A Doug's Life: "Oh, Would You Like to Ride in My Beautiful Balloon..."

hot air balloon shadow
And I thought I was afraid of heights.

Well yes, I'm still reluctant to stand on the top step of a ladder. And no, I wouldn't jump out of a hot air balloon basket at 7,000 feet, as a guy did right before my eyes today.

(Yes, he had a parachute).

But you know what? Floating high above the Menifee Valley for more than an hour really didn't scare me at all. Actually, it was a breathtaking experience that gave me a new perspective on the landscape, a better understanding of just how vast our world is, and an incredible sense of peace.

It all started before dawn, in an open field not far from Perris Valley Airport. There we were -- nine adventurous souls, surrounded by tumbleweeds, watching our pilot, a two-man ground crew and a "jumper" prepare for liftoff.

Our hosts at Above the Rest Hot Air Ballooning had thought of everything. Dawn Chapton, owner of the company, had booked our flight and checked the weather conditions the night before. Our three-man crew, headed by pilot Phil Brandt, had driven us out to a remote location where obstacles were few and the wind conditions were favorable.

The wind, you see, has everything to do with hot air ballooning. Before leaving the company's home base, where it also provides skydiving services, Brandt had sent up two small helium balloons to check Mother Nature's steering system.

So there we were, seeing nothing but sagebrush and hearing only the wake-up call of a lonely rooster somewhere out beyond the boulders. Brandt, after joking that he was on his third week on the job, admitted he's been doing this for 22 years, with more than 5,000 hours in the air. Or, as he said, "since God's dog was a puppy."

I decided that was good enough for me, so with my daughters Jill and Megan, I waited patiently for the crew to roll out the multi-colored, 210,000-cubic-foot nylon balloon and fill it with air.

"Remember," I told myself. "You wanted to do this." Well, at least I said I did, in a column about the wild blue yonder above Menifee. But that was back in December, while writing in the comfort of my den. This was today, and the balloon was filling up real fast.

Sitting on the ground in front of me, stuffing his 22-year-old body into a pressurized jumpsuit, was Brent Witt, a local boy who was going to further entertain us by skydiving out of our balloon basket from several thousand feet up. Better him than me, I figured. Obviously, the guy has nerves of steel. Less than an hour before, he had been fast asleep when Brandt called, asking if he felt like jumping this morning. I mean, the dude was there before the balloon was filled.

One must get quite a rush from this skydiving thing, I thought. But there was little time to ponder the situation. Suddenly it was time to cram 11 of us -- nine passengers, Brandt the pilot and Witt the jumper -- into a basket roughly 9 feet by 5 feet.

One quickly forgets about the close quarters once Brandt fires enough propane-fueled hot air blasts up into the enormous balloon. Quickly, you're thankful there are other bodies close by as you slowly begin to lift off the earth and rise into the morning sky.

At first, you laugh at the people, barking dogs and moving cars as they begin to fade away, soon to be mere ants on the landscape. Then you rise into and finally above the clouds, witnessing a scene most of us have seen only through the window of a commercial airliner.

Up there, truly in God's country, there is nothing but peace. No traffic jams, no lawn to mow, no laundry to pick up. Just clouds and sunlight as far as you can see, the only sound being the occasional blast of the burners to give us more altitude.

As Brandt explained, Above the Rest operates these flights year-round, holidays included, weather permitting. He estimates that the company carries about 3,500 passengers a year across the skies, leaving from locations in Perris, Temecula and Palm Springs. The company features rides to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, wedding ceremonies and more, capped off by champagne and snacks on the ground afterward.

Brandt's job as pilot involves managing the blasts of propane -- about 55 gallons' worth for the entire trip -- "spinning" or rotating the balloon by pulling on ropes above him, monitoring our position both visually and with a GPS system, and communicating with the ground crew.

After all, they have to know where to pick us up. The wind will have something to say about the landing spot.

Meanwhile, at about 7,000 feet -- 8,400 feet above sea level, Brandt points out -- Witt pulls on his goggles, steps up onto the top rail of the basket, waves goodbye and jumps out. Looking like some kind of superhero with a spread-eagle, free-fall posture in his winged jumpsuit, Witt opens the parachute about halfway down, just as he begins to disappear into the clouds.

