The Legacy of Lawn Chair Larry
Ever wonder where all our balloons wind up? A Utah hiker finds out, and remembers a legend.
Ed note: Everybody loves balloons. And the urge to let them go—to watch them fly up into the unknown—can be almost irresistible.
Thirty years ago years ago this week, 33-year old Larry Walters gave into that urge in a big way. He pulled a lawn chair out of his garage, tied a bunch of helium-filled weather balloons to it, grabbed a parachute, CB radio and pellet pistol, and, with the help of a couple of friends, launched himself into the airspace over Southern California.
Miraculously, he survived. And the legend of Lawn Chair Larry was born. We were reminded of Larry (not to mention Kent Couch, who performed a similar feat in 2007 and again in 2008), and the fact that all balloons eventually land somewhere, when we read this post.
Out here in the high elevation desert of Silver Hills, the country is rough and remote. Much of it is so inaccessible that the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus nevadensis (var. redneckii), is nowhere to be seen. So while the rutted, dusty BLM roads in the sage-filled valley bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, Coors light bottles and empty cans of chew, there’s simply no easy way to litter the steep, rocky high country. There is only 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’ve picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what in hell is so jolly about California, which is the nearby, upwind place where all this aerial trash originates. But maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert shouldn’t surprise me, since millions of balloons are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, even funerals. There is, in fact, a company called Eternal Ascent that will, for $1,500, load your ashes into a balloon and float them away. Balloon launches for a pet’s ashes cost only $600, though, so if I go this route I’m going to advise my family to say that I was a Saint Bernard.
The moment a balloon is released it becomes trash, and this trash can cover some serious ground. A 16-inch diameter, helium-filled latex toy balloon will float for 24 to 36 hours, and if released 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 more or less permanent feature of the natural environment. That’s the downside of these so-called foil balloons. The upside is that they’re 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 perhaps suggests 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.
So the next time you release a balloon, don’t 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’s a chance that somebody 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 last foil balloon I recovered out here: “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. And I confess that I’m taking this principled stand against balloons in part because I’d otherwise have 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, and that is 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 western American folk hero “Lawn Chair 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 42 large, helium-filled balloons to his aluminum lawn chair, which he dubbed Inspiration I. He then loaded the lawn chair with what every western hero has always provisioned himself with: sandwiches, beer and a gun. But Larry had made a 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 didn’t level out until he had reached an altitude of almost 16,000 feet, where he drifted into LAX airspace and was spotted by a TWA pilot, who reported 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, 14-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 in some act of complicity that exposes my hypocrisy. In this case, the trouble started when our five-year-old daughter, Caroline, insisted that we celebrate her 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 seemed pretty persuasive, so we immediately began preparations for our birthday launch. We would use latex rather than Mylar, we would release only one balloon per kid, and we’d 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’d 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 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 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, even the desert wind—everything in the world except balloons—stood still for one long, gorgeous moment.
I try to tell myself that because I’ve retrieved scores of trashed balloons from the remote desert, I’ve earned the right to release a few, but I know that’s 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 the folks in Utah will cut me some slack on this one. After all, a man can’t just sit around.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
This essay originally appeared in High Country News.