The Case of the Dead Drone

I took my drone out for the first time in a while last Saturday. It also turned out to be the last time.

I haven’t had the opportunity to do much shooting with it lately. The weather has been crappy, and the dry days we’ve had have been occupied with yard work. I’ve also been discovering that a lot of the area around here is restricted. Finally, at the end of the day last Saturday, I decided to take it down to the playground and just play with it.

The playground is at the end of a street, and is at the edge of some wetlands, so there are woods all around the non-street sides. Further down the street, there is a sewer road running through the wetlands.

Despite the cold, I had a good time with it, and despite being late in the afternoon of an overcast day, got some decent stuff. I got video circling the playground, then followed the sewer road. I followed the loop of the road around the block, and then crossed over the brook, through the woods, and found myself, rather to my surprise, flying over the ruins of an old barn that burned down in 1982. At that point, I switched over to stills, and got some pictures of it, plus some more stills of the area around the playground.

The end came about stupidly. I was flying at fairly low altitude rather quickly down the street. I’ve found that flying low and fast gives a really good sense of motion. The area above the street was clear; no trees; no wires. At least, there were no wires until it reached the playground, and the wires crossed over the street. I didn’t see them, and flew right in them. The drone caught, hung, then dropped to the ground, shattering its propellers  and spat out its battery.  Happily, it didn’t seem to have done any damage to the wires.

The other day, I carefully charged the battery to see how it was, and it seemed OK, and running the motors, they seemed to be running OK too, so I was cautiously optimistic when I went back to the playground to try it out again with a new set of propellers.

Unfortunately, as soon as I started it up, it was obvious that  it wasn’t going to work. The propellers made a buzzing sound; looking more carefully, I realized one of the arms — its a quadcopter — was bent, and the propeller was rubbing against the body.

At this point, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I really enjoy flying it, and I like taking aerial pictures, but I live in an area where a lot of the air space is restricted. I have to make a call just to fly it within my neighborhood. Eastern Massachusetts has a lot of helipads and small airports, and they all have to be notified when you want to fly nearby.

In addition, I never really got the hang of editing video. I put together a video of Medfield State Hospital that came out well for a first try, I thought, and then I forgot most of what I’d learned about iMovie because I wasn’t immersed in it.

I’ve already had to repair it once this year after it had been attacked by an osprey in Wellfleet Harbor; it ran me over $300, because the insurance I had taken out on it had expired. DJI had given no notification that it was about to run out; had they, I probably would have renewed it, but because of this history, I didn’t take the insurance when they offered it when they sent it back. I’m not sure I want to spend another $300 plus on something that I can’t use very much. On the other hand, it’s really fun, so who knows?

The Damage Trump Does

Shortly after the 2016 election, I wrote “So, Trump.” In it, I expressed the cautious hope that Trump would “pivot away from his more extreme positions, and perform reasonably,” and ended up concluding “it will come down to his willingness to be bound by the rule of law. If he recognizes that, while it won’t be great, we’ll be OK”.

Since then, I’ve been heartsick about what he has done to this country.

The American Constitution has been rightly celebrated for creating a government of checks and balances, and the way it balances the rights of individuals with the needs of the community to have law and order. It is set up to prevent too much power from accumulating in any one institution, and allows one branch of government to check another.

But just as important as the letter of the law in the Constitution, is the culture of respect for the law that has grown up around it. America was incredibly lucky in the Founding Fathers we had; they believed in the rule of law, and were respectful of it. Washington stepped down voluntarily after two terms; when John Adams was defeated, he made as many lame duck appointments as he could, but he also accepted the verdict of the election, and came home to Braintree. And when Jefferson became President, there were no purges of Federalists; the streets did not run with blood.

Over time time, this respect for the law became institutional and cultural. Sure, there have always been fights and arguments and disagreements, but they have been, for the most part, within the rule of law, because we’ve all internalized those values.

