When you’re inside a hot-air balloon and something goes wrong, Vermonters become even more solicitous, especially if you’re from some exotic, faraway place like South Florida.
“It’s such a glorious day, how can you be worried?”
“You’re trembling! Are you sure you won’t take my coat?”
“Close your eyes, count to ten, and think provocative things.”
“Is everyone down there so easily shaken? My goodness, no one’s dying today.”
Within a few days in Burlington, we’d been impressed (and a little creeped out) with the population’s general air of cheerfulness and genuine goodwill toward us, not only hotel staff, waiters, ride-sharers, and others you’d expect to be ingratiating, but complete strangers, fellow pedestrians on Church Street, for example, willing to take the time to walk us over to a good pub or restaurant while engaging us in warm talk as if we were old acquaintances.
More than once, I say to Silvia, “We’re not in Little Havana anymore, mi cielo….” And think guiltily about how far I usually go to avoid talking to the neighbors and the iron bars on our windows for warding off criminals and the outside.
I glance at our pilot, who’s pulling on the cords with consternation. The balloon’s not behaving the way he’d like, and he keeps looking at this black gadget he’s attached to an upright, some weather-GPS thing. I, in turn, am focused on him—in the same way I stare at flight attendants whenever there’s turbulence—and I’m already uneasy, no hard feat for me, making mountains out of every one of his frowns. We are cruising at a tilt, underneath the massive envelope and its sky-blue Blue Sky logo on sunshine-yellow backdrop, and he commands us, politely, to grab the rope loops and lean in the other direction.
“What’s wrong?” Silvia says in my ear. Her eyes are squinting, and she’s nuzzled closer. We’re floating by and over mountains and valleys coated in brilliant colors. The cool air from a moment ago has turned into an icy breeze. We’re wearing our just-purchased green and yellow university catamount caps to protect our heads from the heat of the burners. Silvia has hers fashionably cocked just so, making the best of head-coverings since her treatments began.
“Are we in danger, Rigo?”
Pete, who made it comically clear during introductions please, please, don’t call him Pilot Pete like it says on the Blue Sky Hot-Air Balloon Adventures website, is barking into his walkie-talkie with some urgency, presumably to his team on the ground. The balloon is one of Silvia’s bucket-list items—not mine, as I’ve always made it a point to avoid flying deathtraps, airplanes grudgingly excepted—and neither one of us has ever been to the Green Mountain state before even though Silvia traveled extensively when she was married to the heart surgeon. According to the doctors, her prognosis was good, and she’s chosen to remain her usual big-smile, Cheshire-Cat self, upbeat and optimistic, while I, also per usual, have resorted to anger and bitterness, aimed squarely at the world, the universe, and God. I’m not a nervous, post-dictatorship Cuban mother’s son for nothing.
“Anything we can do, Pete?” asks a woman from the Kingdom, what Vermonters call Northeast Vermont. (I only know because I read two novels in preparation for the trip, one each from Mosher and Bohjalian.) Pete shakes his head again, scrolls some more through his gizmo. He makes a comment about the wind acting squirrely.
Conversely, I think about death, dismemberment, and paralysis. I think about suffering and pain. I remember the surrounding mountains and relive scenes from that nineties film, Alive, also about airborne calamity. The Donner party comes to mind, too. This is why, I think with vindication, I never tempt fate, take risks, or throw myself into precarious situations like flying in a hot-air balloon.
As Silvia teases me constantly, I am not what you’d call adventurous. Knowing full well my penchant for cowardice, she warned me to avoid topics of ballooning on the internet prior to our trip. Of course, I searched anyway, rewarding myself with plenty of horror stories, including ones centered on spontaneous combustion and electrical lines, sudden capsizes, and landings going haywire, which Pete, pre-boarding, confirmed (after I pushed him on it) is the most dangerous part of the whole experience. The emails urging everyone to wear sensible, water-proof shoes because where we might land was, ahem, “up in the air,” hadn’t helped.
“We’ll be all right,” I say, both of us knowing I’m only trying to bolster my own courage.
“I’m sorry, Rigo,” she says. “It was a stupid idea.”
“No, it wasn’t,” I say, though I can’t help thinking that, yes, it was.
I look at the soft-looking patches of grass in between the large farmsteads below us, and ask myself, How bad can it be? To crash into all that downy green? Cars are pulling over on the roadways below, as if we were the great Oz or Verne himself, and drivers and passengers are by their doors, taking pictures or video. I don’t think they realize we’re in trouble up here. From their angle, the balloon is gliding mildly and totally under control. The thought occurs to me: shouldn’t we be calling the police, ambulances, air force?
Pete releases more heat into the envelope, gushes of shooshing sounds. He’s looking down and gesticulating, but he’s not doing it for our benefit. His tour-guide schtick ended a while ago: pointing out landmarks, naming mountains and bodies of water, telling us stories about famous residents and eccentric locals. I see he’s got his eyes fixed on the company vans emerging suddenly like a mirage down there. (One of those vans picked us up at our hotel, drove us to the launch site and will, if we live, take us back.) I hear a voice say “copy that” through the radio, and the vans speed off.
