By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
PONCA, AR -- Usually my knees knock
and my stomach churns like a washing machine when
embarking on an exciting, yet scary adventure. But
this morning as I watch the canvas of the hot air
balloon that will take me for a ride being unrolled,
long and flat on the grass, I feel calm. Perhaps
it's my surroundings, a foggy early morning in the
valley of the Buffalo National River. A cool breeze
rustles my hair and the dew is still heavy on the
My pilot is Mike Mills,
owner/operator of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in
Ponca. He has been an aeronaut for 15 years.
Arkansas Dept of Parks & Tourism photo
First filling the balloon opening
using a large fan, Mills then begins to release hot
air from a
burner to make it stand upright.
At its fullest, it is 77 feet tall by 33 feet across
or seven stories tall by three stories wide. It is a
medium size balloon of 77,000 cubic feet and made of
rip-stop nylon, like many tents.
Green, yellow and white, the balloon is imprinted
with the words "Arkansas is a Natural." This is
Mills' third "Miss Arkansas" balloon. Mills used to
fly larger balloons with bigger baskets, but now
prefers the closeness his current "Miss Arkansas"
She's standing tall and proud when Mills invites my
husband Mike and me to climb aboard the
approximately four by three foot basket.
Psshhhht. Psshhhht. Pssshhhht. Psssssshhhht.
So enamoured am I with this marvelous contraption
and its workings, I don't even realize we are
levitating at least six feet above the ground. Jim
McCammon, of Mills' chase crew, untethers the
balloon and there is no turning back.
Unease taunts me, but quickly fades as a shroud of
fog envelops us about 100 feet off the ground. I'm a
child again, wide-eyed with wonderment. Blue skies
beckon beyond the white veil. Suddenly, the balloon
pops out of the gauze and the world spreads below
us, warm and vast. I have never seen a more
beautiful morning. Perhaps because today I am part
of the sky, waking with the morning rays of the sun
splayed through the cloud formations.
I look at my fellow adventurers. We are all grinning
from ear to ear, even Mills.
The balloon simply drifts, like a mind without the
cumbersome body to drag it down. The sensation is
heady and peaceful. The basket lends security and,
"They call them the gentle giants," says Mills of
his flying apparatus. He adds, "My balloon ride is
more than a balloon ride experience because it is
taken over the Buffalo National River."
Indeed, the view is a dream that can only be
conveyed to the dreamer. To use Mills' favorite
word, the experience causes a feeling of "intimacy"
with nature. As I gaze down, the 150-foot cliffs of
the Buffalo National River look monstrous even from
this vantage point. The fog lays like a blanket in
the valleys of the rolling Ozark Mountains, which we
float above at well over 2,000 feet about mean sea
"It's the closes thing to being a bird as being a
bird," says Mills. "When you have this type of
experience the world gets smaller and a little bit
The wind takes us due North this morning.
Eventually, Mills lets the balloon sink lower toward
the ground in an area he refers to as Sneeds Creek.
We hover in the treetops, and I do mean in the
treetops, and he asks, "have you ever seen a tree
upside down?" He grabs hickory nuts from a nearby
tree and my husband and I reach out and touch the
I take a picture no one else on earth can possibly
have or ever duplicate. Those treetops stand out in
the foreground, more trees riding a wave of Ozark
hills stretch out in the background highlighted by
the soft morning glow.
Psshhht. Psshhhtt. Pssshhhttt.
When we're back in the wind current and cruising
north again, Mills spots a large dead tree. We have
a bombardier contest to see who can come closest to
hitting it. We spot a deer running in an opening
among the trees and see a camper eating breakfast at
But eventually, what goes up must come down. So
after an hour, Mills lands the balloon in a postage
stamp section of a field dotted with trees. Somehow
McCammon is there to meet us.
"We've been doing this so long together that we
literally dance," explains Mills of McCammon's
ability to meet him as he touches down in any
Surprisingly, it takes very little time to pack the
balloon and basket in the trailer. We head back to
the Buffalo Outdoor Center where Mills serves
champagne and orange juice and gives us the history
of ballooning and why champagne goes hand in hand
Most folks are just a few hours into their workday
and I feel I've already lived a lifetime. Mills says
with a laugh, "I always tell people, 'About four
o'clock this afternoon you'll land and the rest of
the day is down hill.'"
Our balloon flight took place in June. Mills flies
June through December. "November is my favorite
month because all the leaves are off," he explains.
He can see more wildlife and more of Mother Nature's
Mills offers one flight per day with two people and
flights can be booked two days in advance. Flights
are always dependent upon weather and last anywhere
from one to two hours.