Guest contributor: Mike Branch

A Rant from Mike Branch!

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns

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Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has published five books and more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews. Also, he is funny.

His new book, Rants from the Hill, is due out on June 6.


A confirmed desert rat, Mike lives with his wife and two daughters at 6,000 feet in the remote western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range. Check out more about Mike here.


Balloons on the Moon

Our part of the desert West is so inaccessible that the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus nevadensis redneckii, is nowhere to be seen. So while the rutted, dusty BLM roads in the sandy, sage-choked wash bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, wide-mouthed bottles of Coors light, and empty cans of chew, there is simply no easy way to litter the steep, rocky high country. However, there is one unfortunate exception to this rule, and that is when trash is airlifted into these isolated mountains and canyons in the form of balloons.


I have picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what the hell is so jolly about California, which is the nearby, upwind place where all this aerial trash originates. Maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert should not surprise me, since millions of balloons are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, football games, even funerals. There is actually a company called Eternal Ascent that will, for fifteen hundred dollars, load your ashes into a balloon and float them away. Balloon launches for a pet’s ashes cost only six hundred dollars, though, so if I go this route, I have instructed my family to claim I was a Saint Bernard.

The moment a balloon is released it becomes trash, and this trash can cover serious ground. A sixteen-inch diameter, helium-filled latex toy balloon will float for twenty-four to thirty-six hours and can cover hundreds of miles while climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet, where it freezes, explodes, and rains down to earth in the form of garbage, which some desert rat like me then has to tote home in his backpack. And while latex balloons will, eventually, biodegrade, the same is not true of metalized nylon balloons, which become a permanent feature of the natural environment. That is the downside of these so-called foil balloons; their only upside is that they are really shiny.


Because they conduct electricity, metalized balloons also cause hundreds of blackouts in the U.S. each year by short-circuiting power lines, which de facto suggests the vulnerability of the grid. If Edward Abbey or Barry Commoner were alive today, they might enjoy the idea that the elaborate infrastructure of post-industrial capitalism can be brought down by a single, drifting, metalized Mickey Mouse. So the next time you release a balloon, do not think of it as a celebratory symbol of freedom. Think of it as trash. You should also think of it as you would a message in a bottle, because someday, somewhere, there is a chance that someone like me will have to read whatever unimaginative nonsense is on your balloon. Given this rare opportunity to communicate across time and space, please try to come up with something more clever than the message on the frog-shaped foil balloon I recovered out here yesterday: “Hoppy Birthday.”


By now, you may be wondering what kind of dark-souled curmudgeon would go out of his way to profess loathing for the universally beloved balloon. I confess that I am taking this principled stand against balloons in part because I would otherwise need to stand against something harder to fight, like corporate greed or global climate change. But there is one use of balloons that I approve of whole-heartedly: to make one’s lawn chair fly. Manned balloon flights date back to the early eighteenth century, but when Mark Twain defined a balloon as a “thing to take meteoric observations and commit suicide with,” he anticipated the incredible adventure of a true Western American folk hero, “Lawnchair Larry.”


Truck driver Larry Walters was a man with a dream. On July 2, 1982, in a backyard in suburban San Pedro, California, Larry tied forty-two large, helium-filled balloons to his aluminum lawn chair, which he dubbed Inspiration I. He then outfitted the lawn chair with the same gear that Western heroes have always provisioned themselves with: sandwiches, beer, and a gun. But Larry had made a serious miscalculation, and when his friends cut the cord that tethered him to California, he disappeared in a meteoric rise of more than 1,000 feet per minute. Larry did not level out until he reached an altitude of almost 16,000 feet, where he drifted into LAX’s airspace and was spotted by a TWA pilot, who found himself reporting to air traffic control that he had just seen a gun-toting guy in a lawn chair sail by. Larry managed to shoot a few of his balloons before accidentally dropping his pellet gun, after which he descended slowly into a Long Beach neighborhood, where he became entangled in power lines and caused a twenty-minute blackout. Perfectly unharmed, he climbed down from his lawn chair and was immediately arrested. When a reporter asked about the inspiration for his epic, fourteen-hour flight, Larry replied, “A man can’t just sit around.”


Larry’s heroic adventure notwithstanding, the fact remains that, unless you want to fly in a lawn chair or take down the power grid, balloons are trash. Fun trash. Colorful trash. But trash just the same. Now, the problem with being both an environmentalist and a father is that, whenever I rant about an issue, I always end up caught by my daughters in some act of complicity that exposes my hypocrisy. In this case, the trouble started when little Caroline insisted that we celebrate sister Hannah’s ninth birthday with a balloon release. I was in a tough spot, since I had to choose between being an uptight, sanctimonious, balloon-reviling ecogeek and being a really cool Dad who happened to be externalizing the true cost of his coolness by exporting some aerial trash downwind to Utah. I remained on the fence, until Caroline explained that our balloons would not go to Utah but rather to the moon, where she intended to clean them up herself, just as soon as she becomes an astronaut.


Well, that was pretty persuasive, so we began preparations for our birthday launch. We would use latex rather than Mylar, we would release only one balloon per kid, and we would be careful to aim them at the moon. We also decided that, just in case they ended up on the other side of the Great Basin—in the Wasatch Mountains instead of the lunar mountains—we would write something witty on the balloons to help compensate the finder for their trouble. On one balloon we wrote, “PLEASE RETURN TO LARRY WALTERS.” On the other, “SORRY, UTAH!” We then ate some birthday cake and ice cream before heading outside to position ourselves for the launch. The girls aimed for the moon, I counted down from ten to blast off, and they opened their small hands and sent the bright yellow and orange balloons on their way into the azure Nevada sky. The balloons rose, the girls cheered, the moon waited. It was one of those sparkling experiences when time, worry, and even the desert wind—everything in the world, save two rising balloons—stood still for one long, gorgeous moment.


I try to tell myself that, because I have retrieved more than a hundred trashed balloons from the remote desert, I have earned the right to release a few, but I know that is just more of the same evasive horseshit we all tell ourselves every day. The plain fact is that I littered, and that I had a lot of fun doing it. I hope my neighbors in Utah will cut me some slack on this one. After all, a man can’t just sit around.


  1. Doris Emmett writes:

    Absolutely delightful reading! I will try and share this with others –Lawnchaur Larry deserves to have his ‘story’ heard. I think you’ll get a pass on those balloons you released–the way it goes is ‘do no harm’ but ‘do as little harm as possible’ and teach others to do the same ! Think I’m going to love your book ?