Today's weather showed greater promise from the start. Those close relatives, fog and clouds, were present, but they looked like they were already packing their bags by the time the first light of day arrived. There was no question but that we would fly today.
The breakfast room at the Ermitage opens at 7:30, and it was still empty when I arrived a few minutes after that time. Between a few hours of sleep at night and a couple in the afternoon, we all seem to be finding lasting success with a new approach to waking and sleeping.
The beginning of the day afforded a good time for catching up with some of the journal details, and so on this Sunday morning I recapped the events of Saturday.1 By the time Annie and Cindy came down and joined me, I was pretty well caught up with the story ... although more photos were still required!
1 This too is becoming a habit: I am getting slightly ahead of my story here, but as it happens I am filling in the details of Sunday as I sit at an early breakfast table on Monday morning.
Over the course of 7:30 to 9:30, all the members of our troupe came down for breakfast. It's always fun starting the day here and looking forward to the flight and whatever else might occur. Mike joined us after the pilots' meeting and filled us in on the details: We'd be leaving slightly earlier than usual today, with a scheduled liftoff of 10:45. At this point, there were already several balloons in various stages of inflation outside the windows where we sat.
We all went upstairs to complete our morning preparations. I took a few pictures from my scenic little room on the top floor, since I would be moving down to Room 20 later today. The Ermitage is so close to the launch field, and it really feels even closer. Through the windows of the front rooms, the balloons seem almost ready to in after us, like the giant floating bubble that pursued Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner.
Over on the secondary takeoff field to the left, I could see that Corkscrew Balloon III was already half inflated; our takeoff time was about 20 minutes away. Just as I was about to head out the door, there was a knock. The hotel staff advised me that my new room was ready and it was time for me to move downstairs!
I had refrained from unpacking everything, since I knew that I would be moving to a more permanent location soon ... but if fact, I did have a lot of things scattered about. It was time for quick action! I threw things into my largest bag until it was full and I headed downstairs with it. I quickly unpacked and went back for the rest, then I dashed across the street to the field. Although I was worried I would be late, I wasn't.
We had a long flight down the valley. I rode in CB3 with Alf, Watcharee and Annie. Mike was at the controls, of course. We had a beautiful and peaceful flight until a very strange thing happened: As Mike fired the main burners to lift us up a bit, the propane valve became stuck in the "open" position.
Normally, the burners are fired for just a few seconds at a time, and a few seconds later, when the hot air from the burned propane reaches the top of the balloon envelope, that air pushes us upward. With the valve stuck open, the burners kept going for a very long time. The result of this very long burn was a very rapid ascent to a very unusual height. Indeed, we would have kept going up forever (or until we crashed into a satellite or the Mir space station or something) had not Mike quickly reconfigured the various propane tanks. There are a lot of propane tanks in the basket on Château d'Oex flights ... many more than is typical ... and the configuration is therefore more complex. Mike had to completely shut off all of the tanks that fed the main burners, and then make sure that the third burner was being properly fed. All the while, the main burners were kicking out more BTUs than you can imagine.
The extremely rapid rise made things very cold in the basket: As we shot rapidly upward, the large quantities of air we displaced swept down the sides of the envelope blew hard into the basket. Also, of course, the air at the higher elevation was colder. Alf, Watcharee and Annie all crouched down in the basket for a little warmth. I stayed up and shot a couple of photos. (I lost the common sense instinct to get out of the cold during my youth in Minnesota, where there was no escape from the cold.) At this height, the mountains were far below us, and it seemed we could discern the curvature of the earth on the horizon!
Our actual plan had been to rise high enough to get over the mountains and ride a high current straight back to Château d'Oex. Having wound up vastly higher than our plan had intended, we caught much faster current. Within an astonishingly short span of time, we were once again directly over the Ermitage and the launch site.1 Thus, in the end, it turned out with a very nice ending. And our fate certainly could have been worse.
1 I didn't believe it: When Annie asked me if that was Château d'Oex below us, I told her that it couldn't be, and that we must still have been about three villages away. But she was right, it was Château d'Oex. After taking about an hour and a half to drift down the valley, we had been zipped back home in about 6 minutes.
Back at Château d'Oex, we drifted around for a while in search of a good landing spot. We finally settled on the parking lot right next to the hospital's helipad. The crew packed up the Screwmaids, and we headed back to the Ermitage for our usual post-flight activity: lunch!
