ASHLAND -- Usually I groan at the thought of waking up at 5 a.m. to meet an early deadline.
Not this time.
Friday morning I was given the opportunity to become one with clouds; soaring through the sky in a hot air balloon. This was something I’ve dreamed about doing since my adolescence (admittedly, not so long ago). So it was easy for me to wake up on this particular day. I was excited!
We all met in the early morning to determine if conditions were suitable for flying. A slight fog was in the area, but it soon dissipated and the sun shone bright, creating a near perfect morning for flying.
We packed ourselves into a van; searching for a satisfactory surface for departure. We needed a place both flat and firm, but it had to be in a certain area so the wind would carry us towards Freer Field; our desired destination.
The gracious gentlemen at Minnich Manufacturing Co. granted us an apt amount of pavement and stable ground. They were certain to snap a few photos on their phone, while the rest of the balloon crew prepared our ride.
I climbed over the wicker basket awkwardly, much like a child trying to hoist himself over an aluminum fence at a baseball field. Once I planted my feet inside, a dozen thoughts ran through my head.
Was I nervous?
Was I weary?
The blast of the burners roared as two fire spires shot towards the heavens and into the opened balloon. I looked around and noticed I was the tallest person in the balloon -- which meant I was the closest to the pillars of flame.
No wonder I was sweating so much…
We began to ascend. I held a tight grip to rim of the basket; overlooking the edge as we waved to the good folks below. My childhood dream of flying away from the wonderful land of Oz was finally underway.
Only I forgot to pack my ruby red slippers!
Our pilot, Stew, quickly led us atop the trees and above the nearby radio towers. A rush of adrenaline surged through my veins as we soared higher and higher.
Even though there was a sturdy floor beneath me, there was still a little give to it each time I shifted my weight.
Of course it wasn’t at all nerve-racking knowing only a few inches of wood separated my shoes from 2,500 feet of open air.
At our peak, Stew offered complimentary bottled water. I asked if he had any peanuts.
To my surprise, it wasn’t windy. We were one with the wind; flowing with the breeze.
A special license and plenty of training is required to operate a hot air balloon. The wind has the wheel up here. Stew controlled our ascent and descent, not our direction. That was the wind’s job.
It was practically the perfect temperature: warm; not hot; not cold.
The view was astounding! Pictures and Snapchat videos can’t capture the aerial masterpiece; seeing it in person dropped my jaw.
Each direction I cast my gaze held marvelous sights. Downtown Mansfield was to my left. Freer Field awaited yonder in the distance. We pointed out landmarks and notable businesses overlooking the ever-expanding horizon.
Looking down was not an issue for me; although it was a strange sensation being stories above everyone else. It’s humbling being at that height with such a majestic view of the landscape. I didn’t feel insignificant, I felt blessed and thankful for the world around me.
Suddenly, we began spotting a number of other balloons make their homage from land to the heights; filling the sky with iridescent speckles like radiant moons that shimmer against the sunlight.
Almost an hour after takeoff, Freer Field became vividly closer as our balloon floated down.
On our descent, I saw how vast a shadow our balloon cast against the grass; covering eager onlookers with a split-second of darkness.
As we neared the ground, I announced to spectators below, “Sorry to drop in on you like this!”
That was my best line...
Stew told me to hang on, bend my knees and don’t fall out of the basket. My objective became to grant him all three of those wishes, so I latched on to the inside of the hollow receptacle.
We bounced thrice, each time inching closer towards our target point: the concrete in Freer Field.
I climbed out of the basket, less awkwardly than before; my blood still pumping with excitement. My journey through Ashland’s sky may have lasted about an hour, but it only felt like a few minutes.
I stood back as I watched kids from around the community assist the workers in deflating the balloon. What was once a giant in the atmosphere was now a tight, bundled-up crate that was compact enough to fit in the bed of a pickup truck.
I graciously shook Stew’s hand and ended my journey through the sky. Maybe next time, I’ll see what first class is like.
I’d like to thank Stew Gibboney for being an amazing flying ace in our RE/MAX balloon, Mindi White for setting up a wonderful Ashland Balloonfest and the Ashland Source for giving me the opportunity to cross this off of my bucket list.
If you haven’t been out to Freer Field yet, don’t wait any longer. You will not want to miss this spectacular hot air balloon extravaganza.