Question: What happens when you really tighten your belt?

If you are at all like me, there is fine layer of bacon and whiskey that balloons out above the belt line.

OK, maybe your belly bulges with butter and beer or broccoli and wheat grass but, the tighter the belt, the more inflationary the bulge. It's simple cause and effect; as pregnant women in Spanish-speaking countries say, "Panza que avanza."

As metaphorical belt-tightening puts a grim outlook on summer adventures this year, it's unlikely many people will think paying $225 for a balloon is a very sound idea. Especially a balloon you can't keep. And, until recently, I would have agreed.

But then I took a ride in a hot-air balloon. It's something I've been tempted to do for years, but it often seemed expensive or felt too touristy or just plain ridiculous and excessive. But it's none of those things. Instead, it's an easy way to have what the writer and monologist Spalding Gray called "a perfect moment."

Whenever Gray traveled, he would become desperately anxious about having an experience that would shock him out of self-awareness and become the embodiment of his travel, his motive for existence—a kind of quiet, metaphysically affirming, exhilaration of the soul. If you're inclined to look for such a thing, hot-air ballooning is pretty much cheating.

Of course, I was skeptical up to the last minute.

For starters, I'd seen David Sedaris read in Albuquerque the night before. He was mediocre. His life experience, once such fruitful material, has become almost entirely confined to touring and self-promotion, which made the reading oddly narcissistic for both Sedaris and the audience.

I followed up the letdown with some unremarkable Thai food, climbed on my motorcycle toward midnight and chased a cold front and a rainstorm all the way to Taos, arriving around 2 am. So when I woke up at 5 am in order to meet the crew of the Pueblo Balloon Company 45 minutes later, I was entirely prepared to be sleepily underwhelmed. Such a condition is not improved by pre-packed hotel coffee or enthusiastic balloon pilots who are in the habit of getting up well before dawn and think it's just the greatest thing ever.

We drove out through Arroyo Hondo, crossed the Rio Grande at the little-known Dunbar Bridge, and snaked up an old stage coach and cattle trail to a perch on the west side of the Taos Gorge. The sun was standing up over Taos Mountain and the previous night's storm had left the sky clear and the morning crisp and beautiful. So my mood was improving.

By the time the balloon was unfurled and it began to inflate with air and hot gasses urged on by huge bursts of flame, I was downright perky. But my spirits fell as the balloon swelled to reveal the words "Easy Springs Casino."

"Great," I thought. "Ballooning is expensive enough that people shouldn't have to ride in a giant floating gambling advertisement." But it turned out that Easy Springs is a now-defunct casino in Nevada and that one of the crew, Barbara, had actually won the balloon in a poker game. It's funny how things can suddenly go from appalling to kind of cool.

When the giant balloon was upright, the assembled passengers—mostly journalists diligently investigating Taos' Summer of Love 2009 tourism campaign—clambered into the basket. We skipped across the ground, bouncing a couple of times with a bumpy awkwardness that made the sudden lift into calm air seem a miracle. There was none of the perilous, stomach-dropping ascendency I had imagined.

Instead, there was peace.

The land and the river unfolded beneath us, rippling out in all directions as we drifted upward in a preternatural Zen symphony comprised of silence, punctuated by occasional hot blasts of flame firing up into the interior of the balloon. The balloon answered in turn with a performance of light and color across its taut skin.

Or at least it would have been like that if the basket wasn't full of journalists busy jabbering, snapping photos, taking video and updating their Twitter feeds. Nothing makes you feel like an ass so much as being among your peers and realizing how collectively monstrous you are.

Fortunately, the balloon overpowers all else. The quiet, steady drift of the balloon and its effortless graces hides the skill of the pilot, in this case Pueblo owner Ed Smith. In 1991, Smith took a casual ride in a balloon. A year later, he took a second ride, this time in his own balloon. Smith can't fight the wind or determine the final direction of the balloon, but by deftly ascending and descending, he can use crosscurrents to a degree that passes for expert control.

From 1,000 feet in elevation, we dropped to the edge of the gorge, drifted another 650 feet down to dip the basket into the coursing spring waters of the Rio Grande and then climbed again, the balloon's shadow huge against cliff walls, a spectacle for vultures and raptors. Smith said the maneuver is called either a "dip and drip" or a "splash and dash," depending on how deep into the water you go.

I call it a perfect moment.

As we steered toward a landing point, the scent of sage filling the hot valley floor rose to meet us. We skimmed the top of the scrub, still ethereal just a few feet above the ground, and drifted into the waiting arms of the chase crew.

After deflating and packing up the balloon, the Pueblo crew broke out champagne and orange juice. They were adhering to a tradition that goes back to the first manned-balloon flight, the history of which the crew delivered in entertaining fashion as we quietly sucked down our mimosas and came to terms with the bittersweet return to earth.

Pueblo Balloon Company
Year-round balloon flights
$225 adults, $100 children
Discounts available for large groups