Up in the Air

hot air balloonsLike many recent college graduates, I spent the summer of 1977 moping in my parents’ basement.  My college roommate, Sharon, was doing the same, 3,000 miles away in Berkeley. We had no jobs and no prospects, so we spent a lot of time on the phone.

“Why don’t you come out to California?” Sharon proposed one day.

Since it was the first idea all summer that made me smile, I thought, “Why not?”

A couple of weeks later, I waved goodbye to my stunned parents, then boarded a Greyhound bus that would take me across the country.

First, though, it would take me to St. Louis, where two college friends had just started medical school at Washington University.

It was great to see them. It was even greater taking a shower and sleeping in a bed—my last taste of such comforts until I’d arrive days later in Berkeley.

Before my friends put me on the bus the next morning for the second half of my westward adventure, we wandered through Forest Park. There people swarmed among hot air balloons, most just flat or half-filled expanses of brightly colored nylon on the lawn. A few were fully inflated into majestic orbs poised for flight.

We watched as the balloonists adjusted ropes and burners, then took off to land wherever the wind (combined with skill and a little luck) would blow them. It was the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, founded just four short years earlier—the same September we had entered college.

This weekend marks the 43rd anniversary of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Which means I’m marking my 39th anniversary of coming to California. I had no idea back then how long I’d stay, or what I’d do, or how I’d survive.

But when Sharon picked me up dirty and exhausted late at night from the Greyhound bus station, she drove twisting, up and up, through the Berkeley hills, stopping finally at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

“Look!” she said.

There stretched out before us was the fathomless black of the bay, the twinkling lights of Berkeley and Oakland below, San Francisco a shimmering faraway specter, the night sky shot through with billions of  stars.

I had arrived home.

Decades later, my husband and I sometimes say, “We should take a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley someday.”

We haven’t yet, and I suspect we never will. We’re too cheap, and besides, I’m really not all that adventurous. It still amazes me that I ventured away from home and onto that Greyhound bus so long ago.

But I’m glad I did, glad I let myself land wherever the winds blew me.


Have you ever been adrift and let the winds blow you wherever they take you? Where have you landed?