October Winds

The Community Chronicle, October 2019

I become more me every October. My soul relaxes and I dance with the leaves that turn color, swaying and twirling on the breezes, gliding ever so gently until they reach the ground. I love October, especially when the weather starts to cool down, the days grow shorter and the nights long. Pumpkins show up on doorsteps along with witches and little goblins. New magic, as old as time, fills the air, the magic of autumn.

Memories too. Mostly October takes me back to when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest ballooning event. Each October, as the smell of pungent chiles roasting permeates the air, hundreds of luminous, multicolored, hot air balloons fill the skies at daybreak. The first year that I witnessed the magnificent balloons edging across the sky, I was in awe and wondered what it would be like to fly up where the eagles soar. A few years later I found out.

A new friend asked if I’d ever been up in a balloon; I told him I had not. The following weekend he took me to a wide-open range on the west mesa where we met up with his ballooning friends. We no sooner inflated the majestic flying ship than I was waved in and told to get in the wicker basket.

“Who? Me?” I asked, a bit surprised.

“Get in before I launch without you!” the grumpy pilot barked at me. “You too!” he barked again, this time at the man who brought me. He didn’t need to be told twice.

In moments we ascended, gently floating upward, toward the highest clouds. It felt as though God were cradling us in his hands, lifting us and slowly moving us along with the air current. When we reached “cruising speed,” Wally the pilot seemed more at ease.

“What do you think, first-timer?” he grinned at me.

I am rarely speechless, but this time I couldn’t put into words what I felt. Who could? I was soaring with the birds and the angels surrounded by blinding sapphire skies, the smell of cedar and sage wafting through the air. It wasn’t like flying in a plane, not at all, it was something otherworldly, inexplicable. It was the true definition of serenity. Suddenly, I heard the scampering of little feet. I looked at my companions.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Wally pointed at the ground, which was a long, long way down. “A jackrabbit,” he said nonchalantly.

I stared at the barren land covered in tumbleweeds and watched the jackrabbit running as though he were escaping a predator. “How is that possible?” I asked.

“Sound travels upward,” he responded.

After a half-hour we gradually descended and saw our chase crew arriving on scene to help hold down the balloon when we landed to switch out passengers. After that group flew and disembarked, everyone helped deflate the balloon, fold and pack it away. First-time passengers were told to kneel on a plastic sheet to undergo a ceremony to commemorate the flight. I realized that something special was about to happen when I was given a glass of champagne. As I held up my glass, the co-pilot, Kathi, recited the Balloonist Prayer:

 “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

Just as I downed the champagne, my friend Earl, who was standing behind me, poured a whole glass of champagne on my head. “What the ------!” I yelled and then heard everyone laughing.

Kathi quickly explained that the champagne shower was part of the first-flight ceremony and welcomed me into their flying family. At the time I had no idea of the significance of that first flight, of the life it foreshadowed. Soon after, I joined the balloon crew and went on countless adventures that until then only my writer’s mind could imagine. One flight, however, proved even more meaningful than the first. Five months later, Earl and I married in Wally and Kathi’s balloon, aptly named TEGWAR, for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. And indeed, it was.