Up sharp at 5.30 a.m., I shower, dress and breakfast in the Holiday Inn's dining room, thankfully open especially early. The sky is inky black as I pile into a large-sized van equipped with a trailer of the same length. We stop at a local gas station for extra coffee, then take to rural roads. Driver, Bob Carlton, starts in with a relentless series of puns as he scans weather reports on his CB radio. I'm groggy but excited. We stop in the middle of a road with no traffic and Bob inflates two small toy balloons, sets them free and follows the flight pattern. "Good to go," he says with a grin. After more puns, we pull into a large field adjacent to the impressive Fantasy of Flight exhibit, southeast of Polk City. The main obstacles encountered at launch are power lines, towers, and buildings.
The trailer is systematically unpacked; first the sturdy 700 pound wicker box in which we will stand; then, the burner device that heats the air. The van slowly pulls ahead and an assistant unfurls 275 lbs. of huge balloon, 70 feet tall, 60 feet wide, in all 1,200 yards of silicone-coated nylon fabric. Two gas-powered fans are aligned at the bottom, and holding the opening sideways, air is forced inside. Some frolic inside the huge enclosure. It's still dark with winds most favorable for ballooning the first hours after sunrise and the last hours before sunset, ideal at 3-6 mph.
Another van and trailer arrives, and they assume similar operations, our almost-filled balloon bright red and white, theirs orange, yellow and black. I'm anxious to ascend ahead of the other balloon which carries a family from Newcastle, renting a vacation home here in Polk County's Lake District in central Florida. Dawn emits faint streaks of light across the sky. It's 7 a.m. We use the burner to expand the AX8-105, now holding 105,000 cubic feet of air.
Quickly, we climb aboard to arise softly like a feather. It's truly a calming experience, seemingly effortless as we drift, gradually gaining height, a lake ahead in view. At first, we skim the water like a pebble, but with a few pulls of the lever, bursts of hot air force us upward. "Look below," says Bob. "There's my wife holding a cup of coffee, and beside us is Richard Bach's house, the guy who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull." His wife waves; their dog barks. I feel like Jonathan, surveying the wide panorama.
A "chase" van follows our capricious path. The Brit balloon lurks a half-mile behind, providing perspective and in-flight opportunities for great camera shots. We observe the vagaries of rural life from an Olympic vantage point: deer, cows, horses, sheep, trees, shrubs, creeks, streams and lakes. Animals, placid and unaware, scamper quickly when they hear a dragon-like swoosh emitted from the burner. Nevertheless, we leave nothing tangible behind other than a temporary shadow fixed upon green landscape. Our gondola feels crowded with four people; the Brits number six in a larger wicker cab.
It's the most relaxing transportation system devised like a spa massage, but what's being soothed in the cerulean sky amidst thousands of fluffy clouds, is pure spirit.
Bob of Balloons and Beyond deliberately eases the gondola amidst the top of a thick tree line of firs. This is how a monkey must feel! Emerging on the other side, we descend and land appropriately and softly in a farmer's field amidst aromatic cow paddies soon joined by the Brits and respective chase vans. The celebration has just begun: a table appears, set with tasty tidbits and glasses are filled with bubbling champagne.
The first hot air balloon flew September 19, 1783 in Versailles, France, transporting a sheep, duck and a rooster. George Washington witnessed the first U.S. balloon in Philadelphia January 9, 1789.
Balloons use liquid propane fuel and fly from 1,000-3,000 feet above sea level. Bob Carlton is a license pilot. Check out his website and rates below. We were in the air for an hour, and it was a gas!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
Balloons and Beyond: http://www.balloons-and-beyond.com/about.html
If you go
Central Florida Vacation Managers Association: http://www.vacationwithconfidence.com/
Fantasy of Flight: http://www.fantasyofflight.com/
Florida Magic Vacation: http://www.floridamagicvacation.com/
Holiday Inn Winter Haven: 200 Cypress Gardens Blvd., Winter Haven, FL 33880
Polk County Tourism: http://www.visitcentralflorida.org/
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Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
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Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/