LUSTENAU, Austria — Drop in any time.
That was the surprisingly hospitable sentiment of people we didn’t know in this small rural town we’d never heard of.
Unannounced, we dropped from the benign blue sky, American strangers providing a little entertainment on a Sunday morning in June.
Lustenau? End of the line? Apparently, because there was no choice. This was it for Dovie, the towering flying machine known as a hot air balloon. Not long before, the gigantic sack, emblazoned with its logo, a blue dove of peace, was loafing along placidly at 11,000 feet. Below lay the countrysides of Switzerland and Austria, divided by a wet border – the Rhine.
But, everything that goes up must…well…you know the rest. And now we were skimming over trees and homes as Stan Hess, the peerless captain, maneuvered his vehicle neatly, aiming at landing in an open meadow.
Except that an apple tree (fortunately very skinny) barred the way. THWACK! Off with its head! However, that slowed us and altered direction slightly toward a house.
“Hang on!!” advised Capt. Hess.
We were the Gang of Seven – standing- room-only in the open gondola – who suddenly went tipsy to an accompanying THUDDD! An unforeseen ditch told us the ride was over. We were entangled like a rugby scrum. But laughing, pleased that our basket was made of reinforced steel. Church bells were tolling – but not for us.
Folks poured from the threatened house. Were they waving pitch forks or shotguns? No. Just bottles of water and a coffee pot.
“Come in, come in. Welcome,” bubbled a young woman called Milijana Lazarevic. ”Coffee and cakes. Please come.”
“And slivovitz,” added her father, Marko, who knew a good remedy for falling from the sky.
They said we were invited to drop in any time. Such a nice neighborhood of gardens and shrubbery and pleasant people, but a return was unlikely. Still, we had a nice little party, awaiting the balloon’s steadfast tracker, Mary Hess, the captain’s wife.
Over a week’s time she never lost us, following by van as best she could visually (as long as the roads cooperated), and by cell phone. Eventually she appeared with the trailer in which the balloon was packed.
“I didn’t expect you to leave Switzerland and cross the Rhine and wind up in Austria,” she said.
But who can control the winds?
“That’s the adventure,” says my roommate, Anita. ”You never know how and where you’ll land. We’re at the breeze’s mercy.” But she’s a balloonophile, and I just mumble, “Mercy.”
Our reward after the crash was a lovely alfresco lunch in Heiden, on Lake Constance, with world renown landscape photographer Patrick Loertscher, his wife, Monica and son, Jan.
Based near Philadelphia, Mary and Stan Hess have been ballooning-for-hire throughout the world for nearly two decades under the banner of Classic World Adventures, 800-763-5987. We bought them in a charity auction to benefit the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center, as did Philadelphians Bob and Sibby Brasler while crew Kim and Neal Blackwell rounded out the airborn Gang of Seven (plus indispensable Mary, our down-to-earth pursuer).
Weather wasn’t always favorable, but we had some blissful flights during the week in Switzerland, starting in the charming town of Appenzell, noted for its cheese, Alpine backdrop, and as a hangout for ballooners. (Or is it balloonists? Maybe balloonies?)
At an evening reception under the lonely linden tree in the town square, the earring clad, artist, mayor, Sepp Moser, proudly said, “We consider Roger Federer to be an Appenzeller. His grandmother came from here.” Moser’s family has been there for five centuries. He was welcoming the annual Held Trophy balloning competition.
No alarm clock needed the following morning. At 6 the annual procession of goats and cattle to Alpine summer pastures, huge cowbells clanging, small goat bells tingling, wended beneath the windows of our hotel. It seemed a stock drive out of the Old West although the young children and older cowboys wore traditional Alpine dress, and were on foot, prodding the animals with long staffs.
Not long after, we took off with several other balloons, lifted by almost as much hot air as you’d find in Congress. Lined up in a large lot, the balloons were a monsters row. Filled with propane gas from the burner, manned by Stan, our Dovie stretched majestically to 85 feet in height, a diameter of 66 feet.
Up and away. The Alps were gray and menacing, decorated irregularly with snow. Clouds sashayed by. Cars and trains seemed toys, forests like piles of green beans. Lake Constance was a gray puddle. The cowbells could be heard barely, and some birds. Whenever Stan turned on the burner, the rush of air sounded like a waterfall. Otherwise, floating peace.
This landing was smooth, on a country road outside the village of Buhler. We parked next to a dairy farm. Maybe frightening to the inhabitants? Whatever, they headed our way in a Charge of the Milk Brigade until contact with an electrified wire at the field’s edge made them pacifists. With the aid of neighbors, Doris, who spoke English and had a mobile phone and Siegfried, Mary found us again.
Later in the day, at dusk, after skimming over the rooftops of Appenzell, we had a soft landing on a residential street in a nearby suburb. It made everyones’ day. Entire families came out to see the balloon up close. Kids and their fathers enthusiastically helped roll up the balloon for Mary’s trailer.
A gorgeous twisting drive through the Alps, past waterfalls, on roads that seemed impossible to have been built, took us to Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland, the Kander Valley. Due to weather, rain and no visibility, we hiked instead of ballooning. Our highlight on Sibby’s birthday, a cable car in the fog to the trail head leading to the picturesque Oeschinensee, a glacial lake surrounded by invisible peaks, hidden by more fog.
Our final destination, Gstaad, overlooking the Saanen-Chateau D’Oex Valley, surrounded by snowy, jagged peaks. We lifted off from the same storied field where, on March 1, 1999 the first non-stop flight around the world took off, piloted by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones, landing in Egyptian desert March 21. 19 days, 21 hours, 47 minutes.
There the sun divorced us, and our final flight was very cold, hanging above the Alps, but intriguing nevertheless. Different looking down on mountains, green and gray, than looking up to them.
Lake Geneva was misted in. The peaks were a jumble, a clutter of long granite curving ridges, like a dragon’s back or the Great Wall of China. We had been partnering with another balloon piloted by the gregarious Swiss, Manfred Streit, at 12,000 feet.
“You’re always looking for a breeze to please,” says Mary. Manfred got it; we didn’t. Ours was wrong. Stan, piloting carefully – regardless of difficulty, he was the soul of security – came down slowly…but nearing a forest of huge pines. Where was an opening so that we wouldn’t get hung up in the trees? Or worse, wires?
He found it – on a rock-strewn precipice. It appeared to be the shaky top step in an uneven, steep, jagged staircase. An imaginative landing, no doubt about it!
Crewman Neal Blackwell had an idea, and the ability and nerve to rescue us from that fix. Climbing out of the basket he fastened a long red strap to it, and held the ends over his shoulders. With the delicate moves of a ballerina, Neal gently tugged us down those treacherous steps into a clearing. He had the footwork and strength to qualify as a hero-plus.
Mary found Manfred first, and together they figured out where we were stranded.
“Well, I like the uncertainty of flights,” said Stan, seconded by Anita. She was also enthralled with the lavishly flower filled summer meadows.
Our reward that evening, an 80th birthday dinner with Roy and Joy Emerson and our fellow ballooners in Gstaad at the hilltop Le Grand Chalet hotel.
In 1783 the French Montgolfier brothers launched hot air ballooning at Versailes. Their first passengers were a duck, a rooster and a sheep. When we hit that ditch in Austria, I wondered why the sport wasn’t left to the ducks. But the slivovitz was good medicine.