Annie and I sat at a table with Mike. We were joined by Bob Swanson, a pilot from Napa Valley who also does some flying for the Bombard Society. Mike and Bob had the salmon that was a big hit at yesterday's lunch; Annie had veau viennoise, and I had piccata de veau aux morilles, or veal piccata with morels. I thought I had ordered what Hermann had yesterday ... but apparently I picked the wrong one of the two piccata de veau offerings on the Bistro menu. It was fine, though, as this selection was also very good.
After lunch, we customarily head upstairs for naps. For me, though, the first task was getting settled into my new room. I would be in this room for the entire remainder of our stay, so it was now appropriate to do a full "unpack." Also, I could now do the full computer setup I had planned. This is far more elaborate than any setup I have had on the road, but I decided I wanted to make life easy. Hence, my command station in Room 20 includes my newest Compaq Presario (which has just about everything I need), networked to my older Compaq Armada. For work on the Presario, I have connected a full-sized Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro, along with a Logitech Marble Trackball. This setup is almost as good as back home. (The odds are pretty good that this is the only guest room in all of Château d'Oex that is running a local area network tied to the Internet.)
Once everything was set up and running properly, I was ready for my nap. Today's installment ran about an hour and a half. And then it was just about time for dinner! Cindy, Hermann, Mike and Marg, and Mike had charbonnade. Alf, Watcharee, Annie and I selected lighter fare. Eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping.
After dinner we finally made our first trip across the street to the Richemont. It was somewhat crowded, although not as outrageously as I remembered. Hermann bought us all champagne, and we stayed until just before midnight. The atmosphere at the Richemont is smoke and noise. Lots and lots of smoke and noise. It's a fun place, but it's a little difficult to carry on a conversation because of the din. I'm seriously considering not returning there at all on this trip.
Another day ended.
This morning's weather was surprisingly lovely: We had expected a warm front to arrive and bring lots of unpleasantness with it, and indeed the skies had shown all signs of following that plan last night. In the actual event, however, the skies were extraordinarily clear and blue. To my meteorologically challenged eyes, it looked more like we were experiencing a cold front's arrival, from the crispness of the air and the winds that swept through the valley. There was a bit less snow on the ground, though: It is warmer than it ought to be.
From our breakfast table perspective of the launch area, the winds looked challenging. Some indicator balloons - the small party variety rather than the large transportation kind - are tethered to a post, and they show the effect of the wind. At times, the balloons were being blown so hard to the right that the tether line was almost horizontal. In contrast, at the tops of the mountains wisps of snow were being swept to the left. This didn't look like a good day for the Festival's proposed long flight to Gruyère ... but what do I know?
Actually, the strong winds appeared in the end to be simply an early morning phenomenon. Even as breakfast progressed, they lessened, and when Mike arrived, post pilots' meeting, he said that all systems were "go."
We cut back today to a single balloon: I flew in Corkscrew Balloon II with Cindy, Hermann, Mike and Marg, and Julian (from the crew). Bob Swanson was our pilot. Alf, Watcharee, Annie and Mike the Pilot all decided to spend the day on the ground.
Our flight went on and on. We drifted down the valley past Les Moulins, past the other towns whose names I forget, and all the way to Gruyère and beyond. It was the farthest I had ever flown at Château d'Oex. It was even the farthest for Cindy, and she has been coming here much longer than I have. Hermann had flown a little bit farther, years ago ... but not too much.
Today featured in-flight dining. This was excellent in a few ways: First, it meant we had lunch at a more normal time, in contrast to the mid-afternoon post-landing meals we had been having. Second, the food was a bit lighter than what we have often had at the Ermitage. No schnitzel and fries today! Finally, it was all very good! The Bombard Society's new chef du picnique, Hannah, created a lovely assortment of vegetables, cheeses, and assorted victuals. Some rolled up roast beef, cooked extremely rare, was probably my favorite element, although everything was good.
Hannah had also packed some wine, including a wonderful bottle of Burgundy. Everyone else seemed to be familiar with the appellation, but it meant nothing to me. Upon requesting Julian to be a little "less specific" in specifying its provenance, he explained that it was from near Beaune. Ah, well that explained it perfectly, and it all made sense at that point as an image of the sloping Côte d'Or immediately sprang into my mind.
