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After graduating from the University of Montana in the 1970s, Gisselbeck signed up for the Peace Corps, taking on a hardship posting in Sierra Leone. Fresh out of college, he taught English for three years in a classroom without electricity or running water. He calls it a "tough job," but optimistically adds that it allowed "a poor farm kid from Montana [to see] the world." To round out the adventure, he traveled from Kenya to England, taking whatever public transport was available.
Once Gisselbeck made it back to the United States, he wound up teaching at Thompson Falls' Spring Creek Lodge Academy for at-risk youths in the mid-'80s. It was important work, he says, but emotionally taxing. Part of his job at the lodge was to keep the kids' fleet of mountain bikes in good shape, which gave him a glimpse of his future. He left Thompson Falls to work as a bike mechanic in Seattle for more than a year, then returned to Missoula, where he's been fixing bikes and skis ever since.
There are downsides in the day of a mechanic, he says, like the boredom of mundane tasks and the occasional attempt to rescue a bike that's better suited for a junk heap. But for the most part, Gisselbeck's pretty pleased that he can support himself and, just as important, have access to some of the most beautiful country on earth. He sees a nonmaterialistic, outdoorsy lifestyle as a "poke in the eye" to the upper classes. "The idea that you should be working 80, 90 hours a week, even to get highly paid, that's obscene," he says.
When Gisselbeck turned 50, he had a "midlife crisis" of sorts and resolved to ski at least once a month, year-round. He likes lift skiing just fine, but relishes the pristine calm of Bitterroot or Glacier backcountry during the spring. He calls May the start of the "real ski season."
"It's nice to have jobs where you can go, 'It's my birthday next Tuesday, I'm gonna take that off and go ski.'"
Occupation: Hot Air Balloon Pilot
Place of work: Mountain Butterfly LLC
Salary: $12,000 just for piloting
Michael Rees glances up from the handheld GPS hanging from his neck just long enough to check the horizon line. The peaks behind the nearer ridges are beginning to sink awaya sure sign that we're losing altitude. Rees flicks a switch above him and, in response, a four-foot flame shoots upwards from one of the two propane burners overhead with a deafening roar. Rees' lips move as he counts to three. He shuts off the burner, then consults his GPS again. The peaks along the horizon start to grow again.
We're dangling above Missoula's South Hills at 5,100 feet in the smallest of the three hot air balloons that make up the Mountain Butterfly LLC fleet. Rees calls it a "glorified laundry hamper," and it seems an odd place for him to be. Rees doesn't particularly enjoy heights. "I don't like commercial aircraft," he told me a few days ago. Every time he flies in an airplane, he resigns himself to the fact that he's going to die. Yet here he is, an FAA-licensed pilot with a graying mustache and a brown leather jacket, consulting three different GPS units in the hopes of finding that perfect northwesterly air current that will take us from 39th and Paxson over to a golf course off West Mullan.
"I can't even tell what direction we're going," I say, peering down at the Bitterroot River. The balloon is moving so slowly, it almost feels like standing on the top of a skyscraper.
"Watch the tips of the trees," he replies. "Pick one and use it like a gunsight."
Rees is full of little tricks like that. The bevy of instruments strapped around the balloon's basket give him detailed read-outs, but he can sense subtle changes in direction simply from the wind hitting his face. The horizon can tell him whether he's going up or down. Smoke from slash fires or the stacks on the north end of town help him gauge what direction the wind is going at certain altitudes. If he sees hawks circling, it means trouble. They're riding thermal columns, and thermals aren't good for a balloon pilot.
Rees used to have flying dreams as a kid. They stopped for a long time, but in 1981, he had another. This time the dream was different. Rees was in some sort of bucket, and something large and dark and ominous towered above him. He explained it to his partner the next morning, and she told him it sounded like a hot air balloon. She bought him a test flight in Billings as a gift.
"It far surpassed the dream," Rees says. "Far surpassed it. I wept on my first flight."
By 1982, Rees had logged enough hours to get his commercial pilot's license, and he began offering flights out of Missoula with the original Mountain Butterfly. Ballooning took him to Napa Valley, Squaw Valley and Jackson Hole before he moved to Stevensville. He's crossed mountain ranges, flown for 100 straight miles at roughly 16,000 feet, hopped from Lake Tahoe to Reno to Carson City and Chilcoot. He even flew actor Brendan Fraser and his family along the Blackfoot River. When you're in the laundry hamper, you truly are in Rees' world.
It's not a cheap place to visit. Rees charges between $235 and $1,000 per person depending on the trip. But it's not a cheap place to live, either. The smallest of his balloons cost $52,000; the largest, Tweedy, cost $78,000. The balloons have a limited lifespan as well, Rees says, somewhere between 750 and 1,000 hours. Then there's the cost of propane tanks, backup propane tanks, crew pay, Rees' pay. Translation: You've got to make enough per flight to cover your expenses, pay off your debt and still save up for a replacement balloon before the first one's life runs out.
"To give you an idea, it's almost $2,000 to put it in the air every time," says Rees' partner, Gretchen Spiess. "We get calls quite a bit and people think that it'll be $50, $75, $100. It's like, 'Sorry.' And we've skimmed it to the bare-bones."
Rees relies on an ever-changing list of about 25 crew members—many of them volunteers—and he's always on the lookout for more. Any fewer, he says, and there'd be zero chance of getting three to show up on a moment's notice. The weather has to be just right for Rees to launch, which is why he asks clients to name two alternatives in addition to their preferred date of riding. If the winds aren't cooperating one day, they could be on another. While Rees has managed to make ballooning his main revenue stream over the past decade, ballooning is still an unpredictable occupation to say the least.
"It's an environment you can't control, you can't predict and you can't see," Rees says. "It has intentions all its own, and you really do have to pay attention to what's around you."
Rees is tempted to try a "splash and dash" this morning—a move where he descends to a wide stretch of river and skims the water—but we're having a tricky enough time just finding that northwesterly breeze. As we near the Ranch Club on West Mullan, Rees radios the airport control tower to announce that we're making our terminal descent. The wind picks up considerably closer to the ground, pushing us toward a water hazard. My stomach jumps, but Rees casually tosses a rope over the bolster. His crew below grabs it and, as the earth rushes up to meet us, they wrestle the basket over to a clear patch of ground right next to the golf course's dirt road.
A couple days ago, I asked Rees what keeps him going through the financial uncertainty, the finicky weather, the fact that he doesn't even like heights. He just smiled and said, "Wait 'til you go up. Wait 'til you go up." Now, with the propane shut off and the balloon crumpling to the ground, Rees shoots me that same smile.
"Get it now?"