States of Enlightenment

Balloonist’s Statement

You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus….
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

T.S. Eliot

The engagements are booked to the end of the world,
So we’ll meet at the end of the tour.

They Might Be Giants


States of Enlightenment was conceived as an excuse to combine a fondness for travel here in the United States with my love of being carried into the sky by big, colorful helium-filled toy balloons. The project’s most profound significance is that it provides an organizing principle for my summer vacations, and that understanding should be sufficient for most readers. However, States of Enlightenment is also some species of creative project, and for the curious, I offer the following by way of elucidation.

In some Eastern traditions, the “state of enlightenment” is nirvana, the quest for which is of great spiritual significance. For the present project, I have tried to reinvent this quest with a child’s literal-minded simplicity. Being lifted by helium-filled balloons is a very physical form of “enlightenment” and the “states” involved are the states of the geography lesson rather than states of consciousness. The spiritual journey becomes a physical journey: a summer vacation road trip in a pick-up truck, going to balloon festivals. Like most childish misinterpretations of our adult profundities, the results are amusing, aggravating, and, I hope, occasionally wise. Enlightenment -- are we there yet?

Enlightenment is sometimes found in paradox. In this project, I employ helium-filled latex balloons, most commonly a toy for children, to achieve manned flight-- an activity that must always be taken seriously as it involves the possibility of falling from a great height. It is the tension between these two elements that lends these flights their dreamlike quality, and is one source of their interest to me as a subject.

A cluster balloon flight appears to be the simplest conceivable mode of flight, but is actually quite technically challenging. Directional control a balloon is based on ascending and descending to take advantage of different wind speeds and directions at different altitudes. By fine-tuning ascent and descent with the burner, a skilled hot-air balloonist can exert a significant amount of control over where the balloon goes. On the other hand, a cluster balloonist can only ascend or descend by releasing ballast or bursting balloons, which is much less precise and can only be done a limited number of times, based on the ballast and extra balloons carried. After over twenty years as a hot-air balloonist, I still find flying a cluster balloon challenging and occasionally a bit scary. However, the images of my flights are so naïve and seemingly benign, that I receive a surprising number of inquiries from people with no background in ballooning or any type of flying sports who want to try it.

The whole of the United States is the stage for States of Enlightenment. America has always been a nation of dreams, running the gamut from noble to ignoble, from the practical to the wildly outlandish. Is “the land of the free” still big, free and good-natured enough to accommodate a person who wants to fly with a bouquet of oversized toy balloons? I’m in the process of finding out.

The success of States of Enlightenment depends very much on the “enlightened” spirit of people across the country. The logistics of the project are such that local assistance is always required, so I must seek out people who share my own particular sense of fun and adventure to lend a hand. These include the organizers of hot-air balloon festivals and races, local hot-air balloonists, local civic groups, and individual volunteers who help inflate the balloons for my flights. I also depend on the sense of humor and non-litigiousness of those whose cornfields or back yards I land in. Operating as all balloonists do under a body of regulations designed for mostly airplanes, I rely on local FAA inspectors to interpret the rules as they apply to me in an enlightened and creative way. I also look to local police to react calmly and with a sense of humor to activities that are lawful but highly unusual.

Driving back and forth across the United States, you come to appreciate how large it is. Though stamped with the same strip malls and big box stores, places still have their own unique history and character if you stop to look for them. The landscape is huge and varied, strikingly beautiful in places and always impressive for its scale. People are usually kind, and the notable exceptions at least make interesting stories.

So join me on this journey, to find the 50 states of my enlightenment. Our huge, colorful toys are tugging at their strings, waiting to carry us off into beautiful and spacious skies.


John Ninomiya
March 2005


States of Enlightenment