Rising to new heights

Nicole Stempak

Watch a video from the Balloon A-Fair.

When we brush against the top of the tree, you can reach out and grab a leaf, my pilot, Mike Emich, tells me.

But I’m too scared. I’ve got one hand on the handle and my camera in the other. And that’s pretty much how I stay for the half-hour ride.

Saying I have a fear of heights is an understatement. It’s more like I got queasy when I rode on the Ferris wheel when I was younger. Or my legs start to shake if I climb up too high in the football stadium bleachers.

I don’t tell that to Mike because I don’t want him to change his mind and not let me ride with him.

I decided it was high time to conquer my fear of heights. I remember my parents saying they went up 25 or so feet in a hot air balloon at a parish picnic before I was born. How can you be afraid of something so pretty? So late Saturday afternoon, I flew over Kent in a hot air balloon named Second Wind at the 31st annual Balloon A-Fair Festival in Ravenna.

Minutes before I’m upward bound, Mike’s wife Rozanne gives me a consent form to sign. I know these forms are standard, but the words “hazardous activity,” “injury” and “death” jump off the page at me in bold. Is it too late to back out?

No, I don’t want to regret this. So I sign my name, stand back and snap photos as the crew sets up. They turn on the fans and the 65,000 cubic feet of multi-colored fabric quickly inflates to life.

Mike hops in, as does one of his crew members, Renee Thompson. I awkwardly climb in, and we begin our ascent.

Wave to everyone down below, Mike says. He and Renee flap their arms. I manage a couple quick motions before I clutch onto the handle again.

I peer over the edge of the basket, and I see hundreds of onlookers relaxing in chairs and sprawled out on blankets. I see the brightly patterned balloons inflating. I’m higher than the Ferris wheel and other spinning rides. Deep breaths, Nicole. Deep breaths.

We continue to ascend as we float above Route 59.

We’re heading toward Kent. Back the very same way I came. Back the same road I’ve driven countless times. And yet, I find myself amazed by how different everything looks and at how peaceful this is.

Nobody speaks for a few minutes. I think we’re all lost for words as we marvel at the sight below us. It’s completely silent, save for when Mike turns on the burner.

There’s no hurry to get somewhere and no somewhere to get to. We’re just going where the wind takes us.

We are about 300 to 400 feet in the air, Mike later tells me. But I don’t feel like I’m in any danger. I don’t get that dropping feeling in my stomach that I get when I’m on a plane, like we’re going to plummet and crash to the ground.

We pass the Midway Twin Drive-In, where I just visited the night before. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but the screens look so much bigger from up here. We float above the Wal-Mart. Classic, Renee says.

We continue along Route 59 over some apartment complexes – but not before our brush with a pine tree. I don’t grab any needles. Instead, I jump back, afraid the basket’s going to tip over, or I’m going to fall out. But I survive unscathed. Mike points out a couple standing in the parking lot. Their heads are craned back looking at us. Mike hollers out to them with a greeting, but they don’t hear or are too awestruck to respond.

We float above the Kent State Golf Course. Renee wonders out loud whether someone she knows is golfing there today. Perhaps it’s that man putting over there. Perhaps it’s that man driving in the golf cart.

Then we see a yellow balloon below us. The balloon rises, and for a few seconds, we’re parallel to each other. The balloon continues to ascend and is soon above us, drifting in a different direction.

A few minutes later, we see Dix Stadium, which is already packed up with people even though the game won’t start for another half hour. We’re heading toward campus. I can see Tri-Towers and the Centennial halls.

Mike says we’re going to land. He tells his crew who is driving on the ground that we’re going down at Kent State. He reminds Renee and me about bending our knees slightly in case we have a bumpy landing. Once we clear Tri-Towers, Mike yells out to the passerby on the greens.

We’re going to land, he says. A few people scatter away. We’re going to need help.

He tells the six or so guys to grab onto and put weight on the basket. We wait for a minute before getting out. Renee and I climb out while Mike directs the guys.

In the next few minutes, two other balloons land in the same field. We help them before returning to pack up the Second Wind. The fabric is folded up, the engine is disassembled and the basket is attached to a special hydraulic lift on the back of the van. The crew and I pile in, and Mike begins driving back. When we return to the festival, the rest of the crew and I get out. Now that the flight is finished, everyone goes his or her separate ways.

I thank Mike for the ride and head for my car. I drive back down Route 59 to eat dinner with a friend. I don’t think I’m quite ready to sit at the top of the football bleachers, but I’d be up for another ride in a balloon.

Contact enterprise reporter Nicole Stempak at [email protected]