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"Hey, wanna go up in a balloon?"

"Sure, when?""Saturday, 6 a.m."

"Right . . ."

But, there I stood at 5:57 a.m. in an empty field, waiting for my first balloon ride ever, wondering if I had mistakenly awakened myself on the wrong morning.

The glow of the morning sun shone pink on the few clouds in the sky and, out of nowhere, a man approached and asked if I was there for the balloons.

Val Hale, who's been a part of America's Freedom Balloon Fest for three years, invited me to his pickup, all the while explaining that there would be about six balloons participating in a preliminary "Hare and Hound" game.

To play, balloonists carry a bean bag that they must drop on a red "X" that is placed somewhere in the city. The closest beanbag wins.

There will be a record 35 balloons at the festival, which runs Monday through Wednesday at Freedom Field, 1250 N. 200 West.

People finally started to trickle in. Bill Talbot, chairman of this year's Balloon Fest, said balloonists from six states will participate with a special appearance of some specialty balloons. One will be in the shape of a strawberry, he said. And another will show off a hand-painted rabbit.

Then Pete Brown came along. He said there is a free balloonmaking event for those 18 and younger. On Wednesday, local balloonists will teach kids how to make balloons and then they will be judged. "There is no cost and anyone can walk in and do it," Pete said.

By this time, I was really wondering. It was 6:20 a.m. and there were only a few people with vans; no signs of balloons anywhere. Knowing I had a full day ahead of me, I asked Val how long the balloon ride would take. He smiled and told me I could be off the ground in 10 minutes.

"Right. . ." I smiled back.

Finally a few baskets began to appear and Val assigned Deseret News photographer Boone Chen and me to Will Jefferies from Bountiful.

Ten minutes later, we had inflated a large red balloon which had 20-foot high letters spelling Video Palace, Jeffries' Bountiful business. I couldn't believe the balloon was inflated and ready for "launch" in such a short time.

Boone and I climbed in (with our red, white and blue beanbag ready for the competition) and lifted off.

First thought. "Hey, uh, Will, do you see those telephone wires?" Of course he did. Will has been flying for two years and is an experienced airplane pilot to boot. We cleared the wires by a mile.

There was little wind and, as Will said, "Balloonists are at the mercy of the wind." So, we drifted and waited. Because balloons can only be controlled vertically, you may sit in an air pocket for minutes before finding a small breeze that will gently tap you in another direction.

As far as I can see, a balloonist needs two things besides money: knowledge and patience.

Provo is beautiful from 750 feet up, especially the silence, broken only by the occasional "whoosh" of the propane adding some hot air.

The flight was all too short and, in that time, none of the six balloons seemed to be able to get back to the target to drop a beanbag. Will said if it were a real competition they would have tried harder, but it was a nice change to be up in the air just for fun.

Just before we landed in a field near Rock Canyon Elementary School, we brushed the tops of a few trees and had a conversation or two with some children who saw us out of their home windows. People are nice when you fly by in a balloon. We smiled and waved back.

The landing was smoother than any 747, and I was already planning my next flight. Next time I'll go after a snowstorm. Or maybe I could skydive out of a balloon. Right. . .