Up, up and no way. That's how it began to feel.

Several years ago, my wife and I bought a balloon ride at the Astoria Hospice Auction. First chance we got we lined up a trip.

It looked like it was going to be a perfect day. There was morning fog, but plenty of bright sunshine above. Hardly any wind.

Everybody was ready to go. The balloons were full of air. But the fog never lifted, so that was that.

Another time, we made the trek to Newberg where Vista Balloon Adventures has its launch area only to find that there was too much wind.

I must say, though, that knowing they error on the side of caution is a comfort, especially when you're standing in a wicker basket at about 2,000 feet.

"When it comes to safety," says owner Roger Anderson, "it's all about weather." He says they won't fly unless it's blowing 5 knots or less, though it's possible to fly in twice that amount of wind.

"We continually check the weather report," he explains. "There are five pilots. We all vote whether or not to go. The vote has to be unanimous."

We finally got the chance to cash in. We arrived in Newberg at 5:30 in the morning. Conditions were perfect. There was hardly any wind and a few stray clouds were scattered across a sunny blue sky.

"You want a few clouds," says Anderson. "They put a little texture in the sky," he continues as if explaining how to compose the elements of a painting.

My wife and I had the pleasure of flying in Anderson's balloon. There were six balloons altogether.

"Becoming a balloon pilot is just as involved as getting a license to fly a fixed-wing airplane," says Anderson, who also has a standard pilot's license. "You have flight lessons," he explains. "Then you have to take a written test administered by the FAA. You also have to take a practical test."

That's not the end of it, though. "It takes a lot of hours in the air before the insurance companies will pick you up," he says.

"Ballooning is kind of like sailing," Anderson says. "Unlike sailing, though, you can only fly downwind."

Anderson knows sailing, too. "I lived on a schooner for 12 years," he says. "I've put in over 50,000 miles of blue water sailing."

The thing that struck me right away was the incredible size of the balloon. As it began to fill with air, it took on the dimensions of a small gymnasium. Anderson's balloon is 125 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter. It has a volume of 210,000 cubic feet. "I think of the space inside it as being equal to the space in about 200 cheap hotel rooms," says Anderson. It has to be pretty good sized to lift our crew of about a dozen people, the propane tanks and burner, and the wicker basket which weighs 1,200 pounds by itself.

Our lift-off was so gentle, we couldn't really tell the exact moment we left the ground. Instead of getting the feeling of climbing, it's more of a feeling of suspended animation. Even at 1,800 feet - the highest we went - it felt like we were the quiet participants in a giant watercolor painting.

At one point, we dropped all the way down to the Willamette River. One balloon actually touched the water. Then we climbed quietly over the trees on the other side.

I'm not a real big fan of heights. One time my family and I chartered a small plane and flew over the Grand Canyon. I grabbed one of the center posts and tried to keep a poker face as uncontrolled adrenaline surged through my system. At one point my daughter looked up at me and said, "Dad, how come your arm's shaking? It's not cold in here." So much for the poker face.

There were just a couple times when my heart started to race a little, but it only happened when I looked straight down. As long as I looked straight out, the only thing I felt was exhilaration mixed with relaxation.

There's almost no sound. All you hear are the voices of the crew and the occasional blast from the propane burner.

I can't imagine a better way to see the Willamette Valley. In one direction you can see well into the foothills of the Coast Range. In the other you can see into the foothills of the Cascades. Below you farmers' fields stretch out like a multicolored quilt sewn together by occasional roads and fence lines. Tiny barns and houses dot the landscape like pieces in a child's play set.

Before we took off, Anderson showed us how to brace for a rough landing by wedging ourselves into the basket and grasping the hand holds. But when we touched down in St. Paul after our one-hour flight, we landed as gently as a leaf.

Once we got all the gear stowed in the trailer, we headed back to Newberg for a delicious champaign brunch. It was the perfect ending for an experience that my wife and I will never forget.

Mark Mizell is an English teacher at Seaside High School. His column runs the first Thursday of each month in The Daily Astorian.

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