We are about 200 feet above the Sonoran Desert floor when we spot a sizable nest ensconced in the arms of a large saguaro cactus below.
“It probably belongs to an owl,” surmises our veteran balloon pilot, Patrick Stevens, who has made more than 10,000 of these flights over the northern Phoenix Metro area.
Looking down on an owl’s nest wedged in a saguaro is a unique perspective I never expected to experience and probably never will again. But as the shadow of our 315,000-cubic-foot balloon floats across Arizona ground, we are treated to continuous views of seemingly endless open desert in one direction, residential and commercial encroachment in the other.
“Hot air ballooning has become more of a challenge because of continuing development,” says Stevens, who celebrates his 30th year of piloting this month.
“Launch sites vary day-to-day. We have about a dozen that we use, mostly in north Phoenix and a couple in Scottsdale.”
We hauled out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to make it from the CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa (civana.com) in Carefree, north of Scottsdale, to the Phoenix office of the Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Co. (rainbowryders.com) by 5:30 a.m. The company’s large warehouse shelters a fleet of balloons and baskets, and despite the early hour, is a beehive of activity. Apparently, others feel it’s worth losing a few hours of sleep to take this bucket-list adventure.
Masks for passengers, pilots and crew are mandatory, and there is ample room in the warehouse to spread out and enjoy some pre-flight snacks.
“Actually, getting up early was no problem for us,” remarks one passenger who spoke for his party of three. “We flew in last night and are still on East Coast time.”
Now it’s off to the launch site, which, after sending up a tiny test balloon, does not meet the approval of the five pilots. We arrive at the second one 20 minutes later and pilots and chase crew begin inflating the giant colorful orbs. It’s a noisy-but-intriguing exercise that provides plenty of photo ops and questions. Once our balloon is fully inflated, we climb up and over the sides of the heavy wicker basket while several crew members tug at the lines to make sure we don’t launch prematurely.
With everyone aboard, the lines are carefully loosened and the ground drops away. In my book, this is the best part of the ride. We can’t squelch the urge to wave goodbye to the crew, who play along for the bizillionth time.
Our gentle ascension is quiet and smooth, and it presents us with an increasingly larger view of the Earth.
Stevens remarks that the usual summer monsoon rains were a no-show this year, and that record-breaking heat took a surprising toll on some of the saguaros. These endangered cactuses are not quite as hardy as one might imagine; they are highly dependent on water and temperature. Fortunately, though, most did survive to continue their roles as desert sentinels and visitor-magnets.
Monsoons or no, from our vantage point at 2,000 feet-plus, the desert still looks like a world that supports an unusually large number of flora and fauna, and we are content to drift along taking in the 360-degree, bird’s-eye view.
Balloon pilots have no choice as to the direction of the drift, only at what altitude we hang in the sky. Charge up the burner and we go up; let the balloon cool and we go down.
Despite his thousands of flights, Stevens says the experience never gets old.
“Mother Nature is different every day and I get to meet people from all over the world,” he explains. “And every time we go up, it’s like helping people open a Christmas present.”