Two birthdays, a Hot Air Balloon Ride and a Tropical Escape

Final pie with whipped cream, lemon slices and lemon and orange zest

Years ago, yes, I hate to admit, but it was years ago, my mother and I were celebrating memorable birthdays. I was turning 40, and she was turning 75. We had been through some rough times in the previous decade and felt we deserved something really special as a way to celebrate. And what better way than a trip to FL, a hot air balloon ride, horseback riding, and a trip to Disney? So that’s exactly what we did. I’ve already written about our trip to Key West during a hurricane, but one of my brothers lived in Florida with his family, so it was a recurring destination. We’d head down to visit for a few days, and squeeze in a few days of tourist-time. But as a celebration for our birthdays, we were strictly tourist. I’ve located a few photos from back then. I know somewhere there’s one of my mother in a baseball cap, riding a horse. Have to add that one later, I guess.

Flames heating up a hot air balloon
Early morning flames. That’s me in the green.

The internet was a bit different in 1998

My first challenge, once we decided to go, was finding a hot air balloon company in FL and booking our trip online. Remember, back then it was dial-up, and there was no Facebook, Travelocity was just two years old, there was no Yelp, or any other guidance for finding things, except perhaps some reviews on the company’s website itself. But you had to find that website first! And, worse still, pornography wasn’t really blocked or banned on the internet. In fact, at that point, the “web” had only been around for 8 years or so. 

multiple hot air balloons at sunset
Not our trip, but definitely what I had in mind when searching the web Photo by Snapwire on

What’s porn got to do with it?

Well, let me tell you. Back then you did NOT search for hot air balloons and champagne in the same search phrase! I have no idea why, but I no sooner typed that search into my PC than speakers started emitting moans and sighs, and my search results were filled with ads for hot girls, and steamy toys. Within seconds some random company had infiltrated my computer and filled all my work and chorus related folders with all manner of erotic files. It took me forever to purge it all. At one point I felt I should just throw the computer out and get a new one. But back then, desktop computers were huge and expensive (I paid over $600 for mine!), and mine was just a few months old. So, I spent a few days, and relied on some friends at work to help me get rid of those unwanted files. And I kept my speakers turned off as I did it! 

Success, at last, we have a flight, or do we?

I did eventually find a company offering exactly what we wanted. I took a risk and booked two tickets for us for 4 – 5 months away. I do think that was my first online purchase other than the books I ordered monthly from Amazon. I crossed my fingers and hoped the company wasn’t a scam as I clicked the “pay now” button. A message popped up to confirm my purchase. Yay! Except were we all set? I had the date, and information on the time, but the flight was weather reliant. How would we know if we were “a go?” And we hadn’t booked our hotel yet. Would the company be able to get in touch with us to let us know when to meet them and where? My mother, ever the optimist, was certain it would all work out and I hadn’t just been ripped off for about $200. I wasn’t so sure. But it was definitely a YOLO moment and the company had a nice website considering the time so I figured they must be a real company.

We reserved our hotel in Orlando, got our passes for Disney, and booked a few dinners as well as a horseback ride through Disney’s Fort Wilderness.  Now we just had to wait for “birthday season” which meant the Fall. A perfect time to head to Florida.

A cupcake with a birthday sparkler
Happy birthday to us! Photo by Genaro Servu00edn on

Surprise, the balloon people found us.

We arrived at our hotel in Florida midday, and told the front desk that we were taking a dawn balloon flight the next morning. We let them know we’d been unable to reach the balloon company to let them know where we were staying but hoped the weather would be perfect for our flight. They told us not to worry, “those companies always track down their clients.” Really? That seemed so weird, and in today’s world I don’t think there’d would be a chance in hell of our ever getting our ride. But exactly at 4 am the next morning, our room phone rang, and the balloon company was on the line. They’d meet us out front at exactly 4:30. We jumped out of bed, grabbed our “flight clothes” and ran to the lobby for a cup of coffee before we climbed into the van with the other passengers. It was the day before my mother’s birthday and we were both excited to share this adventure together.

A once in a lifetime opportunity!

We drove about a half hour or so through farms and fields to the setup location. Balloons were stretched out on the ground, baskets were set up and we met the others who would be sharing our ride. Our party included six people plus the pilot and co-pilot. We had the chance to assist with prep including helping to unroll the balloon and place equipment near the basket. But mostly we just wandered around the field looking at the balloons, listening to the roar of the flames, and imagining what it would be like.