There are seven men and two women inside the vehicles. I know because I counted them when we were all waiting for the balloon to inflate. It felt better knowing a large team was at Pete’s beck-and-call, though it bothered me that so many were needed for the “safe adventure” the company’s website promised, not to mention the scary release forms we had to sign, enumerating likelihoods of cruel horror and death.
It took all of them to inflate the balloon, help the passengers straddle over and into the gondola (Pete’s word), pull the balloon to a standing position, and hold the basket down with straining arms and elbows while Pete, already in his pilot’s compartment, waited for the right moment to give the thumbs up for the loosening of ropes and upheaving of ballast.
“I don’t want to die, Rigo,” Silvia says, surprising me, because it’s not like her to think that way, and I realize she’s not talking about our present predicament.
“You won’t, mi cielo.” Of course, I’m convinced we will. Today.
The other passengers, six other couples, Vermonters all, are keeping their poise and talking about everything working out in the end because, as they agree, smilingly, everything always works out in the end. One of them quips about her outdated last will and testament and everyone laughs—even Silvia, though (surprise!) not me. Another recites Rilke’s “Let everything happen to you” verse from memory, and I experience the familiar pangs of envy produced in me by those for whom life seems nothing to lose sleep over.
A woman in a red Patriots cap, who earlier referred to us as munchkins because we are, my wife and I, of short stature, tells us, “Pete knows what he’s doing. You’ll see. This is our third time.” She lets go of the loops and turns to take pictures of the landscape. It’s called for. The October foliage is spectacular.
Pete isn’t panicking, for sure, but to my super-aware eye he’s not at ease either, and I notice his gizmo is flashing a red light. Suddenly, the basket lurches, and Silvia falls against the propane tanks. She’s fine, she says, laughing, and Pete helps her up, apologizes. Undaunted, she grabs the rope loops again and leans toward the lip of the basket.
“It’s so quiet up here,” she says, and she’s right, except for the occasional shooshing sounds. Otherwise, we’re enveloped in a beautiful, comfortable bubble, like a dreamless, good night’s sleep, the kind you want to take a thick blanket to, and we lose ourselves in the grandeur of the earth. I don’t notice right away that the balloon is ascending again.
“How high are we?” somebody asks. Pete takes a quick peek at his gadget and says, “Almost three thousand feet.” He seems to have forgotten about the cords and is staring out at the vista himself. No one seems inclined to acknowledge the abrupt change in our situation, which seems to have gone from catastrophic to, well, not.
The air’s deep chill has left us, and we fall again inside Vermont’s variegated landscape, blue sky, colorful trees. Pete turns to manipulate the flaps, and the gondola rotates, gently, from one side to the other. At once we’re looking out over Lake Champlain and then back at the mountains, and we believe we can see all the way to Canada.
Pete pulls on the cords again and we gently drop and skim the tops of the large evergreens, their crowns click-clacking against the bottom of our basket like playing cards in bicycle spokes. We wave at a couple sitting in a balcony of a large farmhouse, champagne flutes in their hands, which they raise high in our direction. Pete exchanges shout-talk with them. We climb again, and he tells us to pose so he can take pictures of each of the couples, aerial prom photos he calls them, which, presumably, we’ll be purchasing later. He asks, “Isn’t this wonderful?”
We hover over a large pond, and somebody cries, “Look! It’s us!”
We see ourselves in its glassy surface, a perfect mirror image of the massive contraption we’re flying in. We wave at our reflections. Silvia smiles happily, and I put my arm around her. I remind myself I’m not losing her, she’ll be fine, and we’ll beat this together.
“We’re coming up to the middle finger,” Pete says.
Silvia and I exchange glances. We both have the same thought, surprised that “giving the finger” isn’t alien in Vermont. For us, it’s as common as palm trees and coconuts, a staple of communication for South Floridians, especially when driving I-95, the Palmetto, or just about anywhere in the Greater Miami area.
“I’m not kidding,” he says, laughing. “An old curmudgeon put it up decades ago. He installed this massive ‘Screw You, World’ on his property. It’s become a kind of tourist attraction.”
“Over there!” munchkin lady yells.
Sure enough, there it is, a gigantic hand, its fully erect middle finger pointed straight up toward the firmament, gloriously exact and unapologetic. It’s atop a thick pole in the middle of a large field, hard to miss from land or air, and washed in brilliant white for even the stars to notice. Of all the things to spend money and energy on, and I imagine the futile silliness of it. I start to laugh and keep laughing until tears run down my face. It catches and Silvia is laughing too, and so is everyone else, including Pilot Pete. I wipe my eyes without blushing.
The munchkin lady says, using a tissue around her own mirthful eyes, “You see? No one is dying today.” She winks at Pete, who smiles back at her.
“No one is dying today,” I repeat. Silvia’s cheeks are rosy, she’s happy and alive, and I grab her hand. The present is everything. The crew magically appears below us, fanned out and in position to guide us in. The earth begins to loom.
“Okay, everyone, just like I showed you,” Pete says. “Grab the loops with both hands and bend your knees. Hang on tight. Landing is tricky.”
Sylvia kisses me on the cheek and says, “Gracias, mi amor.” I smile at my beautiful wife, and I let go of her hand. We ready ourselves for impact. I can feel it coming, but I’m not nervous or afraid.