“Yeah, I’m fine.” Lies. I can feel my heartbeat pulsing through my shaky hands.
A playful breeze flirts its way through the sky, darting this way and that. Wonderful. I’m about to trust my life to a little wicker basket flying at the will of the clouds, and the wind can’t even make up its mind.
Birds are chirping and a small crowd is buzzing, but my thoughts are louder than everything around me. Immersed in my mind, I don’t catch what I assume is someone instructing my family to board the hot air balloon. Or it might be a life-or-death bit of information. I’ll never know. Mindlessly, I follow my younger brother, who is unusually pale and slightly trembling. I lift my foot off the comforting soil and realize there’s no turning back now.
Slowly, the dark clouds peel away to reveal a cotton candy Albuquerque sunrise. I guess the indecisive breeze decided to chase the western clouds. Whatever this means, I think it must be a good thing. I close my eyes and allow myself a deep breath for the first time in hours. My nerves simmer down a little. The pungent stench of burning fuel encapsulates our balloon, and before I know it the trees are sinking and the clouds are growing. The takeoff is as effortless, graceful, and weightless as the air holding me up.
“That’s it? We’re up in the sky just like that?” my brother marvels as the color melts back into his face and the boyish sparkle returns to his eyes.
“Just like that, buddy,” assures my dad. Above me, our rainbow-striped balloon advances toward the sun, guided by a lick of fire in its core. Civilization is but a faint whisper below me, and little rivers are dancing with the soft green earth a hundred feet away. The sky is like a painting so beautiful it absorbs you. It stretches as vast as the heavens, reigning without limit. I’m convinced that in the clouds, time does not exist. I laugh, not because this is amusing, but because it’s amazing. This sensation is so free, so detached, so incredible.
The corners of my lips curl into a tiny smile. In the past, I’ve always claimed to hate adventure-seeking and risk-taking. The truth is, I didn’t know. I had never tried. I lived my life chained to my doorstep, in a comfort land. A year ago today, I couldn’t be separated from the soil. But here I am, captivated, grinning like a little kid in the middle of the sky.
The pilot's voice slaps me away from my trance, explaining that we’ll be landing at the nearest clearing. Oh god, here it comes. My fist hugs the edge of the basket tighter and tighter as I imagine tackling the earth in a fatal crash landing. When I look at the ground, I see swirling and spinning, even though all is still. Breathe, just breathe. It’s out of my hands now.
The basket starts to fall toward a narrow path in a patchy field. We could easily miss that, I think. We’re screwed. We’re definitely screwed. Then logic kicks in. Our balloon seems to be descending gracefully. I really shouldn’t be breathing as fast as I am. The pilot instructs us to crouch down in the basket and grip the side handles. Holding my breath, I imagine a gentle landing, as smooth as a feather falling. Quiet and weightless. Did we already land? Maybe we tapped the ground so softly that I failed to notice . . .
Thud. The force propels me forward, and I try to readjust. Landing at twelve miles an hour isn't ideal, but it could have been worse.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
We’re skidding through the dirt like stones skipping across a pond. I grit my teeth. Someone's arm flops over my face. I reach out to move it, but my own arm flies the other way. The drag is long and merciless, so I hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut while we skid through the dirt. Just when I think we're about to land sideways, the basket lifts back upright, ever so slowly. It’s finally over.
Thud. Now it's over. I try to stand up just as we’re instructed to stay down. The world spins a little, and we follow the tilt of the balloon, completely tipping over. My breathing is short and rapid as the basket squeezes us into a fist. I move my fingers around with no idea what I could be touching. It’s covered in dirt, whatever it is. I can't tell who I'm on top of or who's on top of me.
In the midst of the pandemonium, with golden timing, the pilot offers to snap a picture of everyone aboard, sideways and uncomfortable. Afterward, we spill out of the messy entanglement of basket, people, and possessions. No one is injured, just a little shaken up. “Well, since I’m nice, I won’t charge y’all any extra for that excitin’ landin’,” he jokes. “Baskets hardly ever tip, and I sure ain’t ever skidded eight times before like we just did.” My brother runs back to count the skid marks trailing the balloon, and sure enough, there are eight deep scars on the terrain.
I can't believe I just did that. Every little fear I’ve accumulated through the years has been barricading my joy, but I had no clue. I had my feet chained to my comfort zone. Because I couldn’t control this unexpected array of events today, I wasn’t able to hide behind my fears. I was forced to follow the reluctant tilt of the basket and endure each graveling thud as we punched the earth.
If I knew when I woke up this morning that the landing would be like a tumbling avalanche instead of a falling feather, I would’ve crawled back under my blanket and avoided everything. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know, because now I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I shouldn't let my worries suffocate me, so why have I been letting them? Now I realize that I have the power to turn my nightmares into daydreams. Choosing the rockier path can lead to an incredible story only told by the brave. For the first time, I broke the lock on my chain.
That was my fear, right there—a chaotic landing. Still, I smile. Adventure comes with a side of chaos.