Phoenix Spring Escapes

Sunrise Balloon Ride
By Judy Wade & Bill Baker
  |  Gorp.com

Hovering over the Sonoran desert in a hot air balloon at dawn puts a new perspective on Phoenix and new spin on the expression "early to rise."

The stillness is amazing— except for an occasional blast from the propane burner, the only sounds to mar the silence are the hushed voices of passengers in the gondola. It is minutes after dawn and three riders and a pilot drift upward as the striped orb of ripstop nylon moves gently skyward from the isolated field in Scottsdale, north of Phoenix. A half dozen other balloons also are in the air.

The world's great hot-air balloon venues— the French countryside, California's Napa Valley, the desert near Palm Springs— all hold their own particular rewards. But in the spring, the Sonoran Desert ranks among the most spectacular places to drift above the landscape.

Brown and white cattle and an occasional jackrabbit are startled by the balloon's shadow and scurry for cover. A covey of round, top-knotted Gambel's quail dash under a mesquite bush. As the balloon gains altitude, multi-armed saguaro cacti grow small and the sun turns the McDowell Mountains warm shades of yellow and red. It is a scene of such tranquillity that even the slight sound of camera shutters is intrusive.

Hot-air ballooning was pioneered in France in the 1800s, when as-yet unperfected techniques sometimes caused balloons to make impromptu landings in farmers' fields. The 19th century pilots carried bottles of bubbly to placate an irate farmer whose corn or strawberries had been crushed. Thus began the present-day custom of popping a bottle of champagne at the end of a flight.

On any mild Spring morning you can expect to see prickly pear exuberant with yellow and magenta blooms and snake-like ocotillo covered with brilliant red flowers. Small yellow blossoms form crowns on a cluster of barrel cacti. A zebra-backed Gila woodpecker peers out from a hole in a saguaro that has become a bird condominium. These survivors in an arid land verify that in spring the Sonoran Desert is at its enthusiastic best.

The balloon floats silently over a velvety green golf course, where four early-morning golfers prepare to tee off. They look up and wave, their cheery hellos clearly audible in the still dawn air. With more than 140 golf courses in the Valley of the Sun, players on the links are accustomed to exchanging greetings with balloonists. The sound of a dog's bark drifts from a distant tile-roofed subdivision. In all directions the view is ever- changing.

Although it seems like the flight has just begun, up ahead on a little dirt road the"chase van" waits. Settling back to earth is a tricky maneuver, because air is layered, affecting the top of the balloon differently from the basket. Guests are cautioned not to jump out immediately, as their combined weight is all that holds the balloon on terra firma until it deflates completely.

Once safely anchored, coffee, muffins, orange juice and of course, champagne are offered. The pilot congratulates everyone on a particularly spectacular flight, and recites:

"The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter and has set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth."

Companies that soar:

Unicorn Balloon Company of Arizona, Inc.
800-468-2478 or 602-991-3666; web site www.unicornballoon.com

Hot Air Expeditions
800-831-7610 or 602-788-5555

Rainbow Balloon Flights
602-258-2812

Judy Wade and Bill Baker are freelance writers/photographers who pack and unpack in Phoenix.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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