Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Sunday, January 25, 1998

We had a few more clouds on Sunday, but the weather was definitely good enough for flying. Linda, however, was feeling a little bit under the weather; she decided that she would forego today’s flight. Despite our exhortations that this would be her last chance to be in a balloon on this trip, she was adamant that she would be better off in bed.

We had a few more clouds on Sunday, but the weather was definitely good enough for flying. Linda, however, was feeling a little bit under the weather; she decided that she would forego today’s flight. Despite our exhortations that this would be her last chance to be in a balloon on this trip, she was adamant that she would be better off in bed.

I had breakfast with Elisabeth. This was the first chance I’d had to spend any time alone with Elisabeth, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity. She recounted for me the history of how her family had acquired the chateau at Vault de Lugny, as well as the story of its conversion into the first-class hotel that it has become. During our breakfast, we were briefly interrupted by a phone call from her staff, with questions about some hotel issues. There are so many details that require her careful attention.

We had a late-morning liftoff. I was in the larger balloon, with Annie, Cindy, Rosemary and Richard. Today’s flight took place primarily in the valley west of Chateau d’Oex. It was a very peaceful flight, a bit chilly but not as extreme as the previous day.

During much of the flight, we were flying near Corkscrew Balloon I, which was carrying Alf, and one of Buddy’s balloons, piloted by Bill. These three balloons were pretty much alone from the rest of the pack, which stayed closer to Chateau d’Oex. On some occasions, we were close enough to try lofting souvenirs toward CB I, although we did not have the same sort of dance that we’d had on Friday. Cindy tried to toss a bag of Maltesers so that it would land on top of the other balloon, but the air currents were difficult to judge and it fell short. We even tossed some money at them. A half-franc coin that I hurled toward the other balloon came very close, but its smallness made it disappear from sight before I could confirm the hit.

As we floated around the western end of the valley, Steve demonstrated his piloting prowess. I remain amazed at how these things can be navigated back and forth, despite their having no propulsion of their own. At one point, Steve lowered us to within a few feet of the ground on a mountainside that was covered with trees except for the very small clearing into which we descended. The precision was astounding.

As we neared the end of our flight, Annie took over the controls! Steve is a licensed instructor, and he guided Annie through the steps. She did an excellent job, bringing us over a ridge and down the side of the mountain.

Steve selected a site for landing, and we touched down. We were in a sloping field next to a farm, and our chase crew was waiting there for us. The particular spot of our touchdown was problematic, however: The snow was very deep, and it was downhill from the service road that the trucks were on. Worse, there were power lines along the side of the road. Therefore, the balloon would have to be deflated where it sat, then hauled up the hill to the trucks.

We had gone through other landings where the crew had to pull the balloon some distance, as it floated a bit off the ground. Here, though, they would have to deflate the envelope where it was and then transport the basket uphill through foot-deep snow to the road. The basket, even without people in it, is extremely heavy – several hundred pounds – and the crew would have had a very difficult time doing this.

After evaluating the alternatives, Steve decided to take us back up so we could look for a better landing site. We pulled the drop lines back into the basket, and up we went. We drifted for another 15 or 20 minutes, and then we found a perfect spot: wide-open spaces, flat, with an easily accessible road. It was, perhaps, the most perfect landing site in the entire valley.

By this point, it had been quite a while since we were near modern facilities, and natural bodily functions were starting to demand attention. Nevertheless, we managed to have a relaxed landing ceremony, with the standard champagne toast, before we clambered into our Previa and headed back to the Ermitage. Once there, we went up to our rooms to relax until our scheduled 3:00 lunch downstairs in the restaurant.

We gathered for lunch at the appointed hour and chose from the delicious Ermitage offerings. Linda rejoined us; she felt a bit better after spending several additional hours relaxing and reading in bed. She shared a small table with Richard, Rosemary and me; the other Corkscrew Ballooners were at the next table; beyond them, Buddy Bombard and some of his retinue dined.

Through some confusion in translation, a few orders of gorgeous smoked salmon were erroneously requested and served at the next table. They had to be returned to the kitchen: grilled salmon was what the diners had in mind. My heart sank as I watched the lovely slices of pink fish retreat from the dining room. I had never realized that item was on the menu, but unlike those who accidentally ordered it, I would have done so deliberately. This would be our last meal at the Ermitage, except for breakfast tomorrow, so I would never get the chance. Then again, I couldn’t complain about the marvelous lunch that I had ordered, or about any of the meals the Ermitage had served during our stay.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, this was the day of the Super Bowl. Over the course of the past week, the members of our troupe viewed this fact as with varying levels of interest. At last year’s festival, the corkscrew-balloon contingent had found a sports bar where they could watch the game, and for the past several days, inquiries were made as to whether that could be done again in ’98.

