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We were standing in an overgrown city lot that appeared to be a dumping ground for construction spoilage. A nearby hotel hosted large, ugly paving equipment that spewed steam and smoke as it went about its task of laying down a brand-new oily-black parking lot ― it was an incongruous start to our hot air balloon ride in Traverse City.
Traverse City is located in the American Midwest, in the state of Michigan. Traverse City is the largest city in Northern Michigan. Even though it has a big city appeal, it’s a place where you can also enjoy the outdoors with skiing, hiking and hot air ballooning.
I stood near Jeff Gilles, owner of Traverse City Balloon Tours, as we stared skyward, straining to keep our eyes on a small, black helium-filled balloon. It was the third he had sent aloft. Jeff was attempting to determine the amount, direction and altitude of the winds. As for me, I was merely testing my eye-sight.
Long after I had lost the black speck into the murky sky above, Jeff commented that he could no longer see it.
Cole, a member of the ground crew, replied, “I see it.”
Jeff’s deadpan reply was, “Good eyes.”
I looked expectantly at Jeff as he walked towards the equipment trailer. He said, “We’re good; it’s a go.”
A Dream of Hot Air Ballooning in the Michigan Skies
Long ago, my sense of hot air adventure had been kindled by our encounter with a balloon silently drifting across Illinois cornfields. Its colorful canopy was carrying it high above the yellowing stalks.
As my wife hung her head out the window shouting directions, I chased it along back-country gravel lanes before we ran out of road. Watching the voluminous orb disappear over the horizon as its occupants waved us good-bye, I longed for a day we could venture out as care-free.
The years went by, and after a couple of tethered balloon experiences, which were nothing more than an open-air elevator, we finally had an opportunity to scratch one more item off the bucket list ―or so we hoped.
We had discovered TC Balloons while planning a journey to Northern Michigan and had scheduled our trip for a mid-week flight in early-September. Our first attempt had been canceled, and there had been some question as to whether or not we would get off the ground this afternoon.
It seemed that the balloons were very susceptible to the whims of the weather. Without a motor and the complete inability to steer, knowing wind direction and speed is key to having at least some idea of where you’re going to end up.
Jeff, who has piloted balloons over 5 continents, mentioned that upwards of 60% of flights have to be postponed due to incompatible weather conditions. So, upon our second attempt, we felt rather lucky when he gave the green light.
Traverse City Balloon Tours Preparing for Flight
There was a palpable energy in preparing the balloon for flight. At roughly 80 feet wide and nearly 10 stories tall more than 2,000 square yards of nylon fabric laid limp across the field. It was as though the crew was resuscitating it back to life as they pumped roughly 200,000 cubic feet of heated air into the expanse of the balloon.
While it was laid out flat upon the ground, it was difficult to imagine how it would ever become airborne. The crew attached the nylon rigging to the 1,200 pound basket that was large enough to carry our pilot and his six passengers.
While the crew was busy at work, we became acquainted with our fellow passengers. A retired physicist and his wife, who was a teacher, a young preacher and his wife who had recently returned from overseas missionary work joined us.
We were all first-timers and eagerly watched the preparations. Pretty soon, we were joined by inquisitive members of the paving crew who appeared captivated by the preparations.
A Brief History of Hot Air Ballooning in France
The French Montgolfier brothers were credited with the first untethered manned balloon flight in 1783. An oversized bag made of taffeta cloth filled by the heated air of a fire fueled by wood, the balloon rose to nearly 3,000 feet in the air and landed 25 minutes later.
In the nearly 2.5 centuries since little has changed. Today, hot air balloons are larger, made of nylon and fueled by propane.
Learn more about the history of flight and hot air balloons in general in Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships by Tom D. Crouch. The book details the history of how the hot air balloon and other airships first took flight. Available on Amazon here.
While large fans inflated the opening of our balloon, the burners were lit and heated air began to awaken the immense, lifeless envelope that was destined to carry us over the Northern Michigan landscape.