At an appropriate time in our flight, someone on the ground apparently cued the deer, and a group of five or six bounded through the open snow right beneath us. It was a very nice touch.
Shortly after passing the castle at Gruyère, it was time to think about landing. We drifted over a lovely lake, but the air currents kept shifting and frustrating various plans for specific touchdown sites. Some unfortunately placed power lines limited our choices, as well. Ultimately, after hovering for a bit in the doldrums directly over the water, a strong breeze suddenly shot us quickly to the other side of the lake. There, we were able to land.
The crew had to come around the lake to reach us, but they arrived promptly. In the meantime, Bob and Julian did the basic deflation and layout of the envelope.
Because of the length of the flight, plus our consumption of water and wine with lunch, most of us were in need of nature's facilities. Ever modest, we noticed a small structure that would conceal us from the eyes of the nearby highway, and we took turns exploring the area behind it. We all felt much better having done so.
Dinner tonight was a traditional favorite: fondue and raclette in Rougemont. We had enough cheese to last us for months! We also like this restaurant because it features an accordion player who knows all the standards. Between the communal service of the cheese and the happy strains of the accordion, the atmosphere is quiet festive. It is also very homey and cozy: A number of the diners had their large dogs along, sleeping on the floor under their tables.
Today, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we found ourselves bound to the ground. This was fine with most of us: Our flight schedule had been very successful, and we were ready for some of the other experiences the area offers.
Mike and Marg, having vastly more energy than the rest of us, were eager to hike around the area. In fact, they had been looking forward to this since arriving. Today presented them with their opportunity. Although the weather was too overcast to fly, the rain wasn't too bad for walking in the hills. Pilot Mike gave them a great map with all the trails marked in red, and they went on a five hour walk!
The rest of us went to Gstaad to look at its shops.
Gstaad is a very upscale tourist town, and it has little boutiques that sell the likes of Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Armani. We walked along the street and looked in the windows. We did stop in a shop that offered a wide variety of kitchen utensils. We had never seen so many different whisks before. They also had a wide variety of little corn cob holders, and just about anything else you might imagine. Alf and I checked out there corkscrew selection.
Most of the shops in Gstaad close for lunch, and we were evicted from the kitchen boutique at 12:30. (At first, as the manager approached us, I was afraid she was going to ask us to leave because of the stir I caused when I fainted at some of the prices they were charging, but apparently they're used to that.)
We had lunch at the restaurant in the Hotel Bernerhof. I had a tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by some wonderful prawns in spicy curry. Other popular choices included sole, steak with bernaise sauce, and rösti. For dessert, Watcharee requested crêpes suzettes. This was an amazing production: The dish is prepared at the tableside, with crêpe pan heated over a gas burner. It begins with butter and sugar, then orange juice, then Grand Marnier and brandy, plus (of course) the crêpes. At the critical moment, the whole thing is set afire to dramatic effect.
Unfortunately, our table chef had a little trouble with the flambé part of the preparation: she poured the brandy over the match, putting out the flame. "Shit!" she said, and then she realized she had said it, in English, next to a table of English-speaking diners. Her "Oops!" look was priceless. At that point, an assistant joined her and completed the task. While the production was interesting, I didn't really think the end product was all that good. Of course, I'm not really a "dessert" person ...
After lunch, the primary remaining item on our daily agenda, of course, was ... dinner! In the evening we went to Le Croix d'Or in Les Moulins. This is one of our standard venues each year, as the individual pizzas they prepare in their wood-burning oven are simply marvelous.
As I nibbled on my Quatre Saisons pizza, the restaurant's name made my thoughts turn to William Jennings Bryan. "Croix d'Or," of course, means "Cross of Gold." Thus, between bits of jambon and poivrons, one cannot help but remember Bryan's speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he famously said "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Perhaps it was because pizza had not yet become so popular in the United States in the nineteenth century that this rhetoric did not get Bryan elected President.
Today, for the first time, I had not taken an afternoon nap. Thus, when we got back to the Ermitage at 9:30, I was dead tired. Still, several of us went into the lounge and chatted for a bit before heading upstairs. I did not contribute to the conversation at all, except for an occasional nod as I nearly dozed off. I hope nobody was especially insulted by this. After a bit, we all headed upstairs to bed. By then I was so tired, Cindy had to carry me up two flights.
Next: Part III