In the tiny town of Mitchell, Nebraska (population 1,685) there is a festival worth taking a detour for. It had been an annual tradition for so long that their welcome signs on the back country roads had images of hot air balloons on them. Then, for various reasons, the festival just stopped. So much time had passed since the last festival that most who had been born and raised in the area had no idea it had ever happened. Fifteen years of empty skies lead up to yesterday’s events and judging by the miles long traffic jam, I’d say it was a huge success!
Thousands of people from multiple cities in the area set their alarms for the early hours of the morning, hopped in their cars before dawn, and drove out to an old air field in the middle of no where as morning light broke through the clouds. Kids sat astride their father’s shoulders, pre-teens ran around chasing grasshoppers in the fields, and people, like me, stood with cameras ready; all eager to witness the raising of the balloons and lift off of the Old West Balloon Fest – Re-Inflated!
The trouble with these types of festivals, though, is that the weather won’t always cooperate. So there we stood, mosquito bitten, in a field of bumpy patches of grass, sand burs, and spiky weeds listening to an MC remind us not to smoke on the launch field, nor to allow our pets to smoke either. The crowd chuckled as one. A few drops of rain from the cloudy sky caused many to utter prayers under their breath against it; an uncommon act among the farmers in this draught ridden valley. But, really, it was the wind that kept us grounded.
Many pilots began unloading their balloons while the mass of people stood nearby wondering where the best advantage point would be, calculating whether or not to break from the herd. Kids started wondering around, looking at the trailers, asking questions, exploring the launch field. And soon the adults followed.
First out of the trailers were the baskets equipped with propane tanks, fire extinguishers, first aide kits, and the little remaining space for leg room.
Then a tarp was sprawled out over the grass, the basket tipped, and the “envelope” (the balloon) rolled out. I heard one mother exclaim to her child – “And we think a sleeping bag is hard to fold!”
The crew were careful not to tangle the lines which attach the envelope to the basket as they tugged them out of the rolled bundle. Maverick (the red and white balloon) and Touchstone Energy Cooperatives (white with colors) were the first to “stand” out of the group.
To get the balloon ready to stand a large, propane fueled fan was placed beside the basket and switched on. With the help of the crew keeping the opening, well… open, the envelope quickly began to fill and the fabric become taught. There was great diligence taken to make sure people stood back from these fans as they are very powerful and keen to drag any loose clothing in to their spin. Ropes were used to hold the envelope down until the crew was ready to help it stand up. Tie downs stake the balloon and basket to the ground – often requiring the weight of the chase vehicle to keep it in place!
The chase vehicle is just that. The car on the ground which drives after the balloon to go pick it up and haul it away once it lands.
Before long, more and more balloons began to stand. The festival was getting under way and the crowd was loving it. We were allowed to wander the launch field and get up close to the balloons which made the experience all that much better. It made it real, tangible. People shouted out over the crowd a warm “Hello!” to their friends and loved ones who they weren’t expecting to see which made it feel like one huge community event.
The traditional Balloonist’s Prayer was said over the quieted field:
May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.
And the National Anthem sang as the American Flag soared overhead.
This marked the beginning of the launch and soon pilots were taking off at their own discretion; the weather still being a fickle participant. And the crowd cheered below.
I took my time wandering the field. I was fortunate to have my friend with me who was just as excited and willing to wake up at 4:30am. She took panorama shots of all the balloons standing (with some wacky short haired chick making funny faces as she did.) Our eyes were transfixed toward the sky as balloons silently drifted upward and on. And our chests grew heavy with emotion.
It’s a wonderful, awe inspiring sight to see. One which has us both eager to get up in a balloon one day.
We were curious, so we looked up how much one of these bad boys costs – a two person balloon is somewhere around $22,000 while the larger baskets and more custom envelopes will be higher between $35-45,000 (and up!) This doesn’t include the chase vehicle, trailer, ground equipment, or propane used in flight!
At the end of the morning, with the balloons on their way east and their chase vehicles en route, the crowds slowly began to disperse. Most would stay for the 13 hour music concert scheduled for the afternoon and the merchant booths equalling a total of over 12,000 people at the festival throughout the day!
What a huge success for the first year of this reclaimed tradition – those involved in organizing the event should be very proud of their accomplishment and take a rest now. Next year is just around the corner!