Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lighter than air: the National Balloon Classic

The part I love most about being a journalist is the exposure I get to new things. Since starting my job as a reporter in Des Moines, I've written about professional bull riding, the local transgender community, Wizard World Comic Con and, most recently, the National Balloon Classic, which is the second-largest hot air balloon event in the U.S., hosted right here in central Iowa. For each of these stories, I've studied up on the subject and talked to people involved to learn about it from the inside, and then inform the general public about it. I love being able to do that, but what I love even more is being able to experience some of what I cover. Which is why I ventured the 30 miles or so out to Indianola last weekend for my first hot air balloon experience.

Our journey to the Classic was quite the eventful one because, as always, Iowa weather is unpredictable. We had plans to go to the morning and evening flights on Saturday, but the forecast called for rain, and since we would have had to leave the house at 4:30 a.m. for the morning events, we weren't willing to risk a cancellation once we got there. Instead, we postponed our trip to Sunday night, which threw off our whole weekend but still turned out to be a great time.

The first part of the evening was a normal balloon flight, where dozens of pilots took their balloons up and floated above the field and the crowd. Officials put a large X with three poles on one circle of the field and the pilots were given a mission to get a hula hoop on one of the poles and drop a bag into the target to see who could get the closest to the middle. Several pilots didn't even make it near the target — the wind just wasn't in their favor — but a few made it on the X, with one even landing dead center. It's a slow-motion competition, but the audience was still really into it (including us!), and everyone cheered when someone made it close to the target.

I was impressed at how graceful the balloons are. They lift off the ground and float hundreds or thousands of feet into the sky. We even saw some flying behind the clouds, and it was a little surreal. I had the chance to interview one of the pilots for my story, and he had the best quote about flying a hot air balloon:
"I kind of liken it to sailing, only we're sailing in the air as opposed to sailing on water."

The second part of the night was called "Nite Glow," and it's when the pilots bring their balloons into the field after sunset and turn their burners on to make them glow like massive lanterns. It was so beautiful. After that, Adam and I decided the festival will be one of our new traditions :)

We left the Classic feeling sleepy and incredibly full, because the food there is like a mini version of the state fair — not a salad in sight. We had macaroni and cheese bites, lemonade and ice cream in homemade waffle cones. And maybe a glass of Riesling somewhere in the middle ;) I was insanely full, but I couldn't pass up such a beautiful ice cream cone! I'll definitely need to walk an extra mile or two this week to make up for it!

The Balloon Classic was such a cool experience, and I highly recommend going, no matter where you live. Pilots come in from all over the country to fly here, and thousands of people turn out every day to see them. I think there are at least 70 balloons there this year, and there's a live band every night. It goes through August 1, and you can read more about it in my story here, if you'd like.

Have you ever been to a hot air balloon festival? Or have you gone for a ride in one? I'd love to hear...

P.S. 10 free things to do in Des Moines and my summer bucket list

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