Character matters.  It matters especially with public servants. We expect them to have internalized the values our legal system was designed to promote. It is very hard to write rules to cover every contingency; oftentimes, it’s not hard to find a way to follow the letter of the law while flouting its spirit. Character matters with public servants because we have to be able to trust them to do what’s right, to respect our principles, and to put our interests ahead of their own, and we have to be able to trust them to do it, because it’s right, not because they’re afraid of getting caught.

About 10 – 15 years ago, a large company wanted to put a large complex in our neighborhood. The neighborhood organized, and it ended up in front of the local Zoning Board. I was so impressed by the Board. They were fair to both sides, they listened, they asked intelligent questions. It was clear that they were after what was best for the Town. They were what I expect from every public servant.

Trump is morally bankrupt. It’s rich that he and his mouthpieces bray about “Fake News” when he has no respect for the truth. I don’t think he would know what the truth is if it came up and bit him. He even lies stupidly, about silly things that don’t matter and are easily checked. He can’t help himself. He has – needlessly – squandered the trust in the office that the office requires.

He doesn’t think, he just reacts. He is constantly undermining subordinates, and tossing bombs foolishly on Twitter. He constantly needs to have his ego stroked.

He has made it very clearly that he regards racism and misogyny to be acceptable behavior, which has emboldened the racists and misogynists to come scuttling out of the woodwork.

Even before the 2016 election, it was clear that, at the very best, he had little respect for women, and at worse, was an abuser.

He has filled the government with the corrupt or the incompetent, or the corrupt and incompetent in the case of the EPA head.

Frankly, I believe he has sold us out to the Russians for the sake of his own business interests, and is following Putin’s instructions that will (and I don’t know if he is bright enough to realize it) wind up damaging our government, our nation, and our allies. I don’t know it, but I believe it.  I am hoping the FBI can either prove or disprove it.

But whether he is Putin’s Little Puppet or not, the damage he has done to our political culture is incalculable. He is dissipating the culture of respect for the law that has kept this nation going since its founding, and that’s the damage I worry about the most. He is constantly demonstrating that you can get away with flouting our values, that you can get away with disregarding inconvenient laws. You can get away with demonizing the free press, despite the fact that a free press is one of our core values. We cannot afford this erosion of respect for the law, because when the law is not respected, it cannot protect us any longer.

So far, he has kept — or been kept — within at least the letter of the law (mostly), but he has brought us a lot closer to the point where we are vulnerable to the kind of government takeovers we used to think could only happen in undeveloped countries. It doesn’t take much. Just a leader who feels above the law, and a force that will follow. It’s clear that Trump leans toward totalitarianism; whether he feels he could follow through, I don’t know, but whether he knows it or not, he is paving the way for some even more unscrupulous person.

I started this essay a few months ago; I set it aside because I couldn’t express what I was feeling. The mid term elections give me a little hope; it’s clear that respect for the law and our values is alive within many citizens, and they have made their disapproval known.

iPhone Ten Ess

I picked up the new iPhone XS a couple of weeks ago, the day it first became available.  I was replacing the iPhone 6s that replaced my iPhone 5s that shattered when some thoughtless fool knocked it out of my hands at the train station. I’ve had the 6s for about two and a half years; it still works, but the battery runs down quickly, and having skipped a couple of years of iPhones, I’d already decided that this would be my upgrade year, even before this year’s models were announced.

I took a lunch break the day the phone was released, and went over to the Apple store in Dedham. There was a very very short line — it didn’t run out the store — and they had the model I wanted: 256 GB, gold. It took them a few minutes to fetch it out of the back, then it was brought out, and I moved my SIM card over from the 6s to the XS; no fuss, no muss. I’ve kept the 6s, by the way, as I’ve been doing some responsive stuff for work, and it gives me another device to test on. Once I got it home, I plugged it into my Mac and restored it from the backup I’d made of the 6s that morning. A short time later, I was all set.

How it feels

Unlike the 6 and 5S, the XS has a glass back. It feels really nice in the hand, and the glass back is grippier than metal back on the 6s. I like it, at least until/unless I drop it.

The case is only a little bit bigger than the 6s case, so I don’t notice much difference in my pocket. The screen is much bigger, but I tend to use my phone two handed, so reaching the top of the screen hasn’t been too much of a problem.

