As the Wind Blows

Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday.  If you do, my apologies for not joining you.  I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.

Getting high, above Pagosa Springs

Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away.  Not true.  It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett).  Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over.  Then your high-rise ride gets a little dicey unpredictable.  It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.

Possible outcomes as follows.  You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away.  You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter.  Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado.  All while literally hanging by threads.

Albuquerque’s big balloon bash

Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons.  After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque.  At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in.  Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines.  Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix.  See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).

Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare.  In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce.  So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown.  Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard.  They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls.  Breakfast?  Hmmm.  Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.

I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables.  After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon.  They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City.  As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.

Colorado Springs’ beautiful balloon glow

It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?)  The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century.  Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners.  Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing.  The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).

Up, up, and seriously away

Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way.  A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024.  You, seven other passengers, and your pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.  A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000.  Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is.  The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.

Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “On sale: $125,000 balloon trips to the edge of space”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Million Little Leaks

Several years ago, I worked out with a personal trainer in a bunch of one-hour sessions at my gym.  She was all about proper lifting and careful stretching – and nasty core exercises I’ve patently avoided to this day.  But she did give me one time-proven piece of advice: after working out, go relax 10-15 minutes in the dry sauna. You’ve already revved up your metabolism with the workout, so the sauna helps extract toxins from the body. Yes, and the sauna also helps imitate the heat and humidity of South Carolina in the summertime.

My wife & I are heading to the Palmetto State for a long-overdue getaway at the end of May.  We’ll be spending a few days in the western counties before catching up with our daughter and her boyfriend in coastal Charleston.  We’ve taken this trip before.  The difference?  Last time we were there in early April when the heat and humidity sort of caressed your cheek with a soft kiss.  This time we’ll be there to kick off summer and it’ll feel like standing under a hot shower.  Outdoors.  Fully dressed.

I’ve always been a sweater (no, I don’t mean the extra layer you pull over your head in the winter months).  After a long jog, my t-shirt and shorts are so wet they could double as sponges.  My hair falls wet-stringy straight down my forehead and the perspiration runs in rivers here and streams there.  Yep, I’m one handsome dude.  But where most people say ick, I recognize sweating for the healthy cooling/cleansing process it is. A sign my metabolism is alive and kicking.  Turn on the faucets, baby.

Speaking of moisture, isn’t moist one of the most atrocious-sounding words in the English language?  I’ve never made peace with those five letters and I know I haven’t used moist in a sentence in years (no matter how good my baked goods taste).  The English language has such beautiful words, like chimes and delicacy and silhouette.  Why disrupt the sweet-sounding party with a word like moist?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not gonna pretend a good sweat is ever comfortable (maybe it’s because I feel moist) but I’ve certainly gotten used to the sensation over the years.  And now that I live in Colorado?  Zero humidity.  Well, okay, there’s a little humidity here at 7,500 feet above sea level.  But most of the time it’s so dry, the needle on your tank seems to be perpetually on “E”.  This pathetic little voice deep inside your body pleads for, “water… water…” (think Tin Man asking for his oil can – that kind of voice).

A dry sauna room (aka a “hot box”)

Let’s go back to my dry sauna sessions.  Since you’re already asking the question, I don’t mean “wet sauna” (where steam is introduced into a room as tiled as a Chinese kitchen). I’m talking about that other room, with nothing but wooden benches and a nasty little blast furnace in the corner (wood-burning, electric, hot rocks – whatever heats like hell).  You sit there draped in a small towel in 200º F and for a few minutes, all is quiet and comfortable.  But then, almost imperceptibly, your skin develops a sheen.  You begin to glisten.  Suddenly droplets of perspiration pop out all over the place and it’s “open the floodgates, Poseidon”.  A million little leaks.

I won’t speak for the ladies’ locker room (that mysterious country club adjacent to our locker room), but sometimes the men’s dry sauna can get a little awkward.  When you approach the glass door, it’s so steamed you can’t tell how many guys are already in there.  Once you enter, choose a place on the bench without hesitation or you’ll be judged.  Good chance you’ll end up next to a heavy breather, which in some schools of thought is therapeutic.  Other times you’ll end up next to someone with headphones, which somehow don’t block the four-letter words of his rap music.  One time I was subjected to the wellness preachings of a huge Samoan-looking guy, where I thought it best not to argue with his musings.  All of which is to say, you never really know what you’re gonna get with the dry sauna.  It’s an intimate little sweatbox filled with semi-naked strangers.  Good times, huh?

