Mondovi in the Autumn, the last months of the year, and the turning of the seasons in this region of North Italy; Piedmont. This beautiful area holds many memories for me; of ballooning, of friendship, of laughter, of healing, of forgiveness and perhaps, redemption. As I laced up my trainers for a final run, an immaculate Autumn evening stretched out before me. I made the turn on ‘via Roccaforte’ a run of reflection for the end of an incredible adventure. The sun fell slowly over the distant hills, illuminating the rich colours of fallen leaves in the valley and reminding me every time, how beautiful it can be to truly let things go.
As a child I would look up at the sky and wonder at the clouds, longing to explore. It’s a memory I have; the vapour trails of the jet engines in the blue yonder, off on adventures, the destinations a mystery. Watching the strange world up there slowly drift by, change shape and fade away. Even as an adult, I find the skies above so wonderfully reassuring. Always there, but a constant reminder of how very small we are, and how lucky we are to be so.
My thirty first year as a small thing on this planet was by far the toughest of all. As I leaned into my roadside wheelie bin, yet another morning, very early in the dark AM. Lowering the multitude of empty glass bottles in gently so as not to have to hear the noise of the glass on glass, the stark reminder, that would illustrate once again, that perhaps I am in a real mess here.
Unresolved childhood trauma, words unspoken for too many years, problems buried deep inside, the end of relationships, losses you aren’t prepared for and then a coincidental death at the roadside which pulled the trigger. You feel the ferocious bite of your hard-wired methods of coping that will eventually kill you. I sat in the therapists chair, and I cried. I can’t do this any more. We are so very small.
It’s funny how certain experiences can really touch your heart, and the places they lead to can remain etched on your soul. It’s with this in mind that I found myself tumbling out of John Rose’s balloon basket one summer afternoon in rural Oxfordshire, and stepping some time later through the door of the Porto Aerostatico in Mondovi, a magical place that most of the world has never heard of. The not-so-secret, secret of balloon pilots everywhere, and so much the better for it. Here I was to meet Giovanni. The universe never ceases to amaze me, the way it unfolds, and through the people I would meet on this journey and in this place, life would never be the same.
Over the next twenty-seven-and-something logbook hours, Giovanni would teach me how to walk through the clouds, to fly valley winds, to marvel with child-like enthusiasm at the wonder of the balloons reflection in a river below. We would say good morning to the maritime Alps, always clamouring in the distance for our attention. How to whisper to hay bales, toy with a woodland canopy, float silently through the treetops and play hide and seek with the Italian wildlife. Ballooning is about living in the moments, because all the time, they are drifting away. You get but a second to appreciate them, so you learn to do it very acutely. We would cast a dreamlike shadow on the clouds, a halo illuminating a fleeting image of perfection, too beautiful for the brain to absorb, this was territory only for the soul.
Below us, legendary crew chief Salvatore works his own special brand of magic to chase us across Piedmont. Somehow always a step ahead, but never even slightly fazed by the ineptitude of a trainee pilot, there are no surprises for him. He has already stopped for coffee, greeted the farmer, foraged for wild mushrooms, rescued the hat you dropped over the side thirty fields back and knew exactly where you were landing before you had even considered it. He has already calculated which way the envelope will fall and where he can park the trailer so the basket will walk itself into the back. A monument of kindness, calm reassurance, and gentle authority. So wonderfully Italian to the last and a character who more than warrants an article all to himself.
Of course, all pilot licencing requires an element of formal study and rightly so. As I struggled to grasp the essentials of the weather and the mysteries of the winds, Hannah introduces me to the wonder of the dream factory and invigilates over my exams. Pilots or not, all would count their blessings on being taken through the door of Cameron Balloons in Bristol, where it all started. The only comparison I can think of? Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination. Living there, you will see, what you truly wish to be. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.
If you want to fly balloons you have to learn how to live again in the world of childlike imagination. Don’t fight it, it’s a wonderful place to be. I only wish I could explain it better, but maybe that’s the point? I can’t be alone in feeling, that somehow, childhood is snatched away far too quickly. Mine certainly was. It’s no bad thing to learn the pure joy of discovering how to play again. Hot air balloon pilots know this, but there is no test at the end of the course, because there is no end.
Let’s jump back to Mondovi, Private Pilots Licence in hand now… It’s the end of the final days flying, of this, my third visit to the region. Ballooning being very much a work hard play hard ethic, perhaps the purest form. We are all feeling it I think. Up with the dawn, to miss the complications of the heat from the sun, morning flights, long leisurely social lunches, with hospitality from beautiful souls who were perhaps a few moments ago, complete strangers. Such is the way here in this rural pocket of Italy we are so lucky enough to live in. Many tiny coffees, evening flights and then restaurants and cafes under the shadow of the most beautiful Italian architecture; to laugh (and perhaps cry) the evening away with the closest of friendships formed in this most surreal environment.
