ones creeping downstairs in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve to discover what Santa left under the tree. So as aging adults, we mutually decided that bonding experiences or consumable shared presents are the best. For example, for about 20 years, my brother lived in the Deep South. While there, he delved into local cuisine, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But he really missed the good-old Chicago hot-dog, Italian beef, pizza experience that can only be enjoyed here. Every time he visited, we would make a pilgrimage to Portillo’s so that he could chow down his favorite street food. When he decided to move to Arizona in 2015, he’d already sold his home in Louisiana, everything was packed, and he was very clear about the no-stuff concept in gift-giving. Not a problem. Portillo’s ships. So guess what we had for Christmas Eve? Guess who was totally delighted when we returned from Mass that evening?
Anyway, this year he and my sister-in-law came up with a truly inventive gift that took thought, care, and delight. One that all of us could experience, share, bond over, and remember for the rest of our lives. A hot-air balloon ride over the desert!!! Cool!
We departed the house at 6:00 AM to rendezvous with the Hot Air Balloon people at 7:00 A.M. Jammed into a small SUV, our chauffer traversed the scorpion-filled, snake-laden desert and deposited our intrepid group at Ground Zero. That’s when my fear set in.
Hot air balloons are big. Small jet engines create the hot-air that fills the balloons. The engines are noisy, but the open flames that they create are just plain scary. Our guide told us that they generate 15,000 BTUs – more than enough power for a family reunion picnic. As I watched the inflating balloon, I imagined what Joan of Arc must have felt when she was escorted to the stake.
After successful balloon inflation, it was time for our group of 12 out-of-shape adults to haul our rear-ends over the edge of the gondola and get set for take-off. The gondola stands about five feet high. There are footholds build into its side so that the fit and agile can step up into it, swing their legs over the edge and ease on down the road. I am no longer agile and fit, and I am short. I managed to get my right foot in the lower foothold, and my left foot in the higher foothold. I was unable to hoist the rest of my aging, less than agile carcass over the edge of the basket. My brother endeavored to help by ever so gently pushing me up by my rear end over the basket. Needless to say, I was soon ensconced inside the basket. Up, Up and Away.
I did not realize how really terrified I was of heights until the balloon took off. Picture this. We’re in a wicker basket 3,000 feet in the air, cruising over hostile terrain that is loaded with plants and animals that want to hurt you, and jet engines are blowing 15,000 BTUs of flame directly above your head into a balloon made of silk. My knuckles turned white as I clung to the edge of the gondola. I did not look down.
Everyone around me was snapping pictures, and marveling at the mountain and desert scenes below. I stood stony-faced wondering where the parachutes were, and cringed every time the jet-heated air launched us higher into the stratosphere.
About half way through our adventure, the balloonist had us face him as he guided us through a safety drill in case there was a rough landing. I was already freaking out; now I was totally freaked out. He informed us that if the wind kicked up, there was a good chance that the gondola would tip over on its side and we would probably have to crawl out of the basket. In this event, we were to face him; stand shoulder to shoulder; crouch down and wait for more instructions. I was ready to crouch down then and there…and stay crouched down.
Guess what. The wind kicked up, and we crouched down. Fortunately, the basket did not tip over, nor did we need to crawl out. However, we still had to get out of the basket which was not an easy task. When there are twelve adults jammed shoulder to shoulder in the bottom of an oversized Easter basket, movement is restricted. I would have appreciated a crow bar at that stage of the game because I literally could not move. With much help from my brother, sister-in-law and well-meaning fellow voyagers, I toppled over the side of the basket and landed on the ground without falling on my head.
After deplaning, our balloonist mentioned that the desert was dangerous – kind of knew that already – and we should not venture very far. Stepping on the various rocks the wrong way could result in broken ankles. Great! Scorpions, snakes, unfriendly plants, and rocks that will land you in the hospital. This is not a friendly eco-system.
I really think that Mike and Val are the sweetest people on earth. And I really appreciated their creativity, thoughtfulness, and delight in planning this Christmas experience. We laughed. We bonded. We were family. Mike and Val took awesome pictures. And I will never get into another hot-air balloon again.