Chasing the Balloons

By Cathy Tollefson '83

The Lord of Misrule was working overtime on April Fools’ Day 2005, as he led me down twisty, coastal-desert roads in north San Diego County. My plan was to meet hot-air balloon pilot Frank Reed ’67 for a photo. Wispy clouds and a slight breeze off the Pacific promised a perfect lift off.

Promises, promises.

Back in December I had received an e-mail from Frank: “I am in Rancho Santa Fe, still flying hot-air balloons in the late afternoons and being an investment advisor in the early mornings.” When it turned out I’d be in San Diego for an editors’ conference in early April, I asked Frank about driving up to get a shot of him for Arches’ Scrapbook section. He responded, “I have two really colorful new balloons. Check out the website” Which I promptly did.

Frank learned to fly balloons in Alaska in 1980. After several years of flying passengers over Anchorage, he headed for the sunnier climes of Southern California. He now operates his business as Sunballoon, booking flights out of San Diego, Palm Springs, Temecula, and Scottsdale, Ariz.

Fast-forward to our April meeting. I’m on the freeway, sitting in classic bumper to bumper, Friday afternoon traffic, inching the 20 miles between San Diego and Del Mar, I finally grasped the warning I had received from a local editor who strongly encouraged me to head north by 2 p.m. I didn’t, of course.

I was supposed to meet the Sunballoon group at a Burger King, east off the Villa De La Valle exit at 4:30 p.m. By my very rough calculations I wasn’t going to make it. I found the Burger King, a pay phone, and the only number I had for Frank—an 800 number for Sunballoon. As I dialed, trying to compose a message in my head explaining my failure to show, Frank answered. “We don’t leave until 5 p.m.,” he said. “Get back on the freeway northbound and take the Manchester exit.” He assured me this was faster than any back-road route.

Although I was less than enthusiastic about sitting in more traffic, I could see the picture I wanted to get of Frank—leaning over the basket of his balloon, ready to lift off, and sporting the UPS Logger baseball cap I had brought for him. While scrambling for pen and paper to jot directions to the actual launch site, Frank abruptly said, “Hold on a minute.” In the next instant we were disconnected.

Alright, so I had incomplete directions. How hard could it be to find a hot air balloon?

Back on the freeway, the Manchester exit in sight, I glanced off to the east and saw three balloons hovering above Caramel Valley. I drove faster, then noticed an open field where several trucks, large utility trailers hitched behind them, were parked. A good sign. Could this be where the balloons took off? No time to speculate. A full-sized white pickup truck hauling a loaded 20-foot trailer peeled out down a winding two-lane highway. The road was lined with lemon groves and a lovely, rolling golf course, but no time for sight seeing—these guys were moving!

I had learned from Sunballoon’s website that, although a pilot has reasonable directional control, the wind determines the ultimate destination, and the trucks were in a mad chase. So there was still a chance to catch Frank at the end of the flight if only I could keep the truck in sight. But I lost them when the road forked around a bend. Drat the luck.

Dusk was turning to dark. My adventure hadn’t been all I wished for, but it did give me insight into the allure of ballooning. The idea of floating above the rush of day-to-day life is quite appealing. I think Frank has found a pretty good balance for his. My next trip to San Diego will be specifically for a balloon ride. I know where to find Frank. Now if I can just catch him.