Night Crawler

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There was an era through which 4 o'clock in the morning seemed a perfectly reasonable time to leave the house: Certain parties were ending, others were only just approaching their crest. It was considered good sense to pop home for a power nap and a touch-up before tumbling back into the night with a momentum that would carry you through the next three days. But those are faintly glimmering days. Today, a 4 o'clock launch is a significant, well-planned occurrence, smacking of the rarity of adventure. Especially hurling down a deserted freeway at 75 miles an hour on a collision course with Professor Muldoon.

Muldoon is a former newspaper ad man, a sizable gent with a gruff laugh and a prodding wit who generally wears a top hat, and who pilots hot air balloons for a living. He's purely cinematic in notion. Thoughts of Jules Verne's tight-laced, double-wristwatch-wearing Phileas Fogg going Around the World in 80 Dayscome to mind, as does P.T. Barnum's "Solid Muldoon," a masterfully chiseled follow-up to the "Cardiff Giant" hoax. Both Fogg and the Solid Muldoon were brought into the world just before the turn of the century, when technology was still happily wed to wonder, and magical things, both sinister and benevolent, seemed entirely possible. So I am not startled by the stark, dreamlike grandeur of a legion of windmills rising out of the hills as we approach Tracy -- there, bent like alien tuning forks, silently spinning in unfelt wind with pre-dawn mist coiling through their arms and flocks of inky night birds erasing their pale sections. Nor am I surprised by the abrupt way dawn rolls over us exactly as we emerge from the hills, turning the sky plum and dipping the gray valley in salmon and coral hues. It is cinematically appropriate. This is the crack of Homer's "rosy-finger'd morn," Hollywood's beloved "magic hour," and the most certain way to appreciate any stretch of the American landscape, be it trailer parks and power plants or rolling farmland and redwoods.

Even the Tracy Municipal Airport seems somewhat palatable at this hour, hedged by the shells of rusting Chevy trucks and mountains of freshly excavated rock. The keypad code given by Muldoon triggers the chain-link fence to roll back and we park near a van hitched to an oddly shaped load on a flatbed trailer. The driver hops out and greets us congenially.

Worth the Price of Admission: A dawn balloon ride with Professor Muldoon.
Paul Trapani
Worth the Price of Admission: A dawn balloon ride with Professor Muldoon.

"Must be waiting for Muldoon," says David Robinson, who, initially at least, I believe is the man of whom he speaks. After all, how many vans pulling huge basketlike bundles could be arriving at the Tracy Municipal Airport on a random Sunday at dawn?

"Oh, there's bound to be a few," says Robinson, a mathematics and meteorology teacher with a kind smile.

And he is right. Other vans pulling strange, cumbersome bundles arrive every 20 minutes or so over the next hour. The drivers wave to Robinson or stop to shoot the breeze before positioning themselves along the tarmac.

"This is the time of day," explains Robinson, "when the winds are at their calmest."

The sun rises over the horizon, dripping and wavering like a swollen persimmon, but more orange still. It's peculiar to imagine the most lovely sunrise I'll see this year might be over the Tracy Airport, but there it is, so commanding of attention that I very nearly miss the strange flying machine that wheels past: It has a single open seat with a small engine and propeller attached to the back, and a couple of levers for control. It is utterly Verneian and certainly only meant to be aloft in movies and fanciful literature, I think. I'm clearly not up to date on my lightweight aircraft technology; this is, I am told, a power parachute.

Robinson, who has been flying for over 30 years, prefers balloons. As a child he intended to pilot planes but, inspired by a newspaper article, he built a small hot air balloon out of a vacuum cleaner bag and several candles. Some time later he got on the ground crew of a real balloon and in 1972, for $1,000 down and 36 easy monthly payments, he bought his first. Over the years he's given rides and instruction, but now flying is a hobby.

"There is a real danger here that you might get hooked," the Half Moon Bay resident warns.

Gary Michalak, a lean, swaggering equipment finance banker from Lafayette, arrives with his balloon in tow.

"I'm an aberration in the ballooning world," says Michalak with a riverboat grin. "I bought my balloon on a bet, from a repossessed car auction. I had no idea it was considered an aircraft, that I needed flying lessons and a pilot's license. I thought I could just tie it to a tree in the back yard." But Michalak caught the bug as well, and he unfurls tales of ballooning over Lake Tahoe and Nevada, of night flights during full moons, of reaching 12,000 feet where canned oxygen is recommended, and of huge rallies where the sky is teeming with bobbing, floating kaleidoscopes of color.

"Good luck with Muldoon," chortles Michalak as he drives out onto the runway.

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