Balloon race: What is it like to ride a dragon?

Published 1:24 am Saturday, October 21, 2017

As the sun rose and fans began whirring, the hot-air balloons on Duncan Park Golf Course lay quiet and unfurled on the damp green.

The first task of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race would begin as soon as the “hare,” the pilot who would set the course for all other flyers, took off.

As the hare lifted gently from his post, every balloonist in the field set into motion.

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The first breaths of a hot air balloon were, I thought, like those of some great beast rising reluctantly from sleep.

The burner within them roared, spurring the nylon beings into shape.

Maybe it was the enormity of it all — the towering, bright colors — or perhaps the breath-like fire that made me realize what the balloons brought to mind. Dragons.

“Place your foot into the hold and climb in,” Nancy McConnell told me when our balloon, Sky Eyes, stood tall and pulled us upward.

I climbed in, and the crew guided us forward across the grass before we ascended.

McConnell was our pilot and after 25 years of flying, her enthusiasm was somewhat less than mine.

Awake now, our balloon began to ascend much more quickly than I had anticipated.

As the ground drew further away, I was reminded of my intense fear of heights and closed my eyes.

All heights scare me. Building rooftops, tall staircases, cliffs. And it is not particularly the thought of crashing that frightens me. The descent — the helplessness of the fall — that is scary.

Then I opened my eyes.

If our balloon was a creature, the sight before me was a flock.

Dozens of airships were ambling, climbing skyward, prodded by their patient pilgrims.

The sun was still low and hidden behind a bank of clouds as the balloon rose 50, 100, 500 feet above the ground.

With each rise, the wind shifted and the balloon turned.

At our apex, we reached approximately 800 feet, McConnell told me as we drifted across U.S. 61 and the river came into view.

From that height, the water snaked away from us and  disappeared  into the horizon, mimicking the color of the sky as it went.

It was strange to me, to feel so comfortable in the clouds. Where was my fear?

Dangling 500 feet in the air in a wicker basket seems the appropriate time to fear falling, but the feeling was gone.

It was something like whimsy — as though Dorothy had accidently landed in Wonderland, not Oz.

Our basket swung lightly in the breeze; occasional bursts of flame blew hot air into our dragon’s nylon skin. But for the most part, it was quiet.

A few overused phrases are likely to be employed here: We were above our worries, we had transcended reality, everthing below us seemed so small.

Cliché those feelings may be, but in that moment, they felt true, too.

It was difficult to think of the work I should do when I landed. It was difficult to worry about the light bill that is sure to come in soon.

It did not seem right, I thought, to worry about such mundane things when I was in the sky.

The world was huge and bright and for a moment, it was within my grasp.

All too soon, though, it was time to descend. We came to the ground gently, touching the wet earth and “hopping” once before resting.

Before the crew arrived in the truck, Robinson and I brought the balloon back to the ground.

The air flowed from the trap at the balloon’s crest, and the docile giant returned to its slumber.

When I got to my car and made my way back to work, I felt different.

Maybe some remnants of adrenaline were left. Or maybe we had for a moment, escaped the world and all the responsibilities that tie me here.

I imagine that is what it  is like to ride a dragon — everything at once feels greater and smaller.

I am happy to have my feet on the ground, but I do not think I am afraid of heights anymore.
Clara Turnage is a reporter for The Natchez Democrat.