Tag Archives: balloons

Failure to launch

I went to the 2009 Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, having never made first contact with the hot air behemoths, and I wasn’t disappointed. The evolved quickly, from reams of lifeless fabric spread on the ground to fat and bright living beings, puffing with hot air and then quietly lifting off into the air. One by one they drifted up, their engines roaring in short bursts until the humans with two feet on the ground can barely discern what color they are. And everyone watching seemed a little in awe of the balloon beings, but perhaps we were just still fuzzy from getting up so early.

This year I woke up pre-dawn to get ready for more balloon stampede viewingship, but was disheartened when my fellow watcher texted me to say it was sprinkling outside. Sprinking, I thought, so what? I pulled up the Web site for the event and saw that indeed, the launch would occur “weather permitting.”

What does weather permitting mean, I asked my friend. Baseball weather or football weather? As a sports enthusiast who has dabbled in both, I know that there is a big difference. Only Charlie Brown plays in a downpour, but I can recall football games in Alexandria in which we had to crunch through a crusted-over ice field in January, with the coach bellowing at us, “We came to play!” I’ll just note here that this coach had been a linebacker for the Detroit Lions in the mid-80s, so clearly, he knew all about hard work and winning.

We decided to forge ahead, crossing our fingers that some random precipitation wouldn’t mean disaster for our less dense friends of the parachute-fiber variety. At 6AM sharp, we drove to the fairgrounds.

Parking was too easy. If the launch were set for 6:30, more people should be here by now, I figured. We came across one older couple walking toward us, back to their car. They looked deflated [sic].

“They canceled because of the rain,” she told us, looking fairly dry. Perhaps she’d dodged every drizzle drop on her way across the field.

We turned around and saw four more senior citizens, who informed me that they’d followed us here, figuring we would lead them to the balloons. This is funny ha ha and funny strange for a few reasons, including:

  1. There’s nothing about us to signal to other drivers that we’re interested in this event, like a neon sign over the car reading “Balloon Freaks,” a bumper sticker saying, “I brake for balloons,” or a personalized license plate.
  2. The balloon launch was at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds, which are pretty large in a town that’s pretty small. There’s really no need to tail another car on the off chance that they’ll lead you to a very well marked place in the city.
  3. Someone was more clueless than we were.

Faced with having woken up especially early and wanting to make the best out of the morning, we headed over to the Elk’s Lodge. While this may at first seem completely arbitrary, let me just note that hey, I’ve mentioned it before in this blog, and I have a curiosity about it, but more importantly, the Elk’s Lodge has been hosting Ed’s Diner since Ed’s had a fire last winter. It’s nice of the Elks to give the staff the capacity to stay employed while the structure is being renovated, and Ed’s makes a helluva good greasy spoon breakfast. It’s just a shame that the life-size statue of Elvis didn’t survive the fire, because I’m sure the Elks wouldn’t mind having his presence in the middle of their ballroom.

And what a ballroom it was. We walked in needing a second wind and hoping to find it on the other side of made-to-order eggs. I looked around and wondered to myself just how many people had had their wedding receptions here. All of the tables were empty save one in the far corner that had something like a dozen older men I presumed were Lodge members. I have to imagine that all of these groups—the Elks, the Masons, the Rotaryians, or whatever they’re called—are having trouble finding new members because all of these people were eligible for AARP.

We may have been the second table of the morning, but apparently I underestimated how many other disgruntled balloon watchers were following us, because within five minutes, 50 other people arrived at the makeshift diner-in-an-old-man-lodge. Seriously, there was one waiter and 18 tables with hungry patrons. Some people looked like they were considering bum rushing the fake elk next to the front door, hoping to find French toast inside like one stores candy in a pinata. Fortuitous for us, we’d already placed our order with the cook in the back before the mob took over the space. I enjoyed my mushroom omelet but my friend walked across the room to get some ketchup, and I waved down a fellow customer who was helping himself to the fresh pot of coffee at the waiter’s station. Hey, we Walla Wallans have some initiative, especially when it comes to our caffeine consumption.

All in all, it was an adventure. We took turns with our individual elk photo ops, and I went back to bed. Maybe next year.

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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