When it's a beautiful day in the midst of an extended period of New England summer thunderstorms and tornadoes, and you only have a little time to have a lot of fun with someone... there's nowhere to go but up.
I went out to the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts yesterday to meet up with my friend J. She grew up out there and returned home to go back to school and raise her kid. It's about two hours (if, um, you don't get lost as I did repeatedly) from where I am on the coast, so it was kind of a special trip. But she dragged herself and her daughter across the state to see me when I got here, and I did really want to see her and get a chance to check out the countryside, so I took a day off from work and headed out.
I picked the perfect day:
It's really been pouring here, lately. I told friends I really wanted to see thunderstorms after years of mild California weather. I'm over it now. Fortunately, the day cleared up pretty much perfectly.
Leverett, Mass. is the site of one of the Peace Pagodas built all over the world by monks of the Nipponzan Myohoji order, founded in Japan after World War II to work for world peace through prayer and pilgrimage. It seems kind of random to have it in what J repeatedly refers to as "the middle of nowhere," (what is the HTML tag for dripping scorn?) but there are actually quite a few Buddhist communities in the hills and valleys of north and west Massachusetts. It's peaceful country.
I had told J I had a surprise for her, which was mildly insane of me as I had no idea where the place was we were to go to meet the hot-air balloon. Luckily, her mom had a map and got me pointed in the right direction. I was hoping against hope that she didn't have a terrible fear of heights, as we approached the little airport in Northampton and she told me about the time she puked in a small private plane she once went up in.
I managed to keep it a secret until the very last moment, as we approached a sign that said "Pioneer Valley Balloons," and she said "no way."
I said, "way."
We got to (kind of had to) help Vinny, the pilot, fill up the balloons, which actually enhanced the experience. It is about as simple as you can imagine (fill bag with air, heat air up, fly) and as complicated as sailing without a rudder (you change directions by finding an air current at a given altitude in the direction you want to go in - otherwise you drift).
It was about as perfect an evening as you could ask for.
We found a place to land that looked really good from the air, but turned out to be a boggy mess after weeks of rain. The van coming to get us and the balloon got stuck.
My flying partner was a hell of a good sport, though, and we got out of that field at maybe 9:30, having donated about a half-pint of blood to the local mosquitoes. I managed to get myself back to Boston by about midnight. Even if I didn't love driving, I'd burn more than a tank of gas for a day like that, any time.
Clear skies, gentle winds, and soft landings to everyone.
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