When the clock alarmed me at 5 in the morning, all I knew was exhaustion and the weight of darkness.
I turned on the light and groped for the phone and the instruction sheet. They said I should call to confirm after 4:30 and to be sure to be there at 7. The voice on the other end of the line enthused that the flight would indeed take off as scheduled. I brushed teeth and showered, and struggled into clothes set out the night before.
At 5:08 I gently roused my Dear One and reminded him that the drive to Bird-in-Hand Pennsylvania, would take one hour and twenty-seven minutes so we absolutely had to be on the road at 5:30. I made coffee, smeared a piece of wheat toast with peanut butter, and collected camera, handbag and Serena the GPS.
At this hour on November One, it is pitch black out there. That was hard enough for these failing eyes. The extraordinary number of vehicles belting down twisting country roads made it that much worse. As I blinked into the murk, moreover, all I could think about were deer ready to kamikaze me into oblivion. Twenty minutes into the drive my shoulders were wrapped around my ears and my entire being was wracked with tension.
It had been necessary to program Serena with “route 304” because she didn’t accept “2737 Old Philadelphia Pike.” This meant we were peering at signs we could barely see, looking for something that said “Bird in Hand Corp. Employment Office.” When we were sure we had gone too far we turned around. This time we found that small and ill-lit board, but the driveway was so obscure we missed it. We turned around and missed the drive a third time. Fourth time was the charm.
We and our fellow adventurers signed our releases, acknowledging that not only might we sustain bumps and bruises, but that we could die, or even worse, be arrested for trespassing when we returned to terra firma, wherever that might happen. The wicker gondola, faintly visible in the pinkish gleam of dawn, lay on its side, and a fan whirred air into the balloon. Soon we were shown how to get in, four above and four below in spaces that resembled berths on a ship built for dwarves. The position for takeoff was a kind of fetal pose on our backs, with knees drawn up to our chests, hands gripping rope loops. The idea was that as the balloon rose, righting the gondola, we’d just stand up. Fortunately, that is exactly what happened.
The flight was ninety minutes of tranquility, beauty and delight. It wasn’t terribly cold aloft and the periodic whoosh of propane-fed fire warmed us. There was no wind because the craft floated with the breeze rather than resisting the air currents. The average group, we were told, travels six to ten miles; we ventured sixteen miles as the crow flies before finding a suitable landing spot.
Below us Lancaster County spread out in patches of green velour and brown corduroy embroidered with the gold and orange of fall foliage and edged with the delicate lace of naked branches. Cows, mules, horses and chickens scattered at our approach. Deer bounded through cornfields toward the cover of trees. Children ran to get a better look at us and waved as we passed overhead. One black-suited farmer walked in our direction as we eased downward, a shotgun broken over his arm. His face was inscrutable but I wondered if he was prepared to defend his property against invasion.
Our landing was “medium exciting” according to our pilot, Lucas. We resumed the fetal position. Lucas announced incipient bumps and we dragged across a field until coming to rest in the same pose in which we had begun. We adventurers extracted ourselves from the gondola. The ground crew arrived in the chase vehicle and in a few minutes had neatly folded the balloon into a surprisingly small duffle and packed duffle and gondola into a trailer. The adventurers piled into a minivan, welcoming the warmth as we suddenly discovered we were very cold. In twenty minutes or so we arrived back at our launch site where mimosas and Entenmann’s raspberry Danish awaited. I had forgotten how delicious all that sugar and hydrogenated fat can be.
At 9:39 my Dear One and I piled into our car and pointed ourselves toward home. We were exhausted. The sun was brilliant, blinding. Serena’s voice directing us from turn to turn was comforting. The couch, when we got home, cradled me up, up and away to sleep.