South Carolina’s “Holy City”

When I’m in Charleston I won’t miss the dry sauna because Mom Nature will provide her own version round-the-clock.  The heat and humidity will promote enough of my perspiration to – as the family says – “make my face rain”.  I’m like one of those mysterious underground springs, where the water keeps bubbling up from the ground and you wonder if it’s ever gonna stop.  Every gonna stop?  Not with my metabolism.  For sheer entertainment value, if you’re in Charleston later this month, keep an eye out for me.  I’m the one with the million little leaks.

Flying Furballs

As I glance out the windows of my home office I’m struck by the calm of a late fall afternoon; the cloudless blue sky with just a whisper of wind through the trees.  I don’t see any aircraft heading to or from the local military bases, nor the white vapor trails they often leave behind.  No flocks of birds heading in perfect formation south for the winter.  No falling leaves spinning to the ground.  Heck, I don’t even see a flying squirrel!

Maybe you caught the story earlier this week.  Seven people locked up in a Florida prison are charged with spearheading a “flying squirrel ring”.  They trapped thousands of the little guys in the wild, laundered them through a dealer (what sort of person deals in flying squirrels?), who distributed them to several buyers.  The buyers then drove to airports around the U.S., where the winged creatures were loaded onto airplanes headed to far eastern countries.  Who knew: there’s a market for flying squirrels as exotic pets?  Asians pay top dollar for them.

Is it just me or is there something a little redundant about shipping a flying squirrel on an airplane?

Also, what kind of a weirdo goes to the trouble to capture, launder, distribute, sell, drive, and transport thousands of flying squirrels halfway around the world?  If you’re going to do something illegal why not deal drugs?  Does a flying squirrel sell for that much?

Here’s another thing I can’t figure.  What do you call a litter of flying squirrels… a “squadron”?

You must admit, flying squirrels probably make the top-ten list of God’s coolest creatures.  The Northern species is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  They have big doe eyes to help them see in the dark (picture a Disney character).  They forage for fruit, seeds, tree sap, and the occasional bird egg.  They’ve been buzzing the planet for millions of years now – almost prehistoric.

But let’s talk about those “wings”.  Flying squirrels have what’s called a patagium: a furry, parachute-like membrane stretching from tiny wrist to tiny ankle.  When the membrane’s stretched taut they can glide from tree to tree, using their tail for stability.  They can even steer their body like an airplane, using limbs and tail.  How far can a flying squirrel fly, you ask?  How about 300 feet?  Yep, put one of these babies on top of an American football goalpost and he can soar all the way through the other end zone.  “Touchdown”!

“Boo!”

Okay BUT… flying squirrels lost some of their coolness when I discovered this picture.  OMG, that’s just wicked scary.  Can you imagine camping under the stars relaxed in your sleeping bag and you wake up to the rapid descent of that?  I’d NEVER be the same.  And here’s another Halloween-ish detail: flying squirrels glow.  Their underbody fluoresces pink under UV light.  Why?  No idea, but that just makes them creepier.

Maybe I don’t want a flying furball for a pet after all.

I suppose I’d take flying squirrels over some of the other flying organisms out there.  You know about flying fish.  You may even know about flying frogs.  But did you know about the flying squid in our oceans?  Seriously, they can jettison out of the water by expelling water from their “funnel” and travel up to 160 feet.  They can even keep that water blast going in the air for extra distance.  And there you have it: the world’s only jet-propelled aerial locomotion animal.

This is wrong on so many levels…

Now let’s get to the stuff of real nightmares.  How about flying snakes?  Five species in Southeast Asia and India can glide like the squirrels.  They contort their long bodies to be concave (like an upside-down taco shell), which allows them to buoy on a cushion of air.  Not to be outdone by the squirrels, flying snakes can also cover the length of a football field.  They even make mid-air 90-degree turns.  I didn’t have plans to visit Southeast Asia or India anytime soon but now I’m never going.  No way.

Finally, we have the undisputed king of flying nightmares: balloon spiders.  These ungodly insects spin a silky globe along with a sturdy dragline and go for a ride wherever the wind may take them.  If I was talking about one flying spider I might deal with it but these guys travel in packs.  Large packs.  Can you imagine?  An endless assault of mini paratroopers on a mini Normandy, only you are Normandy.  “Incoming!”

