Up, up, and away

The 2009 Walla Walla Balloon Stampede is this weekend, and events kicked off yesterday at the snappy hour of 6 AM. Stampede is kind of a strange word to associate with rudderless airborne vehicles that drift on the wind, but it is the wild west out here, so I presumed the name was really more about the other, more rodeo-esque events that take place in this region. But after going to take pictures of the hot air balloons, I now also realize it does refer—a bit, at least—to this event itself.


Balloons launch from several locations in town, and I plus a few friends picked a junior high school football field as our location to watch the events unfold. About 30 or 40 pickup trucks were parked within a few feet of each other, and just as dawn was breaking, they started unfurling their tarps and balloons and testing their heaters. This gave the audio effect, for someone who had gotten up at 5 and not had a cup of coffee, of little dragons learning to cast fire.

I was surprised that the balloons were set up so close to each other, thinking that they’d need lots of space for each one, but everything went off without a hitch, despite the fact that 5,000 people had gathered to see the event (which is about one-sixth of the WW population, for those who care about such things). Each balloon had vents at the top that the handlers made sure were properly velcroed in place, and the top of every balloon had a long rope that the presumably strongest handler would hold on to, in order, I think, the manage the rate at which the balloon went from horizontal to vertical. So picture the early breaking dawn, temperatures in the low to mid 60s, colorful fabrics strewn all about the grass, and thousands of children running around, dodging taut ropes and sleepy grownups who are looking at the sky taking pictures. And nobody got hurt.

balloon raising

balloon raising

One of these balloons launches first—it’s called the “hare” balloon—and is chased by the other launching balloons. Hence part of the stampede moniker. We knew this because we had, I should have guessed there would be one, an announcer to tell us this, and to call out the names of people flying each balloon like it was a very colorful, in-the-air quinceanera. This guy was a Garrison Keillor wannabe if ever there was one, which I know is a big statement to make. I really did a double take to make sure I wasn’t suddenly in an episode of Prairie Home Companion. Put this guy in a hockey rink and one would get a very entertaining play by play. Really all he lacked was the quality of tone that Garrison has, that kind of half a piece of toast in his mouth sound. If he would just talk with food in his mouth, he’d be a dead ringer.

balloons away

balloons away

One by one balloons floated into the sky, they drifted east, chasing the rabbit. At this point the pickup trucks for each would leave the field (“Please give the trucks egress, folks,” said the announcer. Egress? Wow.) and then would chase their balloons around and out of town. I suppose this is another aspect of the stampede. I stayed put and snapped 200 photos instead.



After all of them had launched we headed over to Clarette’s restaurant for breakfast, and I have to really think hard about when the last time was that I ate breakfast before 8 in the morning. A long, long time. Perfectly serviceable eggs over easy, served old school with the toast already buttered. The coffee was delightful, and I’ve decided I miss coffee that hasn’t been overroasted into bitterness. It was a little thrilling to see the balloons making their way overhead while we were in the middle of the city. Probably the neatest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been out here, majestic snow-capped mountains aside. Now if I could just get Susanne to go up in a balloon with me, that would be the real stuff of fun.

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3 Comments on “Up, up, and away”

  1. Donna
    May 12, 2009 at 3:08 pm #

    Glad you liked the balloons. I was introduced to such activities in Albuquerque in at the Balloon Fiesta in October 1979. We’re going again this year. Lots of changes in 30 years, but they are still dependent upon the wind. All those heavenly bodies are quite a cite, and despite how many photos you take, only being there in person captures the spectacle.

    • evmaroon
      May 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

      You’re so right about being there in person. There was this strange sensation I had—I don’t want to say “uplifting,” but that’s close—to watching 30 or 40 balloons just lift off of the ground and float away into such a jewel-toned sky. Now nobody’s gonna talk me out of going to the next rodeo, because I think that will be great fun, too.

  2. jen
    July 23, 2009 at 9:33 pm #

    I love your description of the little dragon noises. Ha! I’ve been going to this since I was a kid, but haven’t made it the last few years. You’ve made me want to go again. And don’t you mean Clarette’s, not Claudette’s? 😉 Thanks for the inspiration.

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