Eventually, our team came to tell us it was time to stop taking pictures because it was our time to fly! The basket we’d ride in was probably about 4 1/2 feet tall. It had holes woven into the material to use as footholds. My mother was just about 5 feet tall, and definitely not as agile as the rest of us. The idea of her climbing up that basket was a slim chance in my opinion. Thankfully, one of our fellow passengers was very tall, with the type of muscles my mother always noticed. He carefully picked my mother up and deposited her safely over the side in a matter of seconds. I climbed up, dropped inside, and waited while a couple slowly climbed up.. there we were, all 8 of us in the basket, with our balloon hovering overhead. The sound of the flames was deafening, but slowly we could feel the basket lift and we skidded over the ground. People waved as they waited their turn. Suddenly we were clear of the grass, and floating silently past houses, over cars with people walking out of their houses to go to work. Occasionally, someone would turn to look up if the flames suddenly roared to life, smiling, waving, and wishing us a happy flight! It was magical.

A photo my mother took of our shadow as we passed over a field

How high is too high?

For quite a while we were all perfectly comfortable. The ride was silent, except when the flames erupted to keep us aloft. We flew over cows in fields, traffic on the way to work, gas stations, and people going about their business. Up and up we went, until suddenly I noticed everyone, including myself, step back from the edge of the basket. We all seemed to subconsciously feel the height. I glanced at the altimeter. 1,000 feet. That’s the height beyond which our inner mind felt comfortable. Everyone laughed nervously when we realized we’d all had the same instinct. While it may not be realistic, it was obvious, in our minds, however wrong we were, we all felt that at 1,000 feet it would not be a happy ending if we fell out of that basket! I’m thinking our subconscious minds have a far looser connection to reality than we think!

We continued to climb, and enjoy the sunrise, with the world below waking up. I distinctly remember flying over a cattle farm. Cows were horrified, bellowing and running every which way to escape the demon from above. At one point a few broke through their fence and started running down a quiet road, mooing and making sounds I’d never heard coming from a cow. They were terrified. Every once in awhile we’d start to sink, but the wind was steady and with just a minute or two of flame our balloon stayed aloft.

a herd of brown and white cows
Not my photo, but definitely the view we had of the herd. Photo by Stephan Mu00fcller on

After a while, I noticed that our pilot kept watching one of the passengers. He was chatting with his girlfriend, but whenever the flames started up he’d look back at the pilot nervously and shake his head. The pilot would sigh and stop the flames as soon as he could. So we continued on like this for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. The pilot started laughing, because he was obviously waiting for something, but had to keep on turning up the flame… Eventually, we saw the young man turn with a smile, and nod. The pilot breathed a sigh of relief and radioed to the chase car that we’d be heading in. His voice sounded relieved, and I knew that the chase car had radioed a couple times about our landing options. Our pilot kept telling them we were going to continue a bit further.

It’s always good to have a Plan A, and a Plan B, and a Plan C (for Crocodile!)

The chase car notified our pilot of the best landing spot based on our location. Our pilot pointed it out to us, as we flew right by it. The wind was too strong, and he couldn’t steer us over to that area. So we waited, and floated, and the chase car called in with another location 10 or so minutes away. We shifted direction slightly and everyone was hopeful. We saw the chase car driving along below us, they took a turn, we didn’t…. the radio chirped again, and Plan C was discussed at length. From the look on our pilot’s face, it wasn’t ideal. For one thing, the owners weren’t home to open the gates to their farm. There also seemed to be an issue about where and how to land on their property. But with weather shifting as the sun crept higher, we had to take this one. Otherwise, we’d be driving two hours to get back to our hotels, and the chase car would have a very long trip home.

We were given landing instructions. It would be a “rough landing” since the wind wasn’t letting up. We’d have to brace ourselves against the back of the basket and hold on tight to the opposite side, basically shielding ourselves from the ground as we hit. And hit is not an overstatement. My mother was not happy about this turn of events at all. But none of u s were. She was just voicing her fear. The rest of us just hung on and prayed silently, hoping this was not going to end with all of us pictured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Crocodile in a marsh
That marshy spot we just cleared in landing was filled with these! Photo by Bianca on

Suddenly we saw the field ahead, and we started down. Past what looked like trees and fences, and a marshy spot which we barely cleared. Then suddenly the ground came up fast and we were all lying in a pile inside the upended basket. We scrambled out quickly at the direction of our pilot. Anyone hurt? Just a few scraped knuckles really, so we jumped up and helped grab the ropes and balloon and bundle it all up with the basket. The chase car people left a note and a bottle of champagne, tradition with hot air balloons. We then secured it to the ground and were told to quickly follow the pilot and his co-pilot, stay to the right side of the field, not wander, and not stop to take photos. We were also informed we’d be climbing over a fence, but we had to do so quickly.