“I’ll get you, my pretty…”

You can fill your skies with whatever you want but I’ll pass on flying squids, snakes, and spiders.  I’ll even pass on the Northern squirrel (they only live 5-6 years and have no interest in bonding with humans)  Oh, and for those of you with flying monkeys on the brain, those would’ve been on the cool list if I hadn’t watched Dorothy and her friends at such a young and impressionable age.  Still gets me.

Nope, I choose late fall cloudless blue skies with just a whisper of wind.  No squirrels anywhere in sight.

Some content sourced from the 10/20/2020 CNN article, “Florida officials say several people charged in flying squirrel trafficking operation”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

In Defense of Breakfast

I wish I could remember the first time I watched “The Wizard of Oz”. I was probably six or seven, and so many scenes in the movie would’ve been magical at that age.  Black-and-white turning to brilliant color as Dorothy opens the door post-tornado. Glinda the Good Witch descending in a giant soap bubble. The Emerald City gleaming green beyond endless poppies. But one scene disappoints at any age: when (The Great and Powerful) Oz is exposed as a mere mortal (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”)  It’s the same disappointment I have with Mehmet Oz right now.

If you know Oprah Winfrey you probably know Dr. Oz.  A cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor, Oz added “television personality” to his resume when he appeared on Oprah’s show more than sixty times.  Later he launched the daily “Dr. Oz Show”, addressing medical issues and personal health in front of a studio audience.  He also authored the best-selling YOU: On A Diet series of books.

I’ve listened to Dr. Oz a handful of times and his medicine seems credible enough, especially with his attention to homeopathy and alternatives.  But earlier this year he made a statement I simply couldn’t digest.  Oz said (and I quote): “Breakfast should be banned”.  WOOF.  To me and a whole lot of other aficionados, that’s a truly harsh statement.

I’ve written about breakfast before, and my unabashed affection for its foods (ex. see Dream Puffs and The Meal of Champions).  For me, “it’s the most important meal of the day”.  However, those in the know – Dr. Oz included – say I’m victim to a powerful long-ago marketing campaign.  In the 1940’s General Foods decreed breakfast as “most important” based on the claims of anonymous nutritionists, when in fact GF simply wanted to sell more of its breakfast cereal.  Seventy years later many of us still buy into the idea of most important.  We just don’t have the data to back it up.

Now, let’s clarify a couple of points here, especially for those of you who are take-it-or-leave-it about the morning meal.  First, breakfast on my table is usually healthy and/or whole-food.  I like steel-cut oats with fruit, soft-boiled eggs with pepper, and yogurt with granola.  I adore traditional unhealthy breakfast champs like pancakes and waffles, omelets with the works, and bacon/ham/sausage, but those are for occasional Sundays after church or special occasions with family.  My weekday breakfasts are simple and small, designed as much to fuel as to fill.

Second, I have to cut Dr. Oz a little slack with his breakfast ban.  To add context, Oz goes on to say, “instead of eating breakfast first thing every morning, eat your first meal of the day when you are really hungry”.  In other words, Oz isn’t attacking breakfast so much as the timing of breakfast.  Have breakfast for lunch, for all he cares.  In fact Oz says, “Have brunch every day of the week!”

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular approach to diet these days, where meals are timed to create periods of fasting and non-fasting.  If you subscribe to IF it’s difficult to have an early-morning breakfast, else you’ll have dinner for lunch and nothing for the remainder of the day.  I like the concept of IF; I just don’t have the discipline (nor the inclination).  Morning breakfast works best for me – every day at the same time.  I look forward to the foods and I like the fact I’m fueling my mind and body before putting either through its paces.  But you may be different.  You may wake up and not be hungry.  You may venture several hours into the day before even thinking about food.  Your travel mug of coffee may be “breakfast” all by itself.  Different strokes for different folks.

Even if the entire camp isn’t eating breakfast first thing in the morning (or at all), I must stand fast on this: Breakfast is a morning meal. 4am, 7am, 11am – I don’t care, as long as it’s before noon.  None of this “breakfast for dinner” nonsense.  Wait, let me grant one exception: Sunday brunch (where I never partake of the “lunch” items).  Otherwise, I think even Dr. Oz would agree with the old adage, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.  If we could all learn to eat like that, we’d be “great and powerful” every waking hour of the day.

Some content sourced from Somag News, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.