How it looks

The XS is a revision of the form factor introduced with the iPhone X — it has no home button, and the empty area at the top has been reduced to a small notch at the top of the screen. Although the case is only slightly bigger than the old phone, the screen is a lot bigger — taller, especially. It is really nice for reading, both webpages and books. The text is sharp, and the screen is contrasty, thanks to the blacker blacks offered by an OLED display.

How it works

Because it has no home button, the way you use the phone is different from my old phone. Instead of touching the home button to recognize a fingerprint, and unlock the phone, the iPhone XS has Face ID – it can recognize your face by projecting an infra-red dot pattern on your face, and cameras to interpret the pattern, match it to your stored face pattern, and unlock the phone. 

It’s simple enough to set up; you go to Settings and Face Id, where the phone shows a picture of your face inside a circle of index marks. You move your head around until all the index marks turn green. 

So far, it’s worked well. It recognizes my face — even with my Oakleys on, and no one else’s. Operationally, Face Id will work anywhere where Touch Id was used before.

Because it has no home button, to get back to the home screen, you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This has been mostly OK, though there are times I’m finding myself pressing on the home button that isn’t there to get back.

Battery life has been much much better than the 6s, but then, the 6s is nearly 3 years old. I was having real trouble getting the 6s to last through the day, and it nearly led to some problems while I was London, and heavily dependent on the phone for finding my way around. I spend most of my time at home, on wifi, and I’ve been able to get two days out a charge if I forget to charge it overnight. The phone does offer wireless charging, and I’ve been thinking of picking up a wireless charger for my desk.

The phone is much faster than the 6s, and in fact, doing work development, I’m noticing it actually loads web pages faster than my work Mac. 

I haven’t used the camera too much yet; what I’ve seen so far, I’ve liked. I have seen some complaints online that the XS over-smooths photos. The choice to shoot HDR (high dynamic range) or not is no longer a choice. When you take a picture, the camera automatically shoots a burst of photos and combines them to create a HDR image on the fly — the processor is that powerful. Take a look at this sunset picture I shot near the end of my bike ride today:

Sunset along the Charles

Not only is the sky not blown out, but there is detail in the foreground. 

One of the benefits of this computational photography is Portrait mode. In Portrait mode, the phone makes a depth map of the picture, and then applies lighting effects to the foreground and blurring effects to the background to simulate the effect of using a longer lens and a wider aperture on an SLR. On the XS, the artificial depth of field enhancement can be applied after the fact.

I was showing off the camera to my friends the week after I got it, and snapped a picture of Rich, because he was unlucky enough to be be sitting across from me, and then played with the picture, adjusting the “depth of field” until the lights behind him were slightly blurred. It was easy to go from no effect to too much; we decided to go with something in the middle.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed a couple of times now is Hand Off for phone calls — I moved the SIM card from the 6s to the XS, so the 6s is now wifi only, but because both phones are generally on the same wifi network, and the 6s is still active, both phones will often ring when I get a call. 

Overall, I’m pleased with the new phone. In a lot of ways, it’s the same, especially since I started with a backup of the 6s. I have the same apps and music and books and the icons are mostly in the same place — the home page layout is mostly the same, the icons are just a little bit bigger and more spread out. I love the speed and battery life, and the having the extra screen space without a lot of extra bulk is really nice.

Off Cathedral Rocks

I went diving with my friends Jack and Jane this Sunday. Between trying to do painting prep work, and other interests taking priority, I’ve been diving very little this summer. Bonaire aside, this was only the third time I’ve been diving this year, and the first time I took the camera with me; I seldom take the camera with me on the first dive after a layoff, and the lanyard I use to attach the camera to me broke right before the second dive — fortunately, before I took it into the water.

Sunday’d dives were off of Cathedral Rocks; it’s certainly easier to enter from a boat than it is from the shore there. The first dive was with Jack and his friend Rich, the second with Jack and Jane. The visibility was OK on the first dive, and less so the second dive. 