What’s the rush?

Okay, I don’t know about you, but having my 75-year-old mother being told to scramble and climb and move fast made me pretty uneasy. What the heck was the sudden rush? But rush we did, walking as closely together as we could towards the fence, which we crawled through or over or under, depending on how big each of us was. We then walked about a mile down a gravel path. Our pilot radioed to the chase car, since they’d been unable to get the fence opened to pick us up. Eventually, after perhaps another ½ mile or so, we saw the chase car up ahead. They had a beautiful table set out for us with champagne, fresh fruit, cheese, and crackers. And a big bouquet of roses. The passenger who had been chatting with his girlfriend and seemingly delaying our landing was actually proposing to his girlfriend. He couldn’t speak when the flames were going since then he wouldn’t be heard, but when it was silent he was too nervous to ask. Eventually, though, he’d popped the question and got the answer he hoped for. We all applauded and he handed every woman in the basket a beautiful rose to thank all of us for being a part of this event. We then toasted with champagne and cheers, and read The Balloonist’s Prayer:

One of the certificates we received all those years ago. My mom had kept them safe in an album she kept

The Balloonist’s Prayer

The Winds have welcome you with softness

The Sun has blessed you with its warm hands

You have flown so high and so well

That God has joined you in your laughter

And set you gently back again

Into the loving arms of Mother Earth

While I don’t know about being set “gently back” we definitely all survived and had an adventure to remember for a long time to come. We also found out what the big rush had been. After we each received our certificate for flying in a hot air balloon, the pilot told us he should have had a crocodile sticker to add to it, because the field we’d landed in was full of them. They were trying to get us out of the field before those big boys decided to come over and join us!

Just the start of a fun-filled tropical escape

So that day ended happily, and our knuckles healed quickly. In fact, my mother had sustained the least of the injuries because when we landed, rather than holding on, she just went limp in the basket, and rolled into a ball. Leave it to Lillian to be the best at crash landing in a hot air balloon!

Our horseback riding adventure was a bit less comfortable for her. More to come in another post. But suffice to say, she thought we’d just be trotting around a ring. After our horses got warmed up, they opened the gate and we headed out. Lillian rode up next to me, and asked what was happening. I explained, “It’s a trail ride, Mum. Did you think riding around in the ring was the whole thing?” Unfortunately for her, she did. She then proceeded to struggle through an hour long ride through Fort Wilderness, standing up in her stirrups most of the way because her butt was killing her. Amazingly, she was just slightly stiff the next day. I hope when I’m 75 I can be just as active and brave! 

So in honor of my mother’s bravery and the need for some sort of escape these days, I’m providing a recipe for Tropical Escape Pie. It’s inspired by an Atlantic Beach Pie recipe I was sent recently during a virtual Pampered Chef Party. I’ve never been to Atlantic Beach, NC, but the idea of citrus and salt reminded me of that trip to Florida, and why not add a bit of mango, pineapple, and coconut rum???

Tropical Escape Pie

Crust ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers (with salt)
  • 1/4 cup sweetened coconut flakes (I didn’t use this in my pictures below but give it a try!)
  • 1 stick softened butter
  • 3 TB sugar
Saltine crust pre-bake

Filling ingredients:

  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup fresh squeezed fruit juice (I used 1/4 cup lemon, and juice from one whole mango and about 1/4 cup pineapple juice)
  • 1 TB Coconut Rum
  • whipped cream, lemon and orange zest and sea salt for garnish


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees F
  • Crush crackers finely either by hand (I used a potato masher) or by food processor but don’t grind to a powder
  • Add sugar, coconut, and butter and knead until the mixture holds together like dough
  • Press into 8-inch pie pan. Chill for 15 minutes.
  • Bake for 18 – 20 minutes, until the edges are just started to turn golden.
Whisk until well-blended
  • While the crust cools, beat egg yolks into milk.
  • Add fruit juices and rum, and beat until golden yellow.
  • Pour into shell and bake until the filling is set (16 – 18 minutes depending on depth of filling)
Firm filling, browned crust, yummy!
  • Chill completely, then decorate with whipped cream, zest and a couple grinds of sea salt.
view of slice of pie from the top
You can see the grains of salt

This pie is definitely sweet, but the tang of the fruit juices, and the caramelized crust are a treat worth going off your diet for! Enjoy!