A stout line was tied off to the bumper of the chase van, which kept our ride tethered to terra firma as the balloon hovered expectantly over our heads, straining to take flight.
It was time.
Loading Up and Taking Flight Across Northern Michigan
With a 4.5 ft-tall basket, there was nothing graceful about our entry as my wife, Kathy, will attest to. She nearly entered face-first while attempting to clamber aboard.
After sorting ourselves out, Jeff toggled the burners into a sizzling whoosh and signaled the crew to let loose the line as we ascended into the cloud-laden sky. The ease with which we were lofted into the heavens was astounding.
There was no bumpy jolt due to too rough tarmac, no continuous mind-numbing roar of jet engines and we certainly were not slammed back into our seats by a dizzying steep ascent. Below, our hard-hat wearing spectators waved us good-bye. We simply and gently lifted skyward so easily that it took a moment to realize how high up we were. The views were tremendous. Grand Traverse Bay, Deer, Birds, and The Hot Air Hitchhiker.
Grand Traverse Bay spread out behind us as the wind powered us southward over a patchwork of forests and fields. The awe-induced silence during the first few moments of flight were broken as each of of us, intrepid “balloonists,” began pointing out sights.
We spotted deer breaking from the woods below, a flock of birds veering away from the balloon’s path and the incredible peacefulness of the skies broken only by the occasional burst of fired propane, heating the air above our heads.
While the shadow of our massive basketed-balloon chased us across the forest floor far below, we looked the late afternoon sun in the eye as it broke free of the enveloping clouds. As I leaned over the edge of the basket, I noticed what could only be described as a very surprised hitchhiker.
A small spider hurriedly slid down its silken thread across the woven wicker of the basket until it reached the bottom edge and, surprisingly, beyond. It dangled briefly in mid-air before scrambling back up its spindly lifeline and clung to the side of the basket. I doubt it was nearly as enthralled with the ride as we were.
Flying 3,400-Feet in the Air Over the Traverse City
Our height was made ever so clear to us when a passing single-engine plane flew beneath us. Kathy mentioned that it appeared to be getting a little hazy. I pointed out that she was enveloped in the wisps of low hanging clouds. Jeff later informed us that we had reached 3,400 feet.
There was a majesty to our hot air balloon travel. The sense of freedom we felt as we stood in an open-air gondola with nothing between us and the clouds was extraordinary. Whether it was the beguiling sights we scanned from one horizon to the next or the sense that we were gliding effortlessly with the wind and no longer earthbound, it was enough to take the breath from our lungs and leave us feeling awe-struck.
Ballooning allows you to travel without a destination. You simply put your trust in the wind, and go wherever it takes you. While it may seem an impractical way to travel, it was an elixir that placed a smile on every one of our faces.
Descent From the Michigan Sky and a Champagne Celebration
Soon, too soon it seemed, we were descending towards an empty field as our pilot nimbly manned the controls exhausting gas out small vents in the balloon, allowing him to guide us in.
Just before landing, Jeff suggested that we bend our knees and brace ourselves for the only bump in the whole trip. The basket hit with a jolt, reminding us that we, once again, had our feet on the ground. As the 3-man ground crew of Joe, Cole and Tom cajoled the slowly deflating bag into a more manageable package and man-handled the basket into the trailer, Jeff set out glasses filled with a local bubbly.
Once we were safely on the ground, Jeff told us a story. Long ago, champagne convinced frightened French farmers that the balloon was far from a fire-breathing dragon, acting as an apology for disturbing the land. After regaling us with the history of champagne and ballooning, he asked us to raise our glasses as he toasted our flight.
“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so well and so high that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Yes, he had. I think the clouds will beckon again.
If You Go:
Traverse City Balloon Tours – Traverse City Balloon Tours is located in Traverse City, Michigan and operates from May to mid-November.
The easiest way to plan a trip like this is through Travelocity, where you can book your whole itinerary from flights to transportation and hotels in one transaction. Start making your getaway plans here.
Author’s Bio: Frank Hosek is a sometime traveler who embraces the journey.