(Published 2008 San Francisco Writers Conference Anthology, Building Bridges; Women Who Write 2009 Contest, 3rd Place Short Prose; published 16th Anthology Calliope)
Night in the desert is huge. The uninterrupted sky goes on forever, its inkiness dotted with stars that look like tiny blinking Christmas tree lights. The moon hangs low in the sky, crescent silver surrounded in a gleaming halo. The air is so cold we produce little hovering clouds as we exhale. There is no breeze. It’s as if the earth is holding her breath waiting for the dawn.
Our truck races down the dry riverbed spreading a cloud of dust engulfing the trucks that follow. The only sound, besides the engine noise, is the clank of the underpinnings hitting the rocks as we bump along. The truck heater is broken and we clutch mugs of steaming coffee hoping the warm liquid will ease the shivering.
Dawn comes swiftly in the desert -- one minute it is black, the next moment brings a red glow and then abruptly the sky turns brilliant yellow. Jeff, our self-anointed captain, floors the accelerator. We must arrive at our meeting spot before the sun does. He comes to a halt and by silent agreement, the other trucks move along side. We form a line and our headlights illuminate a small portion of desert. The dust settles as we silently climb down from the truck, hands stuffed in our pockets. We are on a Navajo Reservation in Monument Valley and we know we are on hallowed ground. There are spirits everywhere. The Medicine Man pointed out his house and warned us to avoid it.
We are so small here. Many of these giant cliffs erupt 1,000 feet from the desert floor and have names --East and West Mitten, Mitchell Mesa, Totem Pole, and Train Rock. These massive building-like natural structures black now, will, as the sky lightens, turn red.
We all have jobs and we get to them in haste. We must be well along in our preparations before the rising sun brings heat to the day. Heat will force us to abort our mission. Only cool air will provide lift.
Our eyes become accustomed to the light from the sky and we turn off the headlights. With ballet-like precision we unload the trucks and begin to spread out the seventy feet of multi-colored nylon. We work as a team and there is little need for conversation. We are careful not to walk on the fabric as we stretch it along the desert floor. The wicker gondola rests on its side. Ropes litter the earth; one is tied to the bumper of the truck.
The stillness is broken when one group turns on a fan, followed quickly by another and then another. Pretty soon the air is abuzz. Two of us hold open the mouth as the fan sucks the cold air from the desert and forces it into the throat. Two tons of air ripples the nylon and the shapeless forms begin to take definition as the sun shows her face at the edge of the horizon. The burners are lighted and with a rush the envelopes fill. The dessert glows with the light of the seven-foot flames as they push hot air into the expanding balloons. The first balloon stands upright. Then the next, the next, and soon all twelve sway gently in the morning air. Those of us at the top of the balloon hold a crown line to steady the balloon and we begin our walk towards the basket as it slowly rights itself. The strength of the heated air inside the balloon rips the rope through our hands and we are happy for the thick gloves. The sight is magical and a soft cheer sends our message to the desert – we’re ready to fly!
Lined up like racehorses at the starting gate, the baskets tug at our hands begging for release and we struggle to keep them earthbound. One by one pilots select passengers who scramble over the leather-padded rim of the basket. When all pilots complete their pre-flight checks, Jeff rings a cowbell three times. One pilot yells, “Hands off” and the first balloon lifts from the desert floor. Another clang of the cowbell signals the next balloon, then the next, and the next until all twelve are aloft. For those of us on the ground the sight of the ascending mass is breathtaking and almost indescribable. The previously lifeless forms now take shape: a cat face, a cupie doll, a tiger, and a champagne bottle. The multitudes of colors are all ablaze against the backdrop of rocks so large they look like mammoth skyscrapers dotting the dawn-drenched desert.
As the sun pierces the cloudless sky, the balloons begin to float away. The only sound is the whoosh of the gas as it heats the air inside the balloon. Each find their own direction, following a stream of morning air that scatters them further and further along heaven’s unseen highway.
By the luck of the draw, I am ground crew. I jump into the truck, the “chase vehicle,” and keeping my eyes glued to the blue-stripped balloon piloted by my husband, I begin my pursuit. I am alone in the truck. Today my husband, who has yet to solo, pilots the Blue Max; an official pilot in charge accompanies him. The third person in the basket is a young man just along for the ride.
I live in New York City and like many City dwellers, have no driver’s license. It’s been years since I’ve been behind the wheel of anything more than a golf cart yet here I am, bouncing along the vast expanse of Monument Valley chasing a drifting balloon. Other chase trucks are doing the same dance and we glance sideways to avoid hitting each other. I drive in a vacuum. I have no way to communicate with the Blue Max and question the rationale behind the owner’s decision to eliminate the customary two-way radio.
