Canyonlands Ballooning

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(435) 655-1389

It was a dark and quiet morning on a lonely, tumbleweed stretch of Utah highway 191 where we first met Lou, intrepid pilot/owner of Canyonlands Ballooning. Rows of eroded sandstone fins stood in the distance like skyscrapers concealing hidden alleys. Snipes and Road Runners filled the shadows with blurred motion. Owls hooted warnings, snakes rattled and hissed and coyote sat in arched silhouettes before the full moon howling their lonely songs… I'm invoking lots of artistic license. Facts are not nearly as melodramatic as fiction. The desert was not a forbidding landscape - some might say even quite welcoming. Yet our experience that morning in Moab, floating high above the desert labyrinths and monoliths was the stuff of an adventure story we will be retelling for many, many years to come.

Balloon over Canyonlands

Truth is, I discovered Lou Bartell and his Canyonlands Ballooning website through a 'What To Do in Moab' Internet search. It is amazing how a few simple key words can query a worldwide database and return specific information. Ask the Oracle of Google and ye shall receive answers. Preparation and research are the allies of the savvy, well-prepared traveler.

Jane and I were planning a one-week trip to Arches National Park to celebrate our one-year anniversary. I wanted to do something, arrange something, find a way to really mark the occasion and give her a surprise. The hopeless romantic in me wanted to create for Jane a very special day she would not soon forget.

In my professional life I have a connection to the world of aviation flying helicopters around power lines. I've spent countless hours hovering just above the treetops looking for broken wires and damaged porcelain insulators. My job duties have given me the opportunity to see much of United States from above. There is an empowering joy known only to those willing to slip the surly bonds of earth and climb through sun-split clouds, to share in the freedom of flight, to see beyond horizons. When we dance with the winds and witness the expansive beauty of God's creation, an entirely fresh perspective comes into focus.

Finding Lou's ballooning company was more than just a business transaction. It was serendipity. Lou and his ground crew are fellow aviators, free-fall artists and dreamers, quite at home in the sky. I wanted Jane, a freelance photographer, to be able to see what we see when we fly, what the eagle and the hawk see, and capture through her lens the serenity of the earth without fences, borders and conflicts.

Old Church

We actually did meet Lou out on that lonely stretch of Highway 191 just outside of Moab. It was still dark in the cool hours before sunrise. Not wanting to be late for our rendezvous I had insisted to a sleepy-eyed and curious Jane that we leave the hotel 45 minutes early for our 11.6 minute drive out to the Old School House, behind the Shell station, 8.6 miles north of the Colorado River crossing. I liked the fact that Lou had GPS coordinates for our launch point listed on his website. Having chased through the back woods in a fuel truck many times looking for a thirsty helicopter I appreciated the precision offered by global positioning.

Filling the Balloon with Hot Air

With high-beam headlights picking up the dashed yellow line, I drove down the highway well below the posted speed trying to use up some time so we wouldn't arrive too early. At that hour there were only two vehicles on the road: our rental car and the truck, passing on our left, pulling the trailer loaded with a hot air balloon basket. As Lou and his truck went by I smiled, knowing we were going to be his passengers. Jane commented nonchalantly that it must be the balloon we'd seen the other day, high up over the desert, on our hike out to Double-O Arch - still very unaware of her surprise.

While a large fan and short bursts from the propane burners inflated the yellow smiley-face balloon, we learned about the Old School House which was built for the remake of Zane Grey's 'Riders On the Purple Sage' and then subsequently used in several other western movies. Author Zane Grey, Lou explained, is credited with the origins of the saying "meanwhile, back at the ranch."

Looking up into the balloon

When Lou completed his pre-flight checks and signaled all was ready, we jumped into the wicker basket and rose into the predawn sky in formation with the rising sun. Nature's palette painted the receding landscapes in more hues of pink, taupe and muted ochre than we ever thought existed. For a moment it was as if we had caught a glimpse inside the imagination of Georgia O'Keefe. Light breezes carried us slowly north on a course that followed the western edge of Arches National Park. Brief belches of hot blue flame periodically interrupted the silence.

Lou Bartell telling the group what we are seeing

In the distance it was easy to pick out the North Window and South Window Arches through which we had already hiked. From such a high vantage point the vista was intoxicating. The seemingly impenetrable Fiery Furnace became a friendly cornfield maze. Lou expertly pointed out many other geologic formations, talking just enough in subtitles to make our flight informative without interrupting the story nature was trying to tell.

Lou bartell operating the balloon controls

Looking down from eight thousand feet we could really take in the massive dimensions and distinct shapes of the arches, fins, boulders and bluffs. Others have wisely said it first, but it is still true: we felt so small up there, soaring over the Entrada sandstone, seeing the world through the Creator's eyes.

Demonstrating the surprising agility of our aircraft, Lou descended rapidly to follow the inside curve of a crescent-shaped outcrop, reading the winds and following their currents to reverse our direction. On one of our low-level passes we were fortunate to see one of the desert's more reclusive residents - a bobcat.

While drifting we were humbled by the awesome quiet. We found ourselves in the midst of a rare, unhurried place on earth where one can actually hear their thoughts; where there is an unspoken respect among all to tread lightly and speak softly. While suspended in the sky it felt so natural to fall into that way of being. Jane and I both wished that we could keep and bring home that feeling for day-to-day living.

Timothy and Jane Wynne

We had taken the time to let Mother Nature speak to us with Lou being our able interpreter. During our two-hour flight we watched the changing light morph the landscape, reading from an ancient story written slowly over millennia and revealed within the pages of the eroding rock layers.

Entering into the Salt River valley, a wide, flat expanse that would be the site of our landing, we understood the value of the GPS unit showing our ground speed that Lou kept a vigilant eye upon. We learned that landing a hot air balloon is as much art as it is science; flying too fast in any direction can make for a very rough touch down.

Balloon shadow over Canyonlands

Dumping buoyant air from the top of the balloon by pulling on nylon cords attached to vent flaps, our basket skipped once, skidded for a short distance then came to a gentle rest on terra firma, slowly tipping over to one side. We all climbed out of the basket giggling and laughing. Lou had managed to hit the mark perfectly, keeping the balloon and basket right next to the dirt road where his chase crew would retrieve us.

The end of the balloon ride

I like to think that on that morning flight across the desert I hit the mark as well.

Jane still talks about our anniversary flight that day with Lou, remembering fondly our experience and retelling our story to all who will listen. On that day the mysteries of the lines and patterns far below were revealed, answers to secrets were whispered into our ears by the wind, and with a silent lifting mind, we trod the high, un-trespassed sanctity of the sky… put out our hands and together touched the face of God.

Timothy and Jane Wynne enjoying champagne
Timothy and Jane Wynne, September 2009

 

Panoramic view from the balloon by Ted Crawford