I recently helped a friend check something off her Bucket List – Things to Do Before She Kicks the Bucket. While helping, I added and checked off an item from my Bucket List, too. I often pull this same stunt with my To Do list. I add something that I’ve already done, then check it off. It makes me feel productive.
My Bucket List includes seeing the pyramids up close and in person, which is now an unlikely prospect since I’m going to be 71 this summer and Egypt has gotten itself into a nasty pickle.
My friend Lynne and I went for a ride in a hot air balloon.
I didn’t realize I even wanted to do this until I was 3,000 feet above the desert floor near Phoenix, standing in a squeaky wicker basket with 10 other people. No wind in our hair. No fear. No feeling of anything more alarming than taking one of those elevators-with-a-window to the top floor.
The brochure boasted the lack of wind and said that while aloft, if we lit a candle, it wouldn’t flicker. We traveled with the wind and at the whim of ascending and descending air currents.
The balloon above our heads was filled with 250,000 cubic feet of heated air, kept hot by two burners fueled by propane. Bill, our pilot, blasted the burners to make the basket rise; turned them off to let us drift; and opened a little flap at the top of the balloon fabric to cause us to descend.
The parachute-like fabric of the balloon envelope was 100 feet high, 80 feet across at its widest part and decorated with rainbow-hued squares and a giant saguaro cactus. A half dozen other balloons floated nearby.
We swung low – a few hundred feet off the ground – and high – up to 4,000 feet. While we were skimming across the desert floor, Bill provided a running commentary, naming a seemingly endless variety of prickly, spiny desert flora – ironwood trees, palo verde, hedgehog cacti, red fishhook cacti, barrel cacti, chain-fruit cholla, prickly pear cacti and the now ubiquitous saguaros. Flora seems to be the wrong word for these well-armored survivors. Flora has a lush, damp, fragrant connotation -- alien words for describing cacti. When we rose higher, he named individual mountain ranges on the horizon, identified lakes (did he say Pleasant Lake or Unpleasant Lake?) and showed us the skyline of Phoenix, straining upward through a layer of yellow haze.
One of the passengers was celebrating his 75th birthday. I think he was fulfilling a Bucket List item, too. At 2,000 feet, we sang an enthusiastic off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” If someone had brought a cake, apparently we could have lit the candles without any trouble.
When we dipped to a few hundred feet from the Sonorian desert floor, we saw huge jack rabbits scampering, hawks swooping, quail, two coyotes, and a pair of javelinas – an animal I didn’t know existed until a few weeks ago. Javelinas are also rarely sighted, according to Bill, so we were lucky. They’re ugly, smelly, hairy black pig-like creatures equipped with snouts and tusks. They eat prickly pear cactus and agaves. Bill said technically they’re not pigs, but rodents. We couldn’t smell them from where we were, but he said that was a good thing.
Apparently, hot air ballooning hasn’t changed much since 1783, when a Frenchman named Pilatre De Rozier put a sheep, a duck and a rooster in a basket and sent them up while King Louis XVI looked on. The animals were aloft for 15 minutes and came back alive, paving the way for the ascent of Joseph and Etienne Montgolfie, who stayed up for 20 minutes and also returned no worse for the experience. The rest is history. It’s so much fun, we’re still doing it.
We floated up and down and around for an hour and a half, then landed with a soft thump in the desert, where a van met us. Within minutes, the crew had set up chairs and a table for 10, place settings with real linen, real china and silverware and glassware. We had a brunch that would have been approved by De Rozier, the Montgolfie brothers, even Louis XVI -- quiche Lorraine, chocolate croissants, selected cheeses, champagne and orange juice. Birthday cake, too.
Next, the pyramids. A friend assures me Egypt will be stable, tourist-friendly and definitely doable within five years. He says tourists will again be swarming around those fascinating 4,000-year-old rock piles. I hope to be there.