The sun is now up and begins to warm the air. I fumble for my sunglasses as I hurry east directly into its glare. My balloon has picked up speed in an unseen column of air far above and soon disappears between the thumb and the hand of the East Mitten. I gasp – it looks like the balloon might get stuck, the space appears so small. It passes through but is then lost from my sight. With no road to follow I just drive, dodging a cactus here and a boulder there. I have no concept of speed or location. I pass within inches of the base of the Totem Pole, a spire 300 feet high. I look straight up and see only sky. A quick glance at my watch tells me I’ve been driving for nearly an hour.
By now, other chase trucks have located their balloons. A small circle forms as the balloons settle gently to the earth. The skill of the pilot makes the landing appear effortless but those on the ground struggle with the ropes to ensure no balloon escapes. They have all put down together and I head towards them, hoping to spot the Blue Max. It is not there. I search the heavens for the blue balloon but see nothing. I stop the truck just outside the slowly forming circle. Jeff ambles over and asks, “What’s up?”
A small tsunami begins to form in my stomach as my concern mounts. Embarrassed to admit I’ve lost my balloon, I blurt,
“Not much. By the way, do you have a set of binoculars I can borrow?”
“Sure,” he says and heads towards the gathered group.
He returns with the binoculars and after a quick thank you and before he can ask any further questions, I put the truck in reverse and press the gas pedal. The wheels spin in the sand and the more I gas it the more they spin. I’m stuck. The sound of whirling tires attracts attention and several people head my way.
“Need some help?” one asks.
I climb down from the truck. I stand in silent humiliation and mounting anxiety while several of the men begin to push the truck from the riverbed. The desert floor finally releases the tires and the truck lurches forward, up and over the edge of the gulch to more firm ground.
Jeff, wearing a Viking-like helmet befitting his status as Captain of this balloon assemblage, takes me aside.
“Laura, why are you driving? Where’s the Blue Max?”
Although his voice is calm, he looks annoyed. Before I can answer, he fires another question:
“Where’s your radio?”
His private talk with me is overheard and mumblings begin as several of the group move toward their trucks. A search team is formed as it becomes clear that the Blue Max is lost.
The sun is high enough now to drench us in its light and more of the area is discernible. If it were not for my growing panic, I could enjoy the dramatic emerging view as the magnificent mesas become visible. All I can think of is the missing balloon. My eyes sweep the sky, first left, then right and then left again. Suddenly, so far away I momentarily think it may be a mirage I see, just this side of Monument Pass, a small blue speck. The dust column from the advancing search team rises quickly and is so thick it nearly obliterates the red rocks and the blue speck.
I wait in silent anxious dread as I stand slightly apart from the group. I don’t know what to do. My husband is missing and I feel totally helpless. I am keenly aware that our crew has done something wrong by getting lost and that I’ve done something wrong by losing them. Although my husband and I are not ballooning novices, this group of experienced balloonists has made it clear that our blunder is enormous. As I wait in growing fear all my thoughts are centered on my missing husband.
The minutes tick by like hours as I watch the swiftly moving dust cloud advance towards the distance mesa. Soon they are so far away I can no longer see the vehicles. Along with the swirling dust, tears blur my vision. I begin to sweat and remove my jacket. I can see my heart pounding through my tee shirt. I’m thirsty -- my water bottle is on the front seat of the truck. Does the Blue Max have water? My legs buckle and I sit down hard in the dirt, burying my face in my hands as I breath through my mouth trying to calm myself. I have no idea how much propane is aboard the Blue Max. If they drift too far they could use up their supply. If they can’t keep the air inside the balloon heated and the envelope deflates, no one will be able to see them in this vastness.
Those who are not out searching mill around me, concern etched on their faces. The traditional champagne toast that ends a balloon flight has been eliminated. No one has uttered the Balloonist Prayer, the official end of every flight:
May the winds welcome you with softness
May the sun bless you with its warm hands
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
It is not appropriate to celebrate as the unknown fate of the Blue Max hangs in the warm air. A few speak softly to one another; most of us are silent as we wait.
Suddenly a nearby radio erupts with static and a garbled voice shouts,
“It’s the Blue Max, there are three in the basket. We need help, they are deflating,” is the message from one rescue truck to another.
I realize I’ve been holding my breath as air gushes from my lungs. Whatever humiliation I felt at our blunder is immediately erased. Jack is safe.
Author: Laura T. Jensen firstname.lastname@example.org