Alrighty, then. Where's that handrail?

As we continue drifting southeast, we pass over Highway 74 and notice Diamond Valley Lake off in the distance. Through breaks in the clouds, we can see horses wandering around corrals, freshly plowed fields, new housing developments, bright blue swimming pools, even a couple people up on their rooftops, waving as we begin to descend.

Finally, after nearly an hour and 20 minutes of heavenly bliss, we float down to a vacant lot in the unfinished portion of a housing tract a bit southeast of Heritage High School. A couple of slight bumps and we're down, having traveled almost five miles from our takeoff spot.

As he begins to help the ground crew pack up the equipment for the van ride back to the base, Brandt is asked what keeps him motivated to do this every day.

"It's not the same -- ever," he said. "I've never done two trips that are exactly the same. And it's the reactions... usually, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people."

Maybe, maybe not. I think I just might take to the skies again sometime. I'm not saying I'll be ready to strap on the chute if Brent Witt sleeps through the wake-up call next time, but I'll certainly be ready to pile into the basket again and take off into the wild blue yonder.

Above the Rest Hot Air Ballooning and Skydiving
Reservations: (888) 364-7421

above the clouds

A Doug's Life: Riding the Dusty Trail

In the continuing efforts to explore my relatively new hometown of Menifee and surrounding areas, I recently discovered a new strategy:

Get lost.

OK, so I wasn't completely lost. I mean, I always knew I could find my way home eventually. Even though I wasn't familiar with the neighborhood I found myself in upon making an unscheduled exit from the 215 Freeway, I knew there was no reason to panic.

I didn't have to hope someone had left bread crumbs for me to follow home. I didn't need a compass or to wait for nightfall and look for the North Star. C'mon, it's 2012. I had a GPS app on my iPhone.

Besides, as usual, I found a way to turn a challenge into an adventure.

Here's what happened. I was cruising south on the 215, a few miles before reaching my Menifee exit, when traffic came to a dead stop. "OK, so it's Southern California," I said to myself. Then I thought, "Hey, this is the middle of nowhere. Isn't this what I moved 90 minutes east to escape?"

The same thing had happened a couple nights earlier, when I spent about a half hour maneuvering through a detour at the 4th Street off-ramp because of construction work. At least that time, it was about 10 p.m., when you'd assume such work would be taking place.

This time it was 5:30 on a Friday afternoon -- not exactly prime shutdown time for a busy freeway, no matter how many tumbleweeds are floating around.

Maybe it was just a stalled car around the bend, but I decided not to take any chances. Streaking over from the center lane to the far right lane with the dexterity of my grandma on steroids, I pulled off on the Nuevo Road off-ramp before reaching the red (tail light) zone.

I knew enough to turn left, heading east, where presumably I could catch some surface street that would take me southward toward the Hidden Meadows development of Menifee. If not, I could always send up a signal flare.

Just past Perris High School, I pulled over to consult the GPS. Yep, it showed me that, sooner or later, I would come upon Menifee Road, which would take me in the right direction.

Of course, sooner turned out to be later. For the next few miles, I drove down lonely roads lined with boulders the size of a garage. In short, it was pretty much the back-road tour of Nuevo (is there a front-road tour?)

But that's OK. Back in the day, I would've grumbled to myself about the delay. But this is the new, relaxed, rural, cowboy-wanna-be me. An unexpected 25-minute drive the rest of the way home was downright enjoyable.

To me, there's something soothing about cruising down the road with very little on either side except horse corrals and abandoned barns. At one point, I passed what appeared to be a grandpa and grandson riding on horseback down the side of the road, chasing their own shadows away from the setting sun.

(Cue the strumming guitar and howling coyotes).

Yeah, this side trip definitely beat the usual freeway race past the Home Depot at Ethanac Road. This definitely was more scenic than the auto mall with the giant thermometer. I didn't even miss my usual view of the lights in the valley as I head over the hill toward Newport Road.

After all, I said when I came here that I wanted to see the sights. It's just taken a bit longer than expected. Suddenly, I realized, I had gotten into a rut, traveling up and down the 215 like a racehorse with blinders on.

It reminded me of an incident a few days earlier, when my wife Kristen and I decided to travel a bit north of our neighborhood on Briggs Road, just to see where it led. Lo and behold, there's a giant dairy farm right there, maybe a mile from our house. That explains the smell.

