At 5:30 am, darkness clings to the sky above Phoenix. My eyes are still heavy with sleep when we walk out of our Airbnb and onto the waiting tour bus. The purr of an idling engine and bird songs in the distance are the loudest sounds this morning.
Our driver, -J- a chatty middle-aged man, greets us at the passenger door with a smile. He’s buoyant, and I envy it–the ability to be spirited so early in the morning. I give him what passes for a smile from me at this hour and step inside to sit down by the window. On the cool glass pane, I let my head rest drowsily, but the cheery sound of J’s voice interrupts the promise of sleep as he gives a pre-sunset tour of Phoenix.
As we drive through a city just stirring, J rattles off the noteworthy landmarks in his hometown. He describes Scottsdale as the “Beverly Hills” of Arizona and how easy it is to spot the celebrities who spend time there. Pointing to the inky silhouette of Camelback mountain, he tells us how ambitious climbers hoping to make it to the peak for sunrise have already started their journey. Through my window, I gaze intently into the dark, as if a climber would suddenly become visible. I see nothing in the puzzle of black, but I don’t take my eyes away from the view as we make our way further out of the city and towards the Sonoran desert.
Morning arrives in a kaleidoscope of color. Golden yellow and orange streaks overlap, slashing across the open sky, casting a warm amber glow over the mountains. As we watch the sunrise, J and his crew set up our hot-air balloon, inflating it with fiery heat. Balloons from other flying companies levitate from the sandy floor up to dizzying heights. Soon, one of those balloons is ours–a rainbow-colored one with a basket big enough to hold all 15 of us.
My emotions form a medley of excitement, awe, and unexpected calm. I expect to fixate on how high up we are, flying over mountains thousands of feet above the ground. I expect to be worried about the worst-case scenarios–a fire starting inside the balloon or a crash landing, but my mind isn’t on any of those things. Instead, I watch nearby balloons in flight, their rainbow-colored bags dotting a cloudless blue sky, and the now visible mountain range surrounding the city.
We’re afloat for about an hour, and when we land, it’s in an arid space populated by cacti, much like the rest of the Sonoran desert. J and his team set up a picnic table spread with a white tablecloth. On it, they serve a breakfast of quiche, croissants, cheese, fresh fruits, and bottles of champagne–an exquisite start to our short week in the southwest.
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All photos shot on iPhone 12Pro
Same footprints, Different Sands