Last week, my husband and I met our friends Joan and Dave in San Francisco for a much needed vacation. We’d been planning for months and finally, the day was here. We got on a 7 a.m. flight and by 5 o’clock California time, we were at our destination—the InterContinental Hotel in Nob Hill, San Francisco. Once there, we were looking at six full days of glorious decompression time.
Time that would be filled with the usual suspects—a tour of Alcatraz, a meditative stroll and shopping along the scenic Fisherman’s Wharf, and the hiking up too many hills to count. There were the several Crab Louis salads. And who could forget a day spent traversing the streets of Haight Ashbury, ingesting the second-hand smoke with our fingers crossed.
I couldn’t help but notice, as the week passed, that by the end of our trip, we’d have been on every possible mode of transport known to man—with the exception of the space shuttle. (Although, had we chosen to indulge directly at Haight Ashbury, we might have been able to at least mimic the experience…)
After all, we took a plane to our destination, a boat to the “Rock”, a cable car to Union Square, a double-decker bus to get a flavor of the city’s neighborhoods. We took a taxi to our hotel, which was not easy to flag, after a big meal in Chinatown that put a dent in both our desire and ability to literally repel up the side of the city to our hotel.
But the most fun we had was on the pedicab and then the hot air balloon.
We had just come out of a Michelin-rated restaurant, whose name currently escapes me. (I do, however, remember the Crab Louis, so bravo!) It was later on a Sunday night and the city was quiet. To walk back to our hotel, we’d have had to climb up approximately 10 city blocks—something we were reluctantly prepared to do in lieu of a taxi until we happened by a young guy pulling a pedicab: You know, a bicycle, pulling a little wagon with seats, kind of like a modern day rickshaw for peasants.
The cycler, who’s name is John, took one look at us—four middle-aged tourists pointing to buildings and trying to keep the wind from blowing up our map—and knew he’d found his next fare. Tired, stuffed, and confused about where we were, we were ripe for the picking.
So he stops his bike, using his feet as a kickstand and calls out to us. “Hey…” Intrigued and, early enough into our vacation to be open to anything, we walk over to him. “Want a ride?” he asks, nodding to the two-seater cab hitched to his bike shaking ever so slightly. We are interested, but concerned. The seat looks small.
“Oh, no worries,” he says. “I can easily get the four of you on here.” And promptly directs me and Joan to sit on our husband’s laps. Now just so you know, neither one of us are lightweights. Not that my friend is fat – to the contrary. But she’s tall and long limbed and I’m not sure I’d want her to sit on my lap while some strange guy on a 10-speed hauls us up the hills of San Fran.
With that, we collectively contemplate the pros and the cons. The pros: The large meal we just enjoyed had begun settling ever deeper into each of our stomachs, making the idea of walking in imaginary crampons up the cement terrain to our hotel seem like a drudge, to say the least. The cons: The seat looked uncomfortable. And the pedicab itself was anything but lush. Let’s just say the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would have sent him on his way. But we decided, in the end, it was okay for us.
And so we climbed on and prepared ourselves for anything.
So John starts pedaling, talking to us non-stop about the sites of the city and how long he’s been doing this and why, as we admire his strong calves and wonder why he isn’t out of breath. All I can think about is how dangerous this is (after all, we were sharing the street with cable cars and tour buses and confused drivers and tourists). And why did I eat so much? And will my leg muscles recover in time for a lot of walking tomorrow, since they were burning from my not wanting to put all my weight on poor Dan (think extended wall squat).
Then, we hear the bells getting louder and louder. And we realize that a cable car is gaining on us. In response, John pedals faster. My face begins to feel flush and my heart start to palpitate.
Oh dear. This is what lazy will get you: picked off by a cable car. I can read the news now: “Four unsuspecting middle-aged tourists mired down by too much rich cooking and too lazy to walk, look for vicarious exercise in the wrong place. After sharing a meal large enough for seven, they were innocently lured onto a dangerous pedicab that due to only 10 bicycle speeds and a chatty and distracted driver was crushed by an aberrant cable car. There are no survivors.”
Focused on the cable car behind us, I didn’t realize that we were finished climbing and now preparing to go straight down. This raises new concerns: Like how John is going to control the pedicab as we careen down a long incline…
“Don’t worry,” he says, again, reading my mind. “I have disc brakes.” And then, as we begin to drop, he hits them, and we go jolting ever so slightly forward. It’s like almost getting thrown off a horse and only mildly comforting in the face of flying down the block with a cable car up our a*^es. John suddenly and unexpectedly jerks the bike to right so he can get us on to the sidewalk.