Once again, I didn't mind at all.

In recent weeks, I also have discovered the scenic drive west across Scott Road (eventually Bundy Canyon Road) to the 15 Freeway. I have a few enticing side roads earmarked for a return trip.

Yep, it's time to stop and smell the roses. OK, road apples. Whatever.

I doubt that Kristen would agree, but I find it refreshing.

A Doug's Life: Upholding a Super Tradition

Just finished up another Super Bowl Sunday, and boy, am I tired.

I don't know how the players do it. They have to actually run, pass and tackle for about four hours. It must be exhausting. After all, what else would explain Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw stopping just short of the goal line and falling untouched into the end zone like he'd just passed out?

(Oh yeah, strategy, right? He was supposed to take a knee at the 1-yard line to use up a little more time before scoring. See, it's mentally draining, too).

Yet as physically and emotionally exhausting as the Super Bowl was for the victorious New York Giants and the New England Patriots, one has to admit it takes a lot out of the fans as well.

Wherever you were in and around Menifee on Sunday afternoon, chances are you saw at least part of the game. Whether you were part of the packed house at the Beer Hunter, attended a Super Bowl party at a friend's house or simply kicked back in front of the flat screen at home, you got in your own personal workout.

At least if you're like me. Hey, it's tradition.

First, you've got to have the snacks. A full meal always is appreciated, but snacks are a must. This always was a necessity on New Year's Day, at least back when they played all the best college bowl games that day. But now the best college games are spread out over weeks. Who wants to celebrate New Year's Day with chips and dip while you're watching the Capital One Bowl?

No, there really is only one true pig-out day now for Americans, and we're not talking about Thanksgiving. That meal is justified. Super Bowl Sunday really is celebrated for no good reason other than to convince our "significant other" we are legally required to stuff ourselves with junk food and beverages while watching a sports event at least once a year.

Take me, for instance. I knew darn well that unlike other years, this Super Bowl Sunday I would be watching the game virtually alone at home. My son-in-law the Patriots fan (sorry, Jeff) and his family were at another party. My wife and I are still relative newcomers here and we aren't exactly party animals, so the plan was to kick back on the sofa, watch some football and stuff myself.

I no longer try to convince my wife about the legal requirement to celebrate Super Sunday. She doesn't buy it. Even when I tell her that, as a former sports writer, I am simply continuing my research, she gives me the evil eye. But hey, she did sit there and watch for a while, managing to stay awake for most of the first half.

Kristen even fed my Super Bowl "habit" by helping in the preparations for my little party, ignoring the fact that the crowd would basically be one. She accompanied me to the market as a consultant on which chips to buy, made sure we had cheese slices in several varieties, and even found the one remaining box of chocolate chip cookies -- a must at such events.

As kickoff approached, I sat down by myself in front of the big screen -- and a spread that could've fed 10. For a brief moment, I remembered my New Year's Resolution to eat healthy and get more exercise. OK, I decided. I would stand up at least twice a quarter and do a set of bicep curls with some soda cans. And this time, a dozen cookies would be my limit.

Before long, my soon to be 4-year-old granddaughter Riley joined me on the couch. Said she was rooting for the Giants -- basically because she doesn't know what a Patriot is (who does these days?). By the time she'd had a couple cookies and more than a few chips, she was bouncing off the walls in her little cheerleader outfit, waving Giants blue pom poms.

Yeah, the party was getting out of hand.

Halftime with Madonna on stage was kind of a blur. Maybe it was all the soda, chips, salsa, cheese and cookies. Or perhaps it was the difficulty I had following the antics of a 50-something entertainer leading high school cheers.

At least the second half was entertaining enough to hold my interest as I headed to the kitchen for some bottled water. Having polished off most of the snack tray with the help of the little cheerleader, I was feeling mighty proud of myself -- and also a bit sick. Having a wild fourth quarter to watch overshadowed the stomach rumblings that too often took precedence in past years.

The commercials? Oh, they were OK. I've seen better. The game? The finish definitely was more entertaining than most years.

The spectacle itself? It's Super Bowl Sunday, and tradition must be observed. Tomorrow, the gym awaits. For this one day, being a well-fed couch potato is cool.