Monday, October 19, 2009

The Art of the Balloon Chase: One Woman's Adventure

The start of Labor Day weekend in our household carries with it the tradition of chasing hot air balloons departing from the NYS Festival site in Dansville. Not content watching from the usual viewing places along with the rest of the locals, we take to the car playing a game of outsmarting the fickle winds and testing our knowledge of back roads as well.
There is something about the chase that is in my blood, and with a cup of coffee in one hand and a camera in the other (I’m not the driver, of course), we’re on the road as soon as the balloons leave Pickard Field.
Now there are varying thoughts on the worth of chasing balloons. I talked with a couple young women who have grown up in the area, and they have opposite opinions. One told me with a glow in her eyes that she loves the exhilaration of the chase, and getting lost up on the hills starts her adrenalin flowing. Sometimes she has been in a remote place and assists the balloon crew taking down the balloon, too, where an extra pair of hands is welcome. On the other hand, her friend told me in no uncertain words that she much prefers watching the entire spectacular laid out before her with her feet firmly planted on the ground and not moving from there.
Then there is also the on going debate about evening chases versus early morning adventures. To be fair I chose to try both this year and see for myself, and I have to say that from now on, I won’t miss a morning chase because it affords an entirely different experience.
By dinnertime we were waiting in Ames parking lot, the number one off-site spot by the sheer numbers there, ready to head out when the first balloon took off. It was easy to determine that it would be a southward trip near Stony Brook Park from the windsock at the airport and the radio advisory. Last year we made the mistake of waiting for all the balloons to leave the airport, and by then one of them had landed at the bottom of our own hill, so we learned from that to start driving with the ascensions.
I spotted a very colorful red, white and blue balloon called the Spirit of the Sky. The Spirit was going to be the one we would follow. We headed south on Route 36 and got in line with the three official crew chase vehicles. Our caravan would drive a bit, and then pull over waiting to see which direction the balloon would drift. Apparently even though the pilot and crew had two-way radio communication there was some uncertainty as to where the touchdown would be. While pulled off to the side of the road, I met a local Dansville man who took the chase hobby seriously seventeen years ago, and now travels all over the area with this crew from New Jersey.
As we started winding up some dirt roads the views became as breathtaking as they get in Western New York reminding me why I love living here. On one remote road we saw a family tailgate picnic in progress without a care in the world other than being together. Further down the road there was a young couple standing in the cornfield with their binoculars, and they waved to us as we went by. How they got