July 25, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.

Travel Trails: Hot Air Ballon Adventure

By Renee Risk Strietelmeier

Beth and I could have done what most normal people would have done. We could have gone to bed early and gotten a good night’s sleep. That’s what most people would have done the night before a scheduled sunrise champaign breakfast hot air balloon ride.

We were young, adventurous, full of non-stop energy and apparently not in our right minds. We were living in downtown Chicago. We had scheduled for our first ever hot air balloon ride. Our ride began at 5:30 a.m. as it was a sunrise champaign breakfast ride. The night before, Elaine, instead of going to bed early, we decided to drive to Madison, Wisconsin. Unlike most of our last-minute flights of fancy, this road trip had a purpose. We were going to visit Beth’s niece at the University of Madison to celebrate her 21st birthday.

For many years, the University of Madison has had the distinct honor of being a top party school. Add to that fact we were celebrating a 21st birthday, you can imagine the long night we spent out with Elaine. She was just a few years younger than us so we had been counting the years until she could legally go out with us to enjoy a refreshing adult beverage. Elaine was known for her endless energy and her hair, which had a mind of its own. You could pick her out of a crowd by just looking up or sideways because you could always spot her hair. Elaine’s hair, like her, was more than untamed. Both were wild. Her hair was wild, and she was a wild child of Beth’s family. She was the youngest of the nieces and nephews by quite a few years. She learned early on how to make her own fun and create her own destiny. In short, she was a hoot!

After enjoying good food, friendship and celebration, Beth and I realized we had exactly enough time to make it to our hot air balloon adventure if everything went exactly right. When we woke up, we had no time for goodbyes. Not a problem because Elaine would understand when she eventually awoke. Beth and I grabbed our stuff. We darted to the car. There was an unspoken mutual agreement, speed limits did not apply.

We had an hour and half to get to the take off point and we were two hours away from our destination. Normally, we would have been skeptical, but it was 4 a.m. There was minimal traffic. As fortune would have it, as fortune usually did for Beth and my adventures, we arrived exactly at 5:30 a.m. Our crew was just starting to get our gear. Participants were expected to help with the process of laying out the balloon and preparing it for flight.

After much precision the process produced an amazingly gorgeous multi-colored balloon filled by hot air. What an amazing sight to see the huge balloon filled to capacity with a small basket for passengers. We were set and ready to go, well, up, up, and away.

We climbed in and secured our air legs and enjoyed a quick but smooth assent. The entire time we were ascending, I kept thinking how incredibly cool of an adventure we were taking. I love heights. I love the outdoors. I love nature’s willingness to help humans take advantage of all she has to offer.

When we were at our sailing height, our crew cracked open the champaign. Oddly, a welcomed treat after pulling an all-night birthday celebration. We were comfortable enough to begin looking down and around as well as leaning over to take pictures. Without a doubt, this was the adventure where I took the most sunrise pictures I have ever taken. The open farm fields of Illinois glistened with the changing colors of the sunrise. To be standing in the balloon basket with a glass of champaign taking in the view is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The experience was simply breathtakingly beautiful.

When our ride was coming to a close the decent was a little bumpier than expected but we managed to keep our legs under us. The landing was perfectly smooth. The crew that had helped us take off was already there awaiting our arrival. After our ground crew had us secured, we had the pleasure of helping untether our balloon and put it away for her next trip. Undoubtedly, she would delight her next passengers as much as she did us.

Every once and awhile, from our town of Hope, I will see a hot air balloon flying over the cornfields. The sight always takes me back to my own adventure and makes me smile.

** In memory of Beth Sayre.