Of balloons, littering and birthday parties

  • The girls ready to send their balloons aloft

    Michael Branch
  • A mylar balloon, trapped in Nevada's high country

    Michael Branch
  • "Lawnchair Larry" Walters, ready for takeoff in San Pedro, California, in July 1982.

    AP Photo/San Pedro News Pilot

Here in the western Great Basin, the high desert is rough and remote. This topography tends to keep out the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus Nevadensis (var. Redneckii). So while the dusty BLM roads in the sage-filled valley bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, Coors Light bottles and empty cans of chew, it's much harder to litter the high country. Except, that is, by air. I've picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what in hell is so jolly about California, the upwind place from which this aerial trash originates. But maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert shouldn't surprise me, since millions of them are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, even funerals. A company called Eternal Ascent will, for $1,500, balloon-lift your ashes away. Aerial pet ash disposal is only $600, though, so if I go this route, I'll advise my family to say I was a St. Bernard.

The moment a balloon is released it becomes trash –– trash that can cover serious ground. A 16-inch, helium-filled latex balloon can cover hundreds of miles and float for up to 36 hours while climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet, where it freezes, explodes, and rains down to earth as garbage, which some desert rat like me then has to tote away. And while latex balloons eventually biodegrade, metalized nylon balloons don't, instead becoming permanent features of the natural environment. Because they conduct electricity, they also cause hundreds of blackouts each year by short-circuiting power lines, hinting at the vulnerability of the grid. If "Cactus Ed" Abbey were alive today, he might enjoy the idea that the elaborate infrastructure of post-industrial capitalism can be brought down by a single, drifting, metalized Mickey Mouse.

By now, you may be wondering what kind of dark-souled curmudgeon goes out of his way to profess such loathing for balloons. Truth is, I'm taking this principled stand against balloons partly because I'd otherwise have to stand against something much scarier, like corporate greed or global climate change. But there is one use of balloons that I whole-heartedly approve of: Making lawn chairs fly.

As the story goes, on July 2, 1982, in a suburban Southern California backyard, "Lawnchair Larry" Walters tied 42 large, helium-filled balloons to his aluminum lawn chair, dubbed Inspiration I. He loaded it with the provisions needed by Western heroes: sandwiches, beer and a gun. But Larry miscalculated, and after his friends cut the cord that tethered him to land, he disappeared in a meteoric rise of 1,000 feet per minute. He ended up at 16,000 feet in LAX airspace, where a TWA pilot radioed to air traffic control that he had just seen a gun-toting guy in a lawn chair sail by. Larry eventually managed to shoot a few balloons and descended into a Long Beach neighborhood, where he became entangled in power lines and caused a 20-minute blackout. Unharmed, he climbed down from his lawn chair and was immediately arrested. When a reporter asked him why he'd done it, Larry replied, "A man can't just sit around."

Larry's heroism notwithstanding, the fact remains that unless you want to fly in a lawn chair or take down the power grid, balloons are trash. But the problem with being both an environmentalist and a father is that it's frighteningly easy to expose oneself as a hypocrite. In this case, the trouble started when our 5-year-old daughter, Caroline, insisted we celebrate her sister Hannah's 9th birthday with a balloon release. That meant I had to choose between being an uptight, sanctimonious, balloon-reviling ecogeek, and a really cool Dad who externalized the cost of his coolness by sending aerial trash downwind to Utah. I hesitated, until Caroline explained that our balloons would not go to Utah but rather to the moon, where she intended to clean them up herself, as soon as she becomes an astronaut.

Well, that's pretty persuasive, so we immediately began preparations for our birthday launch. We would use biodegradable latex balloons, release only one per kid, and be careful to aim them at the moon. We also decided that, just in case the balloons ended up in the Wasatch Mountains instead of the lunar mountains, we'd write something witty on them to compensate the finders for their trouble. On one, we wrote "PLEASE RETURN TO LARRY WALTERS." On the other, "SORRY, UTAH." Then I counted down, the girls aimed for the moon, and at "Blast off!" they opened their small hands and sent the yellow and orange balloons off into the azure Nevada sky.

The balloons rose, the girls cheered, the moon waited. It was one of those sparkling experiences when time, worry, even the incessant desert wind -- everything except the balloons -- stood still for one long, gorgeous moment.

I try to rationalize that because I've retrieved scores of trashed balloons from the desert, I've earned the right to release a few, but I know that's more of the same evasive horseshit we tell ourselves every day. The plain fact is that I littered, and had fun doing it. I hope folks in Utah will cut me some slack on this one. After all, a man can't just sit around.

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