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  • In 1986, when I was 10 years old I went up in a hot air balloon with my thick new glasses and my grandma Bunny. Her name was Mary but everyone called her Bunny.
    She is almost 90 and still rides her bike around town and teaches elderly aerobics. She once went to Russia when it was still the USSR with Richard Simmons (famous exercise guru with a red perm) to teach Babushkas how to use household items like folding chairs to do workouts.

    It was cold that morning and I wore a stocking hat. The huge balloon was waiting for us in Newell Sargent Park, where I played youth soccer, and where, a few years later, I would fail miserably at American Legion baseball every weekend to the dismay of my step-father. The balloon was yellow with a bucking bronco on the side, the symbol of Wyoming, and to drive the point home it was spelled out for all to see in giant vertical letters:

    W
    Y
    O
    M
    I
    N
    G

    It was the only time I ever went up in a balloon. I enjoyed the views of the baseball fields, and the high school parking lot, and the sewage setting ponds. We landed rough near the airport and all fell over as the basket smashed into the ground, but the pilot made up for it by making a picnic for us at the landing site that had some champagne to put in the orange juice for the adults. The pilot had a short beard and was a jolly guy. I admired him. It was a dangerous job to spray fire into the belly of a balloon and carry strangers over sewage ponds. Maybe someday I would fly out of this hell hole past the high school and the baseball fields and the sewage ponds I thought.

    22 years later, in 2008, I found myself photographing a card game in a saloon in Manhattan, Nevada for National Geographic. Manhattan was a gold rush town turned ghost town and has only a few functional businesses. The card game went late and when the only living souls in Manhattan closed down the bar I was unsure of where I would stay. A man named Jerry Elkins offered a place at his home 20 miles north and I took the offer.

    I knew a few things about Jerry from the card game. I knew he bought a piece of land in one of the most isolated parts of Nevada 80 miles from the nearest gas station and grocery store, and was catering to and/or teaching: Star gazing, Homestead chores, Mustang Viewing, Knot tying classes, Swimming, Painting, Solitude, Artifact and fossil hunting, Basic horsemanship, Vision quest, Mountain biking, Evening campfires, Basic survival classes, Caving, Ghost town appreciation, and Prospecting.

    In the morning as I walked around Jerry's house I saw a photograph on the wall of Jerry, with a short beard, in giant yellow hot air ballon that said:

    W
    Y
    O
    M
    I
    N
    G

    on the side.

    He had his hand on the throttle that made the fire, that filled the balloon, that made it fly.
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