Up, Up and Away

Taking a hot air balloon ride has been a lifelong dream of mine. Judging from the throngs of people who came out to wave at us as the balloon I was in skimmed over Ringgold, it’s a dream many share.

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PHOTO: Joe Wheeler

Lori Harris, left, and Jennifer Bardoner

“That’s what we hear all the time — memories. ‘I never thought I’d get to do this.’ ‘This is a dream come true for me,’” says Regina Wheeler, whose own dream came true when Capt. Jack Wheeler proposed to her in a hot air balloon in the very same basket they took me and RiverRocks guests up in last month. “This is on the Top 10 of bucket lists.”

The Wheelers, who own and operate Smoky Mountain Hot Air Ballooning out of Nashville, have witnessed countless proposals and other special events while flying through the air. My own ride was part of a surprise 50th birthday present for Ringgold resident Lori Harris from her husband.

“The best thing about ballooning is it’s not a solo sport,” says Jack Wheeler, a pilot with United Airlines who’s been piloting balloons on the side since 1991. “You meet a lot of people along the way. It brings people together. Seeing people’s faces light up when they see the balloon makes it really special.”

I’m sure my face was glowing with childish delight as we ascended into the fog at around 8 a.m. on an otherwise gloomy Saturday. I couldn’t suppress a giggle as a tingling sensation ran from my feet through my body as the balloon began rising into the air — much faster than I’d expected.

“A lot of people say the liftoff is really exciting,” says Jack Wheeler. “Then they say they love the landing because a lot’s happening all at once.”

My time spent in the air was relatively calm … except for the hordes of waving onlookers, even at sunrise on a Saturday, and the spooked howling dogs and stampeding cattle below as we flew over, just under the cloud cover. “I just enjoyed the quietness of it, the fresh air. I felt like I was more part of nature, I guess,” says Sherrie Mashburn, who shared the small basket attached to the balloon with her friend Harris and myself that Saturday.

The adventure is all the captain’s. “No two flights are ever the same,” says Jack Wheeler. “There’s a 99.9 percent chance you’re not going to land in the same place twice, even if you start in the same place. It’s always an adventure; once you get up there you’re dealing with all kinds of things as they come up, just like you would on any other flight.

“It’s my favorite as far as flying goes, and I’m always excited for the landing. There’s a lot of planning and a lot that goes on.”

Our own landing took us through the trees — literally — and skimming through the brush, a shot of adrenaline to an otherwise welcomingly calm experience. But even that didn’t compare to the thrill of marking through one of my bucket list’s “to do’s.”

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