One of the things you see a lot of here in New England is cunner;  small brown fish flitting around the rocks, but they’re very hard to photograph — they’re skittish, and don’t tend to stick around much. I’ve been trying with less than great results for years to get pictures of them; I finally got a couple on Sunday.

We saw a couple of very large lobsters both dives; Rich found one, Jack, the other, neither one would have been legal to take, so they didn’t even try. Jack also spotted a large red anemone.

The weather was great Sunday — clear and calm and warm, and the water was relatively comfortable too. Thanks again to Jack and Jane for having me along.

The Road Trip Back

We got off to a leisurely start back on Wednesday morning. After posting the previous day’s travels, we headed out to breakfast at the Cracker Barrel near the hotel, then headed back to Matt’s apartment to pick him up so I could get the nickel tour of the Florida State campus, and Brian could hit the bookstore to pick up some FSU merchandise. The campus is impressively big, but modern. It felt like it was bigger than the Boston College campus, but then, BC’s campus is tri-level, and I spent most of my time in middle campus.

And then we brought Matt back to his apartment, and it was time to hit the road. Brian had plotted a route that was mostly back roads to take us into western North Carolina.

We started on Route 27 out of Florida, and into Georgia. Nice road; for the most part we were able to maintain a reasonable speed, but it still had tons of farms and scenery. At one point we saw a sign for a general store; we stopped, and it was like something out of the thirties.

Eventually, we skirted Atlanta on the interstate, passing by Marietta, where my Aunt Dot used to live. If she were still around, we definitely would have stopped.

During the afternoon, we passed through a corner of Tennessee, ending in Asheville, North Carolina.

The only hitch was that the whole day, I was burping up breakfast. Damn you, Cracker Barrel. By the time we got to the motel, I was tired and slightly achy all over, and uninterested in dinner. I sent Brian off to get something to eat, and fell into bed.

Fortunately, the hotel had a free breakfast, and was able to to have avoid fried food for breakfast the next morning. Feeling somewhat better, we set off for Virginia via the Blue RidgeParkway, after  making an abortive attempt to see the Biltmore Estate, and discovering that it was massively overpriced.

The scenery was gorgeous. There are overlooks all along, and we stopped at several.  At one overlook, we took a short hike up to a mountaintop overlook. We drove up to the top of Mount Mitchell. the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, even though from it, you can see another mountain that looks taller.

I also discovered that drones are not tolerated in parks. I hadn’t realized it was a “park”; I thought it was just a road. So we pulled over, and I flew the drone out over the valley, and the next thing I knew, a ranger was telling me to bring it back in. We then had to wait for another ranger to come, check my id, and issue a warning. I didn’t get much video — I need to figure out what’s going on there — but I did get some photos:

Valley View from the air

After the rangers departed, we took a look at the time, and decided it was time to make up some time. We got off the parkway, and headed up to Waynesboro for the night. 

Friday was the last day on the road. We skipped breakfast, as my stomach was not in a stable state, and headed onto the Skyline Drive, bound for Gettysburg.

We spent an hour or so on the Skyline Drive. It’s gorgeous. At one point, we saw a deer, and another, a bear cub. 

We would have liked to have spent longer on Skyline Drive, but we needed to get to Gettysburg reasonably early. We spent some time on local Virginia roads, where we saw the Shenandoah River, and then switched to the Interstate to get to Gettysburg.

We got there around noontime, and stopped at the visitor center, where we saw a movie about the battle, and saw a huge cyclorama of the battle. Then we did an abbreviated version of the self-driving tour.

Gettysburg surprised me. First off, Gettysburg was and is an actual town, with an existence apart from the battle. The battle happened because the town roads were there. So when you do the self-driven tour, you drive out of the visitor center, past a huge cemetery (the townspeople were the ones who got stuck dealing with all the dead and wounded), into the downtown, past McDonalds and insurance offices, and then you pass some older houses, take a left and you’re on Confederate Road, where the Confederate troops were massed.

