But first the colorful, float with the clouds, flight apparatus that preceded the airplane. Imagine. The ability to get from one place to another, traffic be damned.
Mais oui. The only mode of overland transportation in the late 1700s was horse drawn carriage, horseback or one's very own feet.
It is worth a mention that in late 18th century France actually was on technology's cutting edge. On the cusp of a brave new world. France! That in itself is amazing. You'd expect it from the Italians. Da Vinci after all conceptualized the helicopter in the latter part of the 15th century as science, art and society flourished. But that it was in the French countryside that the Montgolfier brothers made the leap into aerodynamics. Successfully. It elevated the family to nobility. But of course.
A gondola ... a wicker basket not unlike one that would carry paté, vin rosé, a baguette, cornichons and a wedge of Brie into the countryside for an afternoon delight, two hundred fold larger ... suspended gracefully by braided guy wires from an artistic and quite colorful envelope. Fueled by hot air from a flame precariously close to the fabric.
Thermal airships. Floating windbags. Carried buoyant across air currents. Just high enough to feel the sensation of floating ever so slowly over meadows, rivers and rolling farmland.
Fast forward two hundred years. The Napa Valley. A chilly pre-dawn trek via caravan across the vineyards to an open field. Three hot air balloons being prepped for our excursion. Champagne, croissants and fig jam awaited at the other end. Not quite awake I was along for the adventure. And a few glasses of bubbly before 11 in the morning. That itself was the incentive.
We arrived. Found the woman with the clipboard to check-in, run the credit card through the machine in her backpack and sign a death waiver.
My heart started pounding. White noise filled my head buzzing loudly. So noisy was the cacophony brewing inside that I couldn't hear the directions of how to be a good passenger. What to expect. Emergency procedures. Nada. All I could do was keep from passing out altogether. Grainy swirling flashes of sparkled light fogged my vision.
I was in deep trouble.
My head was filled with a jumbled mess of thoughts flashing neon across my mind's eye. My very own jumbotron. The messages came quickly crowding out the fact that I had to twink, badly:
1) This was my very first trip away from my four year old child;
2) I was a continent away;
3) The van driver looked like a hippie who smoked hash before picking us up at the bed and breakfast;
4) I was praying he was not the pilot, or whatever the flyer is called;
5) My mobile phone was locked in the van that transported us here; and most importantly
6) I am deathly afraid of heights.
What had I signed up for? Egads. I was nauseous, feverish and couldn't hear myself think. The buzz in my head now a roar.
Someone grabbed my elbow as I hoisted myself up the final step through a wicker gate into the basket itself. Eight other intrepid souls joined me. The pilot last. Sandbags were heaved to the ground and the folks charged with preparing our ascent (our van driver, thank the lord, on the field). I held tightly to the metal bar in the corner and prayed. All I could hear above the din in my mind was Charlie's sweet voice ... and that of my father reminding me to never let my Blue Cross/Blue Shield lapse.
Slowly the craft drifted straight up. Not unlike a helicopter. The rolling meadows and wine lands spread out below us like a Van Gogh. Streaks of mad-driven pigments spread furiously. Attached to the canvas by the putty knife. In splotches. Multi-hued. Vibrant.
I clutched the rod in the corner of the basket. My heart rate slowed a bit. Down below a miniature red fox darted through a hedge followed by hounds and horses carrying men in red coats and white jodhpurs. It was amazing. Floating just under 1000 feet with the birds. Flying really. Up up and away.
In what seemed to be an instant we were being instructed as to how to land without injury. I unlocked my knees, bent them and braced myself for a hard landing in a farm yard. Geese squawked, chickens ruffled their feathers, a dog barked wildly as the pigs continued to chew on the corn cobs littering their sty oblivious.
Next we bumped the ground bouncing. Skidded to a halt. The balloon flapped as the air was released. I unclenched my teeth and kissed the pole. Nonchalantly strolled over to the wicker gate being unlatched by what appeared to be leather bands. Relieved that this flimsy contraption had ensconced us safely during our 75 minute flight. I descended from the Pier One basket shakily. Grateful to be on earth.
We toasted our adventure with Etoile, the most sublime sparkling wine from nearby Domaine Chandon. Crisp and tart. Lovely. It washed away my jitters and restored calm. One should always have a flute of bubbly before lunch.