Anyone who knows me knows that one of my favourite movies is Up! It’s got sentiment, it’s got action, it’s goa ruthless villain and an unlikely team of heroes, and of course, it has adventure – what’s not to love? (Did I mention the TALKING DOG!) But what I just realized after attending the Midland Hot Air Balloon Festival in Michigan (my first ever), is that the reason why I like Up! so much might also have something to do with the idea of travelling via balloon…
Midland Hot Air Balloon Festival
I have always thought there was something magical and old-school about hot air balloons, an idea probably planted there without my even knowing it after seeing Around the World in 80 Days when I was a kid. But I’d never been to an actual balloon festival until just recently when Henk and I happened to be in Midland, Michigan, the same weekend as their Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. It was serendipitous timing, and a photo opportunity we couldn’t miss, so we headed to the lift-off site, making sure to get a front-row spot at the edge of the field where the balloon crews were waiting for the go-ahead to start setting up.
Meeting Balloonist Tom Jones
While we were waiting for the winds to die down, I struck up a conversation with one crew member, Tom Jones (yes, that is his real name), who has been crewing hot air balloons for 22 years, and was attending the festival as part of the Candy Corn crew. Like most enthusiasts, he was happy to share some of his knowledge and answer a few of my questions about the hobby he obviously loves.
Ballooning is a Labour of Love
Tom explained that above all (pardon the pun), hot air ballooning is a labour of love for pilots and crew, where pride and skill play a big part, since these festivals typically have accuracy competitions that test the pilot’s ability to get as close as possible to a randomly-selected target on the ground. (Pilots fly overhead and drop a bean bag as close as possible to the target bullseye). Their motivation is more bragging rights than prize money, though, because the winner’s spoils are minimal. And at an average cost of $30,000 – $50,000 for a new balloon, these exhibitions are definitely more about sharing a passion with other hobbyists than it is about any ROI.
And then there is the weather: conditions have to be just right before pilots can take off, since too much wind or threatening skies can ground the whole show for hours, even days – making this as frustrating a hobby as any other that requires Mother Nature’s cooperation. But the reward is the opportunity to take to the air in a fragile basket, lifted by nothing more than hot air, and enjoy a view from above as you float in the company of dozens of other colourful neighbours.
As for the rest of us on the ground? Until I can actually get inside one of those wicker baskets for myself, (and I will, one day), I’ll have to content myself with the view from below – a perspective which has its own rewards. Because just like watching a fireworks display with its spectacle of colour, I couldn’t help but stare at the skies, mouth open, smiling and pointing as another rainbow-coloured creation levitated in front of me – making me feel just like a kid again.
And if that doesn’t lift you up, I don’t know what will.
TIP: There are hot air balloon festivals held all around the world, including Germany, China, and the largest one in Albuquerque, New Mexico that takes place in October. So if you are interested in learning where they are, just Google your destination – chances are there is a festival closer than you think.