 I was surprised by how big the battlefield was. The field the Confederates had to cross was huge, and the rock formations the Union troops were defending from were tall, and afforded a good view of the approaching troops. I don’t understand how Lee possibly thought he had a chance.

Gettysburg is a place where you could spend a lot of time if you wanted to, but we were just about out of time. We drove around the battlefield for an hour or so, sometimes getting out, but for the most part just looking, without stopping to read the markers. We were done for the day by 3, when we started the eight hour trip back home.

Overall, I really enjoyed the trip, gastric issues aside. For me, it was kind of a reconnaissance trip — I bought the bike to do some touring, and I was taking mental notes along the way. Hopefully, I’ll pass by these ways again.


Into Florida

We made the second half of the trip into Florida yesterday, traversing North and South Carolina, and Georgia on I95 before crossing into Florida and heading west along he panhandle into Tallahassee.

I was struck by how many tall straight evergreens there were growing along the highway. I knew lumber had to come from somewhere, but it clearly didn’t come from the maples and oaks I’m accustomed to in New England. These grew straight and tall, and while they had branches growing off the sides, they didn’t really have crotches where the tree splits in two and then splits again.

As we were going through Georgia, we ran into thunderstorms. At one point, as we were approaching the storms, I could see an industrial complex way off in the distance under heavy dark clouds and shrouded in mists. Then, further along, we got into the storms themselves and saw lightning pounding the ground off to our sides.

We got to Matt’s apartment around 5:45. We met his roommate and girlfriend, then checked in before taking them all out to dinner. They seemed very nice, and we hung out with them for a while afterwards before heading back to the motel.

We’re running a little early this morning; as someone forgot to turn off his alarm. After breakfast, we’ll head back over to get the nickel tour of the campus before starting to head back north.

First Day’s Driving

Today was the first day of the road trip. Fundamentally, the purpose is to get my nephew Matt back to school in Florida; the plan is to get down there as rapidly as possible, then backroad it back.

We left Canton around 5:30 this morning, and drove through steadily straight through to the first exit in New Jersey, where we stopped for a coffee, fuel and bathroom break, then continued on until lunch in northern Virginia around 2, and then continued pretty much straight on until we got here in Fayettesville North Carolina. It’s been all highway driving the whole time, and most of it on I-95.

We managed to dodge a bullet just before lunch — we passed an overturned tanker truck that had tipped over coming onto the highway. It must have just happened when we passed it — there were people stopped there, but traffic hadn’t backed up very far.

We’ve passed through a couple of torrential downpours on the way down, and another one greeted us coming out of dinner.

Time to head for bed for another day of driving tomorrow. The goal is to be in Florida by the end of the day.

New Watch

I’ve been thinking about picking up a new watch for a while now, and I finally pulled the trigger about a month ago. Surprise, it’s not an Apple Watch.

I’ve admired the look of classic watches for a while, but I’ve had digital watches for a long time — since at least my one hour photo days, where it was essential to log the exact time a roll of film came in and what time it was due, and I’ve gone through a succession of cheap Timex and Casio digital watches.

But at the same time, I’ve started to find myself admiring the looks of analog watches, especially the ones with biggish dials and metal bracelets. At the same time, I’ve been aware of the Apple watch, but I don’t really care for the looks of it, and there’s nothing about the functionality that I find compelling.

I started looking a little more seriously at watches the beginning of the summer, and when the battery on my last watch died, decided it was time.

I wanted a chronograph style watch, preferably with Arabic numbers, with a metal bracelet. I was willing to go moderately expensive, but not too expensive. So on a Sunday afternoon, after comparing prices online, I went over to Macy’s to take a look at watches. I ended up with a Tissot Chrono XL.

Tissot Chrono XL

It was surprisingly heavy when I tried it on – much heavier and substantial than the watches I’d been wearing. I was a little afraid I’d get tired of the weight, but I decided to go for it anyway. I’m glad I did. I love the way this thing looks. It just looks and feels classy, and I quickly got used to the weight of it.

