Lessons in a Hot Air Balloon

When I was 11 years old, I won a ride in a hot air balloon over the Grand Teton mountain range. It was one of those radio contests, where the 7th caller wins. I called over and over until BOOM! I was the lucky number 7. The flight was to take place on the 4th of July in Driggs, Idaho, during a hot air balloon festival. I was incredibly excited. I was born in Driggs and raised on my family’s homestead in a tiny town called Felt. I have always felt a deep connection to Teton Valley. It is my first home, after all. 


Though my family was very short on extra money, my mom took me shopping for a cute new top to wear. I remember it so clearly, a short sleeve button up in a purple metallic fabric with black polka dots with a velvety feel. She really wanted to be sure that I looked good and felt good. The morning of the event, we got out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready to go, as I had to report to the balloon at 6:00 AM! Our plan was to attend the balloon festival, then go to the parade, rodeo and all of the other 4th of July festivities in town.


During the car ride, I started to worry. That signature tummy ache started that I had constantly as a kid. My parents assured me that I would be safe and have fun, that all was well. When we arrived at the balloon launch site, I was ushered away with 3 adults who had also won rides. My fear dissolved into excitement as I watched the balloon fill with hot air.


The balloon pilot ran down a list of safety instructions and strapped a helmet to my head. I was really unhappy about that, because I had worked so hard to make sure my hair looked cute. I had on my cute new top, levi shorts and my hair had been carefully curled. That ugly white helped didn’t match my look at all! 


Soon it was time to take off. I was instructed to sit on the floor of the basket until we were launched. It was a strange sensation, that of lifting off of the ground and floating into the air. Finally, I was able to stand. I was barely taller than the top of the basket, but I could see enough. Teton Valley was spread out below us in all of her wonder. The Teton Mountains, the farms, the Teton River, all of it, so beautiful and green. I took it all in, feeling like the luckiest kid on earth. A felt a bit guilty too, that I was having this amazing experience but my family was not. At one point, we passed directly over the cemetery that my baby brother Ricky was buried in. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom. 


After an hour or so, it was time to come back to earth. Again, I was instructed to sit. This time, the adults sat too. The pilot warned us that the basket may fall onto its side a few times, as it skips across the land to a stop. The basket did lay down twice before we landed. A pilot car was waiting to take us back to the launch site to reunite with our families. I was feeling a bit queasy and glad to be back on land. 


When we returned to the launch site, I was so happy to see my family. While it was an incredible experience, I was glad to be away from these strangers and back with my family. Not so fast though, the balloon people exclaimed! Now that we were official hot air balloon riders, we had to be initiated into the club. They poured 3 dixie cups of champagne and one of OJ, for me. We were instructed to kneel in front of the cups in a row and pick the cups up with our mouths and drink. While our heads were down, the pilot poured an entire bottle of champagne over our heads. 


I was horrified. My cute new shirt was drenched. My hair was ruined. I reeked of alcohol, something that was forbidden in my religion of birth. Much to the dismay of the pilot, who thought he was doing something fun, I burst into tears and ran into my dad’s arms. He apologized to my perplexed parents, suddenly realizing that pouring a bottle of champagne of a kid’s head was probably a stupid thing to do. We were supposed to spend the whole day having fun, and now I was a wet, sobbing mess. 


My mom got me to the car, stripped the soaked shirt off, and put my sister’s jacket on me. We quickly drove to my grandparents farm where I showered and washed my hair as my mom washed my clothes in the sink and got them as dry as possible in the short amount of time we had. My grandma had no hair brush or curling iron, so I had to settle with combing out my hair. I can remember being so angry about my hair getting messed up like that. I may have been a little vain. We raced back into town just in time to catch the parade and enjoy the rest of the day.


For years, whenever I thought about my hot air balloon adventure, all I could remember was feeling humiliated and violated by the champagne incident. I allowed that memory to overshadow all of the wonder of the day. Finally, I chose to sit with that experience and feel all of it. I was finally ready to release the negative parts and allow the rest to come through. After all I am a fully initiated hot air balloon rider!