Of course, the Big Game starts at about 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time, which means that the kickoff time in Switzerland is around midnight. With the requisite game-lengthening commercials – the Super Bowl is filled to bursting with commercials – the final gun probably wouldn’t blast until 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. At that point, it would almost be time to hop in the Previas for our ride to the Geneva airport. Perhaps a fractional hour of sleep would be possible, but no more than that. Still, it was the end of our adventure, and perhaps it would be an adventurous end.

Cindy was undoubtedly the most excited of our group. She was a major Green Bay Packers fan. Last year at Chateau d’Oex, she had cheered them to a Super Bowl victory; she would have liked nothing more than to repeat that triumph.

During the course of the week, the possibility of our "attending" the game ebbed and flowed. This year it would be broadcast on a different television station, and the nearby bar that exhibited the game last year did not have access to this year’s channel. The search was accordingly complicated.

This came as quite a surprise to me, for I thought the Super Bowl was one of the most-watched events throughout the world. I certainly had no feeling that it was by any means that important, nor did I think that everyone should be watching it because, after all, it’s American and therefore necessary to the entire world. I just thought it was one of those Baywatch-type things that was as popular abroad as at home. We did all have television sets in our rooms at the Ermitage; I would have thought we could just flick them on at the appropriate time and see the game, but no.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it looked like all of the possibilities for Super Bowl observation had fizzled out. There was no place within any reasonable distance of Chateau d’Oex that could offer us a broadcast of the game. Cindy was greatly disappointed. I had mixed feelings. Although I probably wouldn’t have watched the game if I were home, it would have been a different experience to view it in Switzerland, in the middle of the night. Different experiences were a big part of this trip, after all, so that would have fit right in. On the other hand, some occasional sleep can be a good thing, too.

As usual, we remained at our table for a long, long time. All of our meals at Chateau d’Oex had been leisurely: We would begin late – 3:00 for lunch, 8:00 or 9:00 for dinner – and then linger for two or three hours, savoring the food and wine and conversation. The servers at the Ermitage, who were responsible for clearing and setting up tables, and who also probably wanted to go home and some point in their lives, tolerated this with remarkable grace. Still, I suspect we were wearing thin on them after 10 days of constant trials.

Shortly before we got up to leave, Michael arrived from some errands he’d been running. Among other things, he had picked up some cash, including a 1000-franc note. None of us had seen one of these before, and it was quite lovely. I wish you could see it. Indeed, I tried my best to convince Mike that he should give it to me, so I could scan it once I got home and display it right here on this page for you. He inexplicably refused to do this, however, and he stuck it back in his pocket.

In the short time between lunch and dinner, I finally got around to writing a couple of postcards. After all, we’d be living tomorrow, and they really would be more meaningful if they were mailed from Switzerland than if they bore Seattle postmarks. I had been neglecting my email for the past few days, and so I got caught up on that. Also, of course, I made the rounds of the World Wide Web for a bit. Over the course of our stay, remaining connected to the Internet had been pretty smooth.

For dinner, we returned to the restaurant where we had previously feasted on fondue and raclette. (Upon hearing of this plan, Rosemary asked "Will there be anything besides cheese?" Alf replied, "Yes. You can have Perrier.") It was another great meal, the last one we would all have together on this trip. Tomorrow morning, Linda, Susan, Rosemary, Richard and I would have to get up early and head for Geneva. Cindy and Annie had decided to stay in Chateau d’Oex for a few more days with Alf and Elisabeth.

Of course, we had to spend one last night at the Richemont. Tonight was "karaoke night"; we had been looking forward to this for some time. It was quite entertaining. Some of our crew had prepared for this event, and they performed fabulously. We cheered them on as they belted out the oldies.

For some, this night was an extremely late one. I returned to my room not too long after midnight, but I later learned of others who left the Richemont at a fairly reasonable hour but did not get to their rooms until around 4:00. Their stories cannot properly be told here.

Saturday, January 24 || Monday, January 26

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