Gaining Life Experience with Brann Smith
By Sandie Tillery
Born AdventurerSeptember 2015
By Sandie Tillery
Photos: Paula Schultz
Those who grew up reading Gary Paulsen’s survival adventures might be jealous of the very real life adventure stories told by Brann Smith, the owner and pilot of Skydancer Balloon Company in Chico. Along with his wife Marie, co-owner and chief member of his ground crew, Smith now spends his life floating over landscapes he traversed alone in his youth, traveling light and living simply off the land. Ballooning gives him a different perspective, but the same sense of freedom he experienced as a youth with wanderlust.
His parents allowed him to roam even as a preteen. He first trekked up the mountain behind their home in Susanville. Later, his father trained his sons in survival skills and introduced them to cross-country skiing. He drove Brann, his eldest son, from their Chico home up into the mountains for weekend solo trips. Smith says Lassen Volcanic National Park rangers came to know and trust him, depending on him to report on areas of concern. He was an early environmentalist, respecting and protecting the wild places he loved to explore.
A self-described loner, Smith rode his bicycle long distances, hiked and camped most often by himself.
He traveled light. His philosophy was, “If it doesn’t fit in my backpack or on my touring bike, I don’t need it.” Though he enjoyed playing high school football and the attention he
received as a star athlete at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, when prom came along and the girls clamored for dates, Smith chose to head for the hills. He began spending most of his summers during high school and college biking and backpacking.
While attending Butte College, Smith and a friend took their first truly long-distance ride from Chico to Fort Bragg. Their ambition grew and in 1976 joined what was dubbed Bikecentennial ’76, a tour across the United States in commemoration of the 200th birthday of the United States. Their adventure was front page news in the Chico Enterprise Record.
They started in Astoria, Ore., and made it about halfway along the 4,250-mile route until an accident destroyed Smith’s bike and left him with minor injuries in Carolton, Mo. Undeterred, the men picked up where they left off and completed the trek the next year in 1977.
Though they deviated some from the original trail, they managed to complete the mileage from their original plan because“it’s the journey, not the destination” that matters.
Smith continued his adventuring, working to earn what he needed to leave for the backcountry several months during every year. He took short-term jobs in sporting goods stores, as a tour guide and in retail and security – until he met Bill Morgan, a blind man who wanted to walk across America.
Sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, Smith learned how to assist and understand the needs of his blind companion. The two trained and prepared both mentally and physically for their 1983 walk. Smith’s journey with Morgan began in Wyoming and ended in Missouri, where others took up the lead to help Morgan reach his goals. “It was a wonderful journey,” says Smith, “stopping at every small town in many states and meeting new people.”
Strong and fit, he took a job with Nike Corporation in 1990. His initial security job grew into a position created for him as loss prevention manager, where he worked for nine years developing policies and procedures and setting up security protocols across the country at Nike stores. He acted as liaison for bodyguards of highprofile athletes that included Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson. Then he discovered hot air balloons.
Applying his life experience as a freedom-loving adventurer and one who knew the importance of safety, Smith launched his new venture. He learned the craft of maneuvering and maintaining hot air balloons and piloting safely with the wind. He has owned five different balloons, flying all over the country in rallies. He met Marie when she volunteered as part of his ground crew. Married now for two years, she says they “have a blast all the time.” Since the wind is not always predictable, they frequently make surprise landings in fields and school yards where they always make new friends.
This year, the Smiths will again participate in the Montague Balloon Fair put on by Shasta Valley Rotary Club from September 25-27, where they will float in a silent celebration of color with others who love the adventure of being carried by the wind.
www.skydancerballooncompany.com • (530) 519-2048