I chant, nervously and uncontrollably, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God…” My husband and our friends share a maniacal sort of “I’m going to die” laugh. And all the while, John continues to talk, about his near miss accidents and how he’s survived, and how we’ll all be just fine.
“I’m gonna get you to the end of the street, so you can guys can grab this cable car at the circle down there back up to your hotel,” he says. I pray he doesn’t take his hand off the handlebars to point. By the time we get to the end of the road, my adrenals are blasted. And to make it worse, I’ve said about 250 Hail Mary’s–and I’m Jewish.
Fortunately, we survived it just in time to get to our next vehicular adventure: The hot air balloon.
Now keep in mind: I am terrified of heights. I used to have a client with offices on the second floor of their building and stairs you can see through. I always took the elevator. You know never when one of those cracks will suddenly open up and suck me through it.
Do you watch the SciFi channel? Ever seen a Twilight Zone? It could happen. It really could.
So imagine my getting on a hot air balloon. And yet, on another trip we’d taken to Taos, New Mexico, with the same friends, we’d contemplated the idea, enticed by the beautiful views and the prospect of landing in the lovely but shallow Taos gorge. So we decided to take an informal poll of the locals to see if they thought it’d be a good idea for people like Joan and I, who had a fear of high places.
“Uh, well, yeah, you’re in a basket in the air, so probably not so good.” This was the consensus. So we didn’t do it.
But this trip, well, I was determined. So when my friend Joan sent me a link to the BallonsAbovetheValley.com as a joke, I signed us up. Ha ha, I thought, joke’s on her. (And, well, uh, me.)
When the day came, we left San Francisco at 3 a.m. to drive to Napa, since the balloons lift off just before dawn. There were about 50 of us there to ride on three balloons. We were told that ours was the largest balloon in the country, holding as many as 24 people. I was glad – if I had to get into a wicker basket and go up into the air with an oversized swath of parachute material and four large tanks of propane, I’d need as many people as possible for morale support.
Now, let me just say, there’s no graceful way to get into the basket of a hot air balloon. It’s high – up to my chest and I’m 5” 3” (wink wink) – with just enough grooves for you to place your feet so you can throw one leg over the top and sit on it as if you were saddling up to a horse, before falling fully into the balloon’s cab. And once you’re in, you’re in and, in our case, quickly flanked by other people standing shoulder to shoulder, readying their cameras for the promise of something wonderful.
We wait as the first of the three balloons takes off, which just heightens the sense of excitement and drama, especially for those of us who are scared (and there are several). Finally, the people on the ground with walkie-talkie’s give our pilot the thumbs us. To which he begins fiddling with the tanks, yanking at ropes, and firing hot air into the now fully inflated parachute until we slowly come off the ground.
I’m okay at first. And after a few short minutes, feel the nervousness begin to exit my body like a puff of smoke. I’m good standing behind Dan, peeking over his shoulder at the panoramic views of the Napa vineyards, which truly are spectacular. And as we creep higher, the people around me continue to ask if I’m okay. And I was, as long as I didn’t have to move, remembered to breathe, and we didn’t go any higher.
But then, we got to 1,300 feet and I started to panic. Looked over at the pilot, at least 75 pounds overweight, sweating and grunting like a football player in preseason, and I was instantly lost in the thought of what would happen if he just stroked out. What if his heart gave way—he suddenly grabbed at his chest and dropped off the side like an angry bird.
What would happen to the 20 of us now so high up in the sky, we could barely see the vans that brought us to the launching field?
Now I was scared. Instead of admiring the views, I imagined all the many ways we could drop to our death. I could read the headline: In a cruel twist of fate, four innocent middle-aged tourists who were too lazy to walk and lucky enough to survive a crash with a cable car, fell to their untimely death during a routine balloon ride after the pilot has a heart attack and the balloon drops like a penny from a 12th story apartment building onto hard dirt.
It could happen.
Fortunately, it didn’t. We survived. The balloon came down more gently than I’d anticipated and I managed to climb out without seriously injuring any of my lady parts (although don’t take a picture). But you never know—it could have been a close one.
All in all, it was a great ride. The pedicab. The balloon. The whole vacation. Would I go on a hot air balloon again? You bet. I’d even go on a pedicab, but maybe just with my husband and someplace flat, like Indiana. Or the track by the high school, just a mile or so from our house.
How about you? What was the most death-defying thing you’ve ever done on vacation? And would you do it again? Do tell.
Until next time!