Even as I write this, I am fretting over getting everything in here that I want to say but somehow cannot. My final flight in Mondovi this time is one of these, I enjoyed it so intensely it meant more to me than I could ever agonise over here in words, so I won’t. That one, I’ll save just for me. Some things defy explanation, the words just aren’t there. As someone who so enjoys playing with words, this is hard to accept. Verbosity has been my way, but I am learning. Sometimes, things are just understood, left unspoken, particularly on adventures like this, maybe, just maybe, no words are needed. Maybe it’s magic.
I tread gently back across Mondovi Piazza, the focal point of the landscape here, returning to the car. The narrowly paved street is lighting my way home with lamps lifted directly from the legends of Narnia and there is a deep satisfaction, but not without a hint of sadness. I will miss my friends. I take a moment to absorb it all. Stopping, I look over the view in the darkness and turn to stare up at the bright face of the clock on the Belvedere Tower. If I could just pause time and bottle this feeling, but no, remember the balloons. Breathe, live it here and now, let it go. Learn to dance while the music is being played. Everything is in these moments. It makes such complete sense, I never thought it would.
Every balloon flight is a journey to the unknown, much like life, destination unclear. With the right pilot and crew, you are in safe hands. You will always end up exactly where it is that you need to be. If you’re lucky, it might even end up feeling like home. If you’re very lucky, that place will look a little something like Mondovi. Flight training here, and being made to feel so welcome in this ballooning family, has been one of the great privileges of my life, and I’m not sure how I will ever be able to express that adequately in words, or to thank all those people who made it possible.
So, while I look to the future, try to let go of the past, ponder forgiveness (most importantly for myself) and work on being a pilot that I can be proud of one day. What have I learned?
If people around you are laughing at your dreams, telling you that you’re crazy and should have more sensible ideas, then you know you’re probably on the right track. Go all the way, because those around you who aren’t laughing at you; they’re going with you. Ride this life straight to perfect laughter. Dare to dream.
Dreams exist for the chasing, but they only come so close by themselves. The rest is up to you. When it gets hard, and it will, you’ll just want to throw in the towel and give it up as a bad job. Don’t quit. It won’t be easy and it will test every bit of your resolve, but it will be worth it, scattered moments along the way will serve to remind you why. I used to scoff at the notion that you can do absolutely anything, it comes from an early portion of my life; being beaten down. But you can come through, and it’s truer than I ever imagined; scare yourself, shake it up, lose family, make friends, quit drinking, learn to fly a hot air balloon, recover from trauma, heal your soul. Believe in magic. Believe in yourself.
Most importantly it’s about the people. As I look back on this past year. I am full of nothing but gratitude for all the wonderful souls who have helped me along the way. In practice and in spirit, my ballooning family. Those who walk with you for just a small section of the path or the whole way, to teach you something you need to know, to hold you up, push you forward, believe in you when you haven’t got it for yourself. There are no words for this kind of support. Beautiful people, all. Lists are always dangerous, what can I say here but thank you; Giovanni, Salvatore, Oscar, Andy, Celia, Aidan, Darren, Guy, Lauren, Brian, Hannah, John, Gianfranco, Giorgio and Sabina, Chris, Bradley, Mike, David, there are so many others. My friend, Camilla, thank you for believing and of course, Tracey, for everything, and more than we will perhaps ever have enough time to say.
As the road unwinds, the sun is disappearing behind the mountains bordering the valley, I run on towards the fading skyline punctuated by the magnificent church at Roccaforte. In the sky above, the vapour trails are dancing again across blue yonder, this time in a group of three heading North, perhaps my friends heading home. The most spectacular light emanates upwards from beyond the distant hills, everything is bathed in the beauty of the golden hour, and I am quite overcome. I well up, and the tears come slowly at first, but I am soon balling my eyes out and can no longer see. I start to shake, and it’s all I can do to stand, there is no sadness. I have never in my life felt such overwhelm, a feeling of such intense gratitude, hope and joy, I would never have believed. The purest form of happiness I have ever experienced, the beauty of everything is too much to hold on to. All in that moment. I breathe in, and let it go.
There are some famous words from Max Ehrmann I have always held dear, that perhaps explain this better than I ever could; “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”. It seems clear to me in this moment; it is a beautiful world. I have never been so grateful to be me. Thank you universe. I am home.
As Autumn turns, leaves fall and moments pass; this small one unpacks his bag, once again wondering with childlike enthusiasm when will we be going back to chase some dreams. I ask myself, is this really about balloons? Of course not, but what an incredible aircraft to make the journey in. Quite a journey. I am lucky, I know. I would wish all my fellow balloon pilots moments like these. So while we can, for as long as we can, let us believe in magic and live in these moments. With gentle winds in the wires, let’s fly on, shall we?