Moving from a digital to analog watch has been interesting. First of all, when I looked in the box, there were no instructions, just a catalog of other Tissot watches. Why?? I’ve just spent a lot of money on a watch, I’m not going to get another one right away. I needed to find out how to set it and how to use the chronograph, not peruse their history.

I was worried that I’d forgotten how to quickly tell time, but that’s been a non-issue. It’s been interesting though, that I now perceive time on the left side of the face to be much more about time before the hour than time after the hour — for example, in the photo above, it more obvious that it’s 20 to 3 than 2:35, as it would be with a digital watch.

I haven’t had to really time anything yet, so I haven’t really used the chronograph functions thoroughly. It did take me a while to find the the functions to reset the hands to their starting position — and it was a bit of a surprise to find that the “seconds” hand is on the bottom-most dial, not the main sweep second hand, which is for the chronograph. And I am finding that the while the hands do glow in the dark, they don’t glow all that brightly, and at that light level, my eyes don’t see that sharply anymore.

But overall, I’m happy with having a really nice watch for a change.

Day Trip to Martha’s Vineyard

I got a text from my brother Brian last week asking if I’d like to join Pam and him on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard that Thursday. Even though it’s close by, I haven’t been to the Vineyard since I was a teenager.

We took the ferry from Woods Hole over to Vineyard Haven, one of the seven towns comprising Martha’s Vineyard. The weather was perfect – sunny, dry, slightly breezy. The island is about seven miles off the coast of Massachusetts, and the trip takes about 45 minutes each way. The view from the ferry was great, especially coming into Vineyard Haven Harbor, passing tons of boats on the way in.

Once the we arrived, Brian rented a bright red Jeep for the day. We put the roof panels in the back, and headed off around the island.

The first town we passed through was Oak Bluffs, with its gingerbread cottages and old Victorian hotels. Then we passed the beaches on the long sand spit on the way to Edgartown. Once in Edgartown, we got out and walked around town for a bit, and had lunch. Then we headed west across the island, through West Tisbury and Chilmark, to Aquinnah, where we got out to see Gay Head.

Gay Head is a clay cliff on the western end of the island; it’s one of the few pre-glacial landforms on the island. The name comes from the fact that parts of the cliff are reddish. There is a lighthouse there, and an outlook over the cliff; we got out and walked around  a bit, and then it was time to head back to Vineyard Haven for the 5:00 ferry back.

We had a great time. It was nice doing the sightseeing thing, it was good to spend time with the two of them, and you couldn’t ask for better weather. The trip over and the scenery there got the photographic juices flowing.


2018 Quechee Balloon Festival, Vermont

I first went to the Quechee Balloon Festival in 2012, with my brother and nephew Matt, who were accompanying one Matt’s friends and father to the festival. I managed to get a balloon ride, and liked it enough to do it again with them the following year.

Since then, they haven’t gone again, and I’ve wanted to go back. I figured this year would be a good year to combine a balloon flight with a short motorcycle tour. So I booked a flight for Friday night, and made motel reservations for Friday and Saturday, in case of weather trouble that would require re-booking the flight.

Friday

I left home around noon on Friday, and ran into heavy traffic in Boston and on Interstate 93 up through New Hampshire. By the time I was on I-89, I’d lost over an hour, and didn’t dare switch over to the side roads.

I did eventually get to the motel barely in time to check in, bring the bags up to the room and switch my boots for sneakers, before heading off in search of the festival grounds.

The Flight

Despite being told to be there by 5 (which is why I was hurrying), they didn’t start processing reservations until 5:30. Finally, after signing off on a lot of paperwork, I got my boarding pass, and met Katherine, from the crew, who took me down to the balloon.

My pilot was Walt Rudy, of Aloft Horizons based in Ohio, and his crew chief was his wife Deb. I met my fellow passengers, and together, we helped get the balloon set up.

The balloon envelope is stored tightly packed inside a big canvas bag. It has to be pulled out to its full height on the ground, unbound, and then spread out flat on the ground.

In the meantime, the basket is laid sideways on the ground, and the envelope fastened to it. Then it was time to wait for the wind to drop, and the festival’s “balloonmeister” to give the ok to launch. It took a while for the winds to abate, but finally we got the go ahead.

