Over the holidays my husband and I went up to wine country for a few days, and while there decided to take a hot air balloon ride. The meeting spot was a hotel not too far from where we were staying. Check-in began promptly at 7am, while we could still see traces of frost on the plants. This being California, we treated the 32 degree weather as reason to dress as though a blizzard was coming, mittens on and teeth chattering in the parking lot.
We drove out in white vans to a small field where our balloons were slowly inflating. 19 other people rode in the wicker basket with us. One large group was celebrating a 9 year old's birthday; her grandmother had to be lifted by two employees over the high wicker basket walls and gingerly placed inside. There was a family visiting from China standing next to them, politely nodding at everything our pilot said. We stood next to a couple hailing from France and Arkansas who snapped selfies and giggled to each other. My husband wrapped his arms around my waist.
The pilot told us a bit about how the balloon worked. A few cords tethered to the inside of the balloon controlled direction. A tank of gas, released every few minutes in a giant flame, helped us to stay aloft. We started to lift off the ground and the world quickly became smaller and smaller beneath our feet.
The group had been chatty on the ground. Up in the sky, nearly everyone was silent. The earth below became divided in squares of green. Vineyards that seemed expansive and tangled now were rectangles laid out in simple patterns. We floated over houses, cars, dogs. Occasionally the balloon would start to dip, and we could make out the shapes of rabbits darting through the vines.
The pilot explained to us that our landing spot was unknown. "We can't control the wind, so we have to go where it takes us," he said. "If that happens to be a backyard, we just ask that you're respectful of the homeowners and don't take too many pictures." The white vans followed us on the roads below; the pilot called them our "storm chasers."
We moved only about 6 miles over the course of an hour, up, down, up again, in this nearly silent wicker basket. Surrounded by people of all ages, from all over the world, we watched the homes and the roads and the life below us, quiet witnesses waiting to see where the wind might take us.