My heart is pounding as I drive through Woodinville, a pretty rural community just North of Seattle. Redhook Brewery; Columbia Winery and a grand French chateau set in manicured gardens where such musical luminaries as ‘Diana Krall’ and “Smokey Robinson” will play to capacity crowds this summer.

Oenophiles who visit Chateau Ste. Michelle seldom applaud beyond a muttered “Splendid legs” “Needs laying down for a year or two”  “Perfect partner for a Crème Brulee” as they swirl, sip and spit in the elegant tasting room. Twelve outdoor concerts held each year, attract a less reticent type – Maybe next time?  Right now I’m on a mission!

It’s 7pm and a perfect evening when I pull into the strip mall at the edge of town. “You’ll see us” I am assured in a Southern drawl as I hit the cellphone for directions yet again. A longbased, generic, passenger van seems out of place in the orderly parking lot. The trailer is carrying a Santa-sized canvas bag and a massive basket which, at first glance, could be a hanging planter for the Jolly Green Giant. Must be it?!

We are a group of six: An ample couple here to celebrate her birthday even though it isn’t for another two weeks, but the weather is perfect right now - so what the hey! A 30 something, pretty girl with a ticking biological clock. She has moved from Atlanta to find a husband – “They’re all either gay or taken down there” – and is treating her visiting mother “Find a nice young doctor dear”: The pilot, a gray-haired stoic chap with an impish grin - and me! - The red-haired computer nerd and wannabe flyer, with a day job at The University of Washington, will drive the support vehicle.

We head to a patch of rough grass beside the warehouse. The trailer is emptied. First the basket, then the canvas bag and, sandwiched somewhere in-between, a fan attached to a small generator. Minutes later, yards of multicoloured sailcloth are unfurled. A quick tug on the cord and both generator and fan leap into life.

With a continuous blast of air fed into its jaws, the balloon begins to take shape. A cavernous tent, sufficient to entertain 100 in comfort, flattens the long grass. Time to light the propane burners and add roaring flame to the opening. Our aerial support wafts skyward attached to its basket. A traffic jam develops on the highway. Wow! – The contents of our little trailer have become a monumental showstopper.

All aboard! Our support man hangs onto a thin line as the pilot releases jets of liquid propane from the two burners. The flames reach scarily high into the interior of the balloon. The basket remains irritatingly anchored to the ground. Did they do the maths when we gave our body weights? Did someone lie? Accusing looks! A smell of singed hair. I'm the tallest and closest to the roaring inferno. Dripping sweat then suddenly - lift-off. Slowly but surely we start to rise and follow in the path of the little white helium- filled balloons released earlier to establish wind speed and direction.

Our support man reaches the end of his leash. We drift towards the warehouse with passengers from a dozen stationary cars weighing our odds of clearing the roof. Searing heat from the burners – damn - my hair must be thinning faster than I thought! Suddenly we’re floating at 1800 feet. Huge estates owned by Microsoft millionaires who sold out in time, are exposed. Tall trees are useless against prying eyes from the sky!

A good spot to check out assets I assure the pretty girl from Atlanta. Six cars in the driveway means three each after a divorce and you could pack a football team of kids in a house half that size and still have room for the nanny. Her mother nods approval. We’re moving too fast. It’s time to spill a bit of air and drop to a lower level and lighter winds. No point winding up back in Atlanta!

“Do you know where we’re going to land” I venture gingerly as the pilot reaches for the valve of another propane tank. “No” he replies with a characteristic paucity of words and a couple of fiery bursts from the burners that kill the conversation. We spot the support man weaving through country lanes as he tries to keep us in sight. We are low enough to have shouted conversations with surprised people on the ground and fantasize about landing in a decent sized garden where at least there’s a chance of finding a good wine cellar. Try to avoid Lake Washington.

The cellphone rings. We’ve been up around 45 minutes and its time to plan for re-entry. The pilot and support man confer and we start our descent. Uh Oh! – Telephone lines, a balloonist’s nightmare, cross our flight path. Pour on the blast furnaces and let’s see if we can clear that tree and find a safer spot. The ample couple lean over the edge of the basket. Each plucks a handful of leaves from the highest branches as we graze over the top.

We brace in a half crouch for landing then clap in excited relief and check the inscrutable eyes of our pilot. The support man is on the phone. He has pinpointed our position in grass tall enough to hide a giraffe. After much rustling and shouting he appears. The male of the ample couple has a military haircut and is chosen to assist. A quick burst from the burners and we hover three feet above the ground with two men dragging our flying machine by the leash to a more manageable spot.

Back at the strip mall we join tables outside a cosy Italian restaurant, bonded by a shared adventure. ‘Oh wow what a blast!’ Lots of group photos, red wine and animated chat among new friends who may never meet again. “When did you start flying balloons?” I ask the pilot. “Around seventeen years ago” “How did the passion begin?”  “It’s a long story” he replied with a grin and the usual paucity of words.

Hugs all round. It’s 10.30 PM and time to head for the border. This time the lineup takes five minutes and the trip home just 2 ½ hours. Would I go again? You bet!



US$135 for a morning flight with complimentary Champagne and Orange juice and US$165 for the evening flight which includes dinner and a glass of wine.

GETTING THERE: Head South on I-5. Just North of Seatttle take Highway 405 exit to Bothell then Woodinville. Ask for exact details at time of reservation.


MAKE A DAY TRIP AND SPREAD THE COST: Woodinville is a pretty rural area. Winery tours are free. Take a picnic to the beautiful gardens at Chateau Ste. Michelle – free entry or phone ahead and book a wine tasting ( maximum 6 people). For US$8 you can try four different wines and pick the brains of knowledgable Cynthia! 425-415-3300

Nearby Redhook Brewery has tours that include 3 to 4 generous samplings and a free glass for just US$1 – Check their website  for details and internet specials.


Copyright © 2004 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.