The first step in getting a balloon aloft is to “cold inflate” it. The mouth of the balloon is held open by a pair of people — I was one — while fans blow air into the balloon. First there is a ripple of a bubble, and soon enough, while still lying on the ground, it’s nearly its full round shape.

Next, the pilot starts to heat the air, first with a couple of short bursts from the burner, then with longer ones. The envelope develops lift pretty quickly, and starts to pull the basket to a standing position. At that point, the three of us piled in — there is no graceful way to do it–and we sort of “idled” for a moment while Walt got the lay of the land. He added just enough heat to get us just off the ground, and his ground assistants walked the basket a few steps to get clear of our neighbors, and then he blasted the burners again and we were off.

We were probably the fourth or fifth balloon to head out. All the balloons headed south-easterly, over the Quechee Dam, Simon Pearce factory and covered bridge, and toward the Ottauquechee River. Walt tried to drop us down over the river, hoping to pick up a current of air, but the wind didn’t cooperate. We did float over the Quechee Gorge and past the bridge. At various points we could see our reflection, or the reflection of another balloon below us.

Floating in a hot air balloon is very different from flying in an airplane. You’re in the open, for one thing, and you can feel the open air around you. You can turn around and look in any direction. It was crystal clear, and we had the setting sun behind us, so the colors ahead were vibrant, while the balloons behind were backlit. And it’s mostly quiet and serene, punctured by the roar of the burners when it’s time to gain or maintain altitude.

We flew over a bend in the river, and a few farms. At one point, we passed over a stable, and Walt called down to the horses. It was peaceful and quiet, just the four of us in the basket, and the other balloons around us as we floated over the forest.

Around the half hour mark, Walt was starting to look for places to land. We would see little oases of flat ground in the middle of the forest. I could see he had his eye on one likely spot, but the winds would not cooperate, so we hopped over a hill, plowing through some tree tops, before he spotted an open field right beside Route 5, and dropped us gently to the ground.

We met the homeowners, and their children, who were rather wide-eyed about it. Walt helped them up into the basket so they could get a sense of what it was like, while the envelope deflated. The chase crew arrived only a few moments after we landed, and we had to quickly pack up the balloon – we’d taken off late, and had to get back to the festival for the Glow. As a parting gift, Walt left the homeowners a bottle of champagne, a ballooning tradition.

The Glow

After the evening flights, the balloons come back to the Festival grounds for the Glow. By this time it’s dark, and the balloons are re-inflated, tethered in a row, and then the pilots fire off their burners in sync to light the envelopes. It’s very pretty.

Walt’s crew was a little short-handed, so Steve, one of the other passengers, and I helped set the balloon back up. Once the balloon was re-inflated, I got out the camera to take some pictures and video:

After The Glow, I helped Walt and his crew pack the balloon back up. It had to be deflated,  the envelope bound up and packed into its bag, and the basket put on a platform on the back of the van.

Saturday

My plans for Saturday were pretty loose. I wanted to visit the Simon Pearce glass factory again, and then I intended to simply follow Route 4 West on the motorcycle, and see where it took me. During breakfast, Walt called me and asked me if I could drop off the boarding pass from the night before so he could turn it into the festival.

My first stop of the morning was the village of Quechee. There is a dam and a waterfall and a covered bridge there, which I’d flown over the night before. Next to the dam is an old mill, which is now the home of the Simon Pearce store, restaurant and glass factory. They make fine glassware right on the premises. The store is at street level, and the glass factory is at river level.

Once I’d picked up a vase for my mother, it was time to hit the road. Route 4 in Vermont is a really nice road for motorcycles — nice scenery, some curvy sections, not too busy, and in reasonable condition. There wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to see, I was just out for the ride.

Serendipity struck though; as I approached the junction of Route 106A, I saw signs directing me to Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge. “Why not”, I said, so I followed 106A, a fun road in of itself, to the Coolidge homestead.

There’s a small museum, detailing Coolidge’s life, and then you can walk through the village of Plymouth Notch, which, paving aside, is pretty much the way it was a century ago. There is a General Store, operated by his father, the Coolidge Birthplace, which is a small house attached to the back of the store, the house where Coolidge grew up, and where he took the oath of office, and the barn owned by his grandfather, part original and part a restoration. I joined a guided tour and got to see the insides of all these buildings.

After leaving Plymouth Notch, I headed back up to Route 4, and continued to follow it westward, to the fringes of Rutland, where I turned around, and headed back to the Festival.

When I got there, I found Steve and Kathy from the night before were there too, and together we helped get the balloon set up again, and helped this evening’s passengers into the basket. I was also grabbing shots of the other balloons preparing to take off.  Deb offered me the chance to join the chase crew, and I accepted. I did have time before we left to get a few more pictures of the festival.

The chase crew drives the van to where the balloon lands. With luck — and we were lucky this evening — it will get there just as, or slightly before, the balloon lands. Deb, Walt, and their assistant Katherine are all from Ohio, so we had a local friend of theirs, Tiffany, with us, to navigate the roads. There was a GPS beacon aboard the balloon and Katharine and Tiffany were both tracking it; Tiffany chose the route to get us to where they anticipated the balloon would land. This time they forecast it pretty closely; as we traveled along Route 5 we saw the balloon come over the hill; Deb parked the van, and we got out to run to where the balloon was landing.

The first order of business when the balloon touched ground was to get rid of its buoyancy. Walt continued to vent hot air out the top of the balloon, and the ground crew held the basket down. If necessary, the pilot will hover an inch or so off the ground while the crew walks the basket to a more convenient spot. Passengers are not allowed to leave the basket until the pilot says so — to lose the weight of the passenger suddenly could cause the balloon to shoot back up. Once Walt gave the go ahead, we helped the passengers out of the basket.

Once the passengers were out, one crew member pulled on a rope attached to the top of the balloon. Gradually, the hot air cooled and escaped, and the envelope settled onto the ground. As it did, the basket was laid on its side, the mouth of the envelope closed, and we started to gather up the fabric of the envelope into a long thick line to drive the rest of the air out. Velcro straps were bound around the envelope at intervals to keep it tidy and compact. Once the envelope was bound up, we got it into its bag. It’s a lot of work, and fortunately the homeowner where the balloon landed helped out. He had a couple of little kids with him and Deb put them to work sitting on top of the envelope as it was put into the bag to drive the air out. Once the balloon is in the bag, we heaved it up into the truck, then hauled the basket up onto a platform on the back of the van and fastened it down.

Once everything was packed away, Walt had a short champagne ceremony with the passengers and homeowners, where he told the story of how the Montgolfier brothers invented hot air balloons, and started bringing champagne with them to reassure the people where their balloons were landing that these strange devices were friendly. Story told, he poured out a cup of champagne for everyone, and left a bottle with the homeowners.

We then headed back to the festival grounds for the Saturday night Glow. Since takeoff hadn’t been as late as our flight, we had a a little more time to get back and get set back up. Once again I helped get the balloon inflated; once it was up, I walked around to to get some more pictures.

After the glow, I helped pack up the balloon one last time, and then it was time to say goodbye to Walt and Deb, Tiffany and Katherine.

The ride back the next day was uneventful. Since I was in no particular hurry this time, I took Route 4 back through New Hampshire. The weather and scenery were great. Route 4 ended at I-93; after a few miles of backed up traffic I got off the interstate and onto Route 3A. While on this road I made an interesting discovery: I was passing along the a river, and I had a nice view of it from the bike, so I stopped to get some pictures of it. I walked back nearly a mile, but found no spot where I had a clear shot of the river; my mind must have stitched together the flashes of the river as I rode by into one continuous vista that didn’t really exist.

I got home just before four, just in time to run some errands. Overall, I had a great time. I loved being in a balloon again, and it was fun helping out, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly physical work. It was good taking the bike on a longer trip, and hopefully I can work my way up to even longer ones.