Yesterday was a big day for me for a number of reasons: I was able to cross something off of my 30 before 30 bucket list (I saw no point in giving up on it when I turned 30 and carried it over), I was able to face down a fear and be brave, I got to spend the morning doing something amazing and romantic with my hubster!
As I've mentioned previously, I'm afraid of heights. I also have mild bouts of vertigo and am terrified of falling. I don't handle tripping and falling very well, I really freak out when I wobble on the step-stool and I'm not interested in plunging from any great heights. Sky diving is something firmly on my list of 'never-evers'.
So when I bought tickets for us to go on a hot air balloon ride, that was a very big deal. A few people remarked that I'd wasted my money because I'd never do it. It stung, that people who I care about could be so cavalier and cold about a very real phobia and brush off my seemingly small step but I couldn't deny that they might be right. I held those tickets for nearly a year before I called and scheduled the ride, and as I spoke to the woman on the phone about it, I was shaking.
Let me stop here for a moment to express the difference between a phobia and a fear; for those who are lucky enough to only suffer the second one on occasion.
A fear is a normal and healthy response to what could potentially be a dangerous situation. It is our ingrained fight or flight reflex that we've evolved over centuries of being survivors. Typically these don't interfere with our every day lives and don't hold us back. A fear is the butterflies in your stomach when you crest the top of a coaster, the brief moment of worry you experience at a sudden noise in the house, it's feeling a bit apprehensive when you see the needle the Doctor is about to stick you with.
A phobia, on the other hand, is an (often times) exaggerated fear that can interfere with your life. It is a deep seeded terror of things that, to someone without that phobia, may seem silly. People who have a phobia of dogs will be just as terrified of your friendly Yorkie who wants to run up and say 'hello' as they are of a large snarling dog lunging at them. People with a phobia of bridges (and sometimes heights) may drive miles upon miles out of the way to avoid crossing a bridge while driving, or in the case of my mother, pull over and make someone else drive across while you curl up in the backseat and try not to hyperventilate. A person who is phobic of needles may avoid going to the Doctor's office for important medical check-ups and treatments because they are terrified they'll receive a shot. Often times a phobia's attack is accompanied by shallow breathing (hyperventilating), upset stomach and all the ickyness that can bring on, shaking, sweating, snapping off at people, rapidly beating heart and an intense desire to get the fuck out of there right now, no matter what.
As someone with phobias, I can tell you, it's unpleasant and it's terrible. And if you don't have one, then you're infinitely lucky. But don't give someone who has one shit for being 'silly' or 'irrational'. Like so many things that happen in the brain, it's a disorder that the sufferer would typically prefer not to have.
That said, I've decided that I'm tired of being phobic, so I'm going to start taking baby steps to facing my own fears. I've managed to get my height fear (mostly) under control if I'm inside of a building; I try to climb every lighthouse we find when we take vacations. I've started to climb up the ladder (albeit not the tallest ladder and it must be an A frame) at home to do things like paint the trim and gutters... although I move at a snail's pace and cling to the sides for dear life as I go up and down that whopping 6'. I sometimes climb up the rickety folding stairs in to the attic to get things down or put them up. And I went on that 300' swing ride at the amusement park earlier this summer.
Now I know some people will look at that list and go... "So.. you climbed a ladder? That's normal, what the fuck are you so proud of?" Well, Sarcastic Sally, I'm proud of the fact that I overcame several very strong urges to run away, to shit myself and to pass out each and every time I did one of those "simple, normal" things. It's not an easy feeling to overcome. Phobias, while described as exaggerated or imaginary as far as how the phobic perceive things, are very real feelings.
And those are the exact feelings I was dealing with at 6:00 yesterday morning as I looked out a coffee shop window in to the still dark sky. Joe was sitting in a soft chair watching me as I sat down, got back up, paced, went to the bathroom, came out, sat down, got up, paced, went outside, came back inside... repeatedly. I was sweating. My heart was threatening to beat out of my chest. My breathing was shallow. I felt like I was going to pass out. He asked if there was anything he could do to help and I squeaked out "talk to me" as I choked back tears.
No one else was there yet; we had at least 15 minutes until our balloon pilots and chase crew showed up. I must have repeated this cycle 30 times in 5 minutes. The other couple that had shown up kept glancing at me and I felt shame on top of my fear. Joe talked to me about all sorts of other things, that I honestly can't recall and kept giving my hand a squeeze. I announced it was "too fucking hot and I couldn't take it" and we went out in to the deliciously crisp morning air. I decided I was going to be too hot on the flight and that the chances of my stomach causing me great grief and embarrassment were extremely high, so I ran to the car and swapped my hoodie for a soft button up shirt and took several swigs of Pepto.
Our pilots showed up and ushered the now larger group of people to a section inside to tell us a little bit about what the morning had in store for us. I barely comprehended what they were saying because I was trying to remember how to breath. Breath in to a count of 7, hold for 4, out for 8. Repeat. Don't pass out, you dumb bitch. I felt Joe's hand squeeze my knee and heard the words 'If the weather balloon disappears too quickly, we won't be going today'. I secretly hoped we wouldn't be able to go. More shame washed over me as we all climbed in to the van to go to the launch site.
Once there, they let off two balloons to check the winds and determined we could fly. I felt a mix of excitement and terror. There was a briefing where one of the pilots took all of us aside to talk about what we might encounter, what the worst case scenarios could be and what things typically freak first time fliers out. And it was at that point that I started to feel less apprehensive about the whole thing. As he talked about the worst case scenarios for landing, about the number of times they've had something go wrong, about the years of experience between the pilots, the knot in my stomach began to relax and my breathing started to even out. I even looked over at Joe and smiled; which made him grin back at me. After he had finished going over everything, he informed Joe and I we'd be going in the smaller balloon with the other pilot, by ourselves! We were supposed to be taking a shared flight with other people and I'm not sure if 2 people didn't show up or what, but we were to go alone while the 6 other people rode in the larger balloon.
I'm not sure if that was luck or because Joe was the biggest guy there and so would be a better help to our pilot during set up, in case of emergency and tear down, and I really don't care because it was an amazing and unexpected upgrade! It could have been any couple there, but it was us! This also had some effect on calming my nerves as I knew there'd be enough space in the basket that I wouldn't be pressed against a low side or not have a pole to cling to if I wanted it. That I could sit down, if I needed to. We went over to our balloon, Patches, who is as old as I am! (I thought that was sort of awesome & a good sign, having the same birthyear and all). She was beginning to be inflated and we met our pilot, Chief Eagle, who was really an awesome guy! He had Joe help him with set up and told me to take all sorts of pictures because how often do you get to do that? He also told me to try not to worry because he and his 5 year old fly by themselves almost every weekend and if he was concerned about it being dangerous, he sure wouldn't put his kid in the basket.
I honestly couldn't tell you much about the state of my stomach or anything here, because I was focused on taking pictures (a huge comfort/deflection mechanism for me) and was fascinated by the entire set up process. I've seen it before from afar, but it was incredible to be able to touch the balloon and feel the heat from the flames as it was being set up. When Chief said "come on and hop in the basket" I did so with only a minor twinge in my stomach, though my heart rate was climbing up again. Joe hopped in a minute later and our ground crew held us down for another few moments as Chief went over where to hold on, where not to hold on and how to stand when and if he asked us to brace ourselves. Once we had gone over that he gave the all clear and they let us go...
The sensation of taking off is indescribable, really, because it didn't feel like anything was happening. The ride is so smooth and so gentle that if you closed your eyes, you would have no idea you were even moving. There was no 'flip flopping belly' sensation, like heights normally give me, no vertigo to speak of. Just pure, unadulterated awe and wonder and an overwhelming sense of pride and joy with myself. It was beautiful, for more reasons than just the scenery - although that was breathtaking as well. Watching the sun rise over the mountains from above the tree tops... it was unreal. It was serene beyond all of my imaginings as we floated up.
Displaying this one larger so you can see our shadow.
We did a few 'touch and goes' as we went, descending from great heights to graze open fields and at one point, in to a quarry. Our companion balloon also descended in to the quarry, almost to the very bottom. You can see below how very large the quarry is by how very tiny that massive balloon looks! We floated back up, gently, until the breeze caught us again and we continued floating on; the winds pushing us where they liked. You can't steer a balloon, you can ascend and descend, but moving North, South, East or West is at the winds' discretions.
It was so peaceful and ethereal up there, looking in to the horizon and down at the itty bitty tree tops. The cool breeze around you mingling with the warm of the burner. Deer and turkeys sprinting around in fields below looking not much larger than ants, as miniature cars speed along a freeway that resembles a small country road. We stayed between 1,000 and 2,000 feet for most of the ride, dipping down low through the trees once to come to rest next to a small pond before ascending up in to the sky once more. I had completely forgotten to be afraid for the entirety of the ride, so awestruck was I. I forgot to take my usual 500 pictures too, so blown away by the moment and the feeling that I didn't need to cling to my camera - instead firing off under 100 shots throughout the entire hour we were up in the sky. Just enough to remember the sights and bring the sensations in to mind once they've faded away in the day-to-day hub bub of the Real World.
When it was time to land, our companion balloon did so in someone's front yard - something people in the area are used to and many find to be a great thrill! We landed in a small field, not as gently as some would have preferred as we opted to land in a tight space. Chief had us brace ourselves and hold on - feet together, knees together and soft, arms around a pole as he let the air out of the balloon around 30 feet to drop us to avoid trees, power lines and a garden. We hit the ground with a bump that felt remarkably like jumping off a table on to the floor in your home, we bounced and the basket began to tip as the envelope (aka balloon) caught a bit of breeze and dragged us a bit. We ended up on our side, all clinging to the basket and safe inside. Once the drag stopped, we righted ourselves and laughed and smiled as we waited for our chase team to come tether us and help break us down.
It was the sort of landing a lot of folks would have bitched about, but it is actually very typical and we went in knowing that was probably what would end up happening. And I'm glad for the short fall and rough landing, because I didn't panic, I didn't freak out, my stomach was fine and when it was all said and done I had enjoyed that little bit of excitement. We got the entire, well rounded ballooning experience! And I wouldn't have traded it for a gentle tethered landing.
This whole experience was quite honestly, one of the most amazing in my life. Not only did I get to experience the world and nature that I love so dearly from a different perspective, but I fought down that phobic urge to flee regardless of the consequences and conquered, in a very major way, a very serious fear of mine. To say that I am proud of myself would be an understatement, though I'm unsure of how else to describe this fierce sense of accomplishment that is swelling my heart and mind over 24 hours later.
But I can sum all of this up nicely with: I cannot wait to do this again in another season. Cannot wait! This is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.
P.S. If you want to see all of my photos from the flight, you can do so by visiting my set on Flickr. You can totally tell from the two photos of myself that my mood shifted dramatically. In the first, the anxiety is pretty obvious in my forced smile and ridgid posture and in the second, I look happy. :)
P.P.S. If you're ever in North Carolina and want to take a ride, we went through Asheville Hot Air Balloons. Everyone we worked with was amazing. You can visit them here.