An Uplifting Date

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We’ve all got dating disaster stories: she wept uncontrollably when I went in for the kiss, he showed up drunk and ignored me all night, she got in a shouting match with her parole officer.


Or else, and possibly worse yet, we don’t really have any dating stories because our experiences have been boring, uneventful, and forgettable.


You hear less about the great dates, at least great date stories that don’t lead to, “… and we’ve been together happily ever since.” Gag. No, I’m just talking about a great date with someone you may not even keep in touch with any more but with whom you had a great experience.


This is one of those stories.


I’d been dating this girl only a couple of weeks. Our dates consisted of meeting for drinks, casual dinners, and hanging out a few times at the beach. We had quite a bit in common and the conversation was easy.


I felt comfortable asking her to join me on a hot air balloon ride, even though this is something that usually indicates something more serious… a marriage proposal perhaps? But to clear up any misunderstanding (or better, Mrs.-understanding), I explained I’d been offered the opportunity through a connection at a previous job and simply wanted to take advantage of it. Neither of us had ever gone up in one before and thought it sounded fun.


I made the reservation for a Sunday morning and was instructed to be there by 5:30 a.m. Though it was called the “Sunrise Balloon Ride,” I still coughed and asked them to repeat the time anyway. I had heard them correctly. Why so ungodly early? Apparently, the air is stillest in the early morning before the wind wakes up and is therefore better for hot air travel.


My date and I were both pretty laid back, social people, so we sort of kept things open. We went out the Saturday night before our early Sunday morning flight. We were having a good time and we stayed out until bar closing time. At this point, we decided we’d just stay up all night. (At that point, we only had about two hours until we were due to leave.)


So we stayed up, and watched bad, late-night TV: infomercials advertising appliances for obscure kitchen tasks, movies with monsters squashing towns, and Girls Gone Wild commercials that began with a warning accompanied by Caribbean music.


At 4 a.m., it was time to leave. I drove. She kept me good company through the first thirty minutes of the trip and then passed out in the passenger seat. I spent the next forty-five minutes or so struggling to keep myself up. I cracked the window and let the breeze blow on my face. The sudden noise from my opened window barely stirred her as we cruised the empty highway. She would periodically wake long enough to apologize for falling asleep and then fall asleep again.


We arrived a little early in the wine country. The sun’s round head peaked over the horizon, casting a bright yellowish hue over the sprawling green fields. I woke her to see the sight and she said, “Hmmm, that’s amazing…” and then returned her head to the comfortable position she’d lifted it from.


I started to get nervous as I passed signs for various wineries and realized I had forgotten the name of the winery where I’d made the reservation. I learned to my dismay there were twenty-one wineries in the area and about half of them offered hot air balloon launches. I relied on my trusty memory, which astutely recalled “Something-Something Winery.”


I pulled into the parking lot of the first winery I saw, hoping for dumb luck—which turned out to lack the luck part.


I got back in the car and drove, hoping one of the signs would jog my memory. I pulled up to the next winery as my date stayed in the car and wished me luck. Perhaps she was too tired to be annoyed with me and didn’t seem disappointed.


While this winery was also not the correct one, a worker directed me to a winery half a mile down the road, “That’ll be the one you’re looking for.”


Driving further along the road, I saw the sign and it all came back to me. The worker was right, this was the correct one.  I noticed it was now shortly after 5:30 a.m. as we pulled in. I saw a big balloon being loaded up with a group of people waiting to get on it. My memory recalled the note telling us not to be late and I was afraid our heroic sleep-deprived efforts would all be for naught.


I ran ahead to see if we could get on that balloon. A calm worker told me they had enough people on it already but that they would be taking a second group up after this one. He assured me we could get on the next ride. Comforted, I went back to the car and joined my date in dozing off in the artificial heat my engine produced.


About an hour later, I stirred after I heard some voices and realized the balloon was back. We got out of the car into the chilly morning air and lined up behind the huge wicker basket. (We resembled fruit being loaded for a picnic. With our fleece jackets, we mostly resembled peaches and rotten blueberries.)


We snuggled into the perimeter of the basket, which held a furnace-like flame-thrower in the center. About twelve of us fit in along with the Torch Tender man. (Perhaps he’s called a pilot but I don’t remember. I’ll stick with Torch Tender, if you don’t mind.)


The Torch Tender’s job is rather self explanatory. He pulls a handle, which produces a large, loud flame. When the handle is held down, the flame roars, and the balloon rises.


The Torch Tender fired up the flame of our balloon with one long burst and we started our rapid ascent. My date and I were pressed against the side and were pretty exhilarated by the sudden lift sensation. It would’ve seemed so effortless had it not been for the thunderous blast of the flame filling our ears as the hot blaze singed the backs of our necks.


The calm serenity of the skies was interrupted every minute or so throughout the ride by the heat blast that eliminated all other sounds from the world.


Since the only directionals a hot air balloon has are up and down, it is very dependent on the winds. The balloon workers have no idea where each balloon ride will land. Two workers travel in a white pickup truck tailing the balloon—on highway or dirt roads—like cops on a speed chase.


At one point, the Torch Tender was too busy explaining the mechanics of the balloon to notice we were dropping quite close to a pack of trees we were advancing upon. I asked my date, “Should I say something about this?” She smiled and shrugged. I turned to the Torch Tender and wordlessly pointed at the approaching tree.


He nodded as if it was no big deal, hit the flame handle, and held it down. The basket brushed along the top of the tree but safely scooted over it. I looked back at the Torch Tender who just nodded at me.


Apparently, the basket is quite strong and durable enough to hit branches and trees without harm… so long as neither the balloon nor the ropes hit the trees.


We were floating like a bird over the luscious wine fields illuminated by the early morning sun. It was an incredible sight. My date and I, already snuggled against the edge, snuck a few kisses. The basket felt quite sturdy and was chest-high which it made it nearly impossible for me to look directly down and trigger my acrophobia.


The flight lasted about an hour. The landing was surprisingly smooth; especially considering the Torch Tender’s penchant for running into objects mid-air. We plopped down easily in an open field about ten minutes from the winery.


The workers in the pickup truck made their way down a dirt road and found us, along with a white passenger van to haul us back to the winery. The workers in the pickup truck stayed behind and disassembled the balloon for transport.


Back at the winery, we were offered a champagne toast, mimosas, and some finger food. Only two other couples joined us in the offer. The winery was closed but one of the workers went in and brought us out a bottle of wine to sample. My date and I named the wine, “Hair of the Dog.”


We got out of the winery a little after 9 a.m. The hors d’oeuvres only stoked our appetites and as we pulled through the small town nearby, we stopped at Denny’s to eat large breakfasts. I can’t tell you how much it inspires me to see an attractive girl eat greasy food and make no apologies for it.


Our bellies full and our minds drunk on sleep-deprivation, champagne, and sausage patties, we decided we were in no condition to make the drive home yet. So, what were we to do? We’d make it up as we went along.


It was a hot, August day and we wanted to cool off. We passed a nice hotel and noticed that it advertised a pool. We looked at each other.


Just a bit down the road was a Target. We went in and bought swimsuits. It was not lost on me that buying an inexpensive swimsuit on a whim is not the ideal situation for a female. I appreciated the grace with which my date handled this.


We drove to the hotel, walked through the lobby as if we were guests, and made our way to the pool.


We pulled two puffy, poolside chairs together. We alternated between taking short naps and hopping in the pool throughout the day.


In the pool, she piggybacked me as we roamed around in our cheap bathing suits. There’s something so sensual about skin touching in the water. Like caressing cold, smooth satin. We challenged each other to handstand and water splashing contests. I won both, though she and a little girl in water wings disputed this. Their credibility is questionable as my date was obviously biased and the little girl was out of position in the shallow end to make the call.


Back at our chairs, we ordered food. We fell asleep next to each other in the warm afternoon sun, dreaming in the recent memories of soaring with the birds.


The sun set, we left the hotel, and drove back to our lives. I dropped her off at her apartment door. We hugged and thanked each other for a great day, a great date.


She moved away a short time later and we’ve not seen each other since she left. While she wasn’t THE ONE, she did show me an important attribute that will be a requirement of THE ONE—an adventurous spirit. Life is unpredictable and if I’m to spend my days with ONE other person, she must possess this “make the most out of every situation” trait.


Every date is its own hot air balloon ride. It begins with the sky as the limit. Though it can look scary, you still have to hop in. Your stomach usually starts feeling a bit unsettled. But if you can get past that initial fear, you can start to relax. Your effort is like the torch, the more you put in, the higher you climb and the longer it will last. The ending is always unknown, so take in the view and enjoy the ride.


To date is to dare and if you keep this in mind, you may not land right on Target, but you’ll end up pretty close.


I have the receipt to prove it.

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