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Getting high off hot air

Caramie Schnell
Dominique Taylor/The Vail TrailPart of the fun for balloon owner Merlin is not so much showing clients how high he can go but rather how low he can go.
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Seven mornings a week, nearly 365 days a year, Merlin Sagon rises before the sun and heads west, toward the airport in Gypsum. Merlin has a unique claim-to-fame.

“I have the largest toys in the valley,” the ruddy-checked, bearded-face Merlin tells me, referring to the three brightly colored 83-foot hot air balloons his company Camelot Balloons uses for commercial flights.

After our ride to the sky inflates, six people pile into the balloon’s basket and Merlin takes his place under the burner. A thousand feet off the ground he gestures to the ground below.

“You’ll find this is a very peaceful way to fly,” he says. “This is my version of getting high in the mountains.”

During Merlin’s 18 years flying balloons around the valley, he’s seen and done a lot – he’s landed his gentle giants in a few front yards and gotten mostly great receptions; he’s witnessed engagements and performed wedding ceremonies for his clients; he’s watched coyotes, foxes, mountain lions and elk move through the fields of juniper, sage and pinon below. At least once a year Merlin fields a call from a hunter asking to hunt from his balloon – which is not legal by any means, Merlin tells the group.

Roughly an hour after take-off, and a few treetop scrapes to grab pinecone souvenirs later, the balloon descends. The chase crew greets us with smiles, helps us out of the basket and Merlin drives the group back to where we started the morning.

It’s time for graduation, Merlin says as he starts popping Champagne corks. After man’s first flight in a hot air balloon 220 years ago, they toasted the event with bubbly and Merlin does the same after every flight.

“I’ve had people think they could drink me out of Champagne – they were wrong,” he laughs. “I buy my Champagne by the pallet-load – 58 cases at a time.”

Cheers to that.

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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