There are people who seem to be born with a thirst for a thrill. They take every chance to leap off bridges, tethered only by elastic Bungee cords. They jump out of planes, trusting one yank of the cord will release the parachute that will lower them gently to the ground. They paddle kayaks over waterfalls and drop out of helicopters wearing skis.
I am not one of these people.
I don’t have that kind of confident trust. Cords snap, parachutes fail, waterfalls tumble and break the things that ride them. Why would I tempt fate?
But edging out of middle age, I seem to be shedding some of the extreme caution that has kept my feet on the ground most of my life. I’m still not a thrill-seeker, but I just don’t seem to be bound by so many “What Ifs.”
A recent trip to Elko, Nevada coincided with the annual Balloon Fest and I was offered a chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I didn’t stop to think once, much less twice. I hopped up into the basket and listened to the instructions about where I could and should not put my hands. (“Never touch the rope. If you touch the rope we will fall and die.” Check.)
It was only as the blasts of flaming gas right over my head lifted the balloon away from the ground that I began to ask myself what on earth I’d been thinking. The list of hazards--power lines, rogue winds, murderous sharp-shooters (Hey, what if?) and even fabric fatigue (I imagined seams fraying and opening and, well...)--played through my head like a bad movie.
But I was in. And we rose swiftly and silently, immediately catching the current of air and moving toward the horizon.
We moved steadily across the city. Dogs, startled by the sights and sounds of the balloons, there were 30 more behind us, barked and danced as we flew over. School children waved from the yellow bus that looked like a child’s toy. Birds flew beneath us, darting in and out of the trees lining neighborhood streets.
I’d wrapped my fingers tightly around one of the bars at the side of the wicker balloon the moment we’d lifted off and I didn’t seem to be able to let go. But, a few minutes in, still holding on, I felt myself relax enough to really think about what I was seeing and experiencing.
I looked out toward the Ruby Mountains, somewhat obscured by smoke from wildfires further north, across the high Nevada desert and the rough, dry landscape so many crossed on foot and by wagon train 150 years ago as they made their way over the California Trail to conquer the wide-open West and start new lives in California.
It really is a beautiful way to travel. In a balloon you do not fight the wind, you ride it. You surrender to the currents and ribbons of air that stream over the planet and let them take you where they are going. There are tools: hot air, vents, ballast, and so on, but ultimately, you are a guest of the wind.
At the end of the ride we began our descent. The landing was not smooth. A breeze came from out of nowhere and fought us, but we stuck it. Then, when the pilot realized we'd come down on railroad property--not cool--we lifted up just high enough to find a more accessible spot. The chase crew found us and we were done.
When I finally climbed out of the basket, back on the ground at last, a surge of adrenaline made me tremble.
“Anxious Annie” as a friend once dubbed me, had taken a chance. And I had one more thing I could check off my list.
We helped roll and fold the balloon, storing it and the basket in the trailer behind the chase van, and I was baptized with cheap champagne to mark my first flight. Later, I messaged a photo taken mid-flight to my children and their confused responses made me laugh. This was not what they expected to see.
That’s the beauty of aging. Not only do we surprise others when we take a chance, occasionally we even surprise ourselves.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org