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Balloon ride brings some enlightenment.

Byline: Bob Welch The Register-Guard

Having once been up in a hot air balloon, when I arrived at Willamette High School at 6 a.m. Saturday for a second chance, I instinctively knew how to prepare:

First, find a bathroom. Second, use it. Often.

The first thing you need to understand about hot air balloons is that while the view is far better than a plane's, the accommodations aren't.

"You each have a water, but don't expect me to come around and hand it out to you with peanuts," our pilot, Carrie Smith, deadpanned to me and Register-Guard photographer Kevin Clark, her passengers.

Roger that. Plus, in a 4-foot-by-4-foot basket, there's no room to allow someone to "come around" anyway. You're just sort of there, like a bunch of pens in a coffee mug.

As part of the Eugene Celebration's "Lighten Up" theme, seven balloons took flight, a rarity around here in that the southern Willamette Valley is usually too windy for safe balloon travel.

Nobody wants to go up for a short ride and wind up in, say, Salinas, Calif. - or in Sunday's headlines.

Which, of course, is why I was a tad concerned when the trial balloon floated south-southeast into what looked like the Eugene-to-San-Fran- cisco flight path from the airport. It wasn't death I feared, but missing the Michigan-Oregon game.

As fans blew air into the balloons that were spread on the grass, more than 200 people - some in pajamas - sprouted from seemingly nowhere.

They brought coffee, cameras and kids, the huge number of them, at this early hour, reminding me of the fascination people have with hot air balloons.

"People like us way more in these `virgin' areas," says Smith, who's been piloting balloons for nearly 20 years but makes her living as a systems business analyst for a Napa Valley, Calif., winery.

She reached above for the lever on the 30-gallon propane tank and the dragon breathed fire. (Hot dog, anyone?)

Like magic, we floated away from the incredibly shrinking people below.

Floating across suburbia in a hot air balloon is like going a couple of mythical clicks beyond the closest view on your Google Earth program.

Everything below is sharp. And you're going so low to the ground - 175 feet was our average cruising altitude - and so slowly - in our case, 4 to 5 mph - that you can see incredible detail: rose bushes, a tennis ball lying in the grass of Candlelight Park, a guy making a cell phone call from his porch at Royal Avenue near Throne Drive. And a house with six palm trees out front, and a batting cage and full-court basketball setup out back?

At times, I felt like an overhead Peeping Tom.

I mean, I can tell you houses that haven't unclogged their gutters for years, which lawns need fertilizing and who forgot to pick up the kids' toys the previous night.

Compared with a plane, a balloon is amazingly quiet - except for the occasional five-second blast of fire.

Below, you can hear dogs bark. (They hate balloons.) People encouraging spouses to come see the balloon. Some wacko yelling "Go, Ducks." (Wait, that was me.)

People waved from their back porches and while walking out to get their morning papers. They took cell phone photos. And, in cars, honked their horns.

To the east and south, we could see the other six balloons, the valley's answer to coastal whales: large, beautiful and rare creatures that move slowly, but fascinate us.

On board, it's like being a feather on a breeze.

Only this particular feather was green, orange and gray; three stories tall; 70,000 cubic feet; and $40,000 to buy.

While Smith kept in touch via a walkie-talkie, a landing crew followed us by car from below.

After 40 minutes and nearly three miles, we landed in a field near Harvest House Publishers, just short of Highway 126.

Had my eyes been closed, I might not have known we were back on the ground, so smooth was the touch down.

I stepped out, having been thoroughly "lightened."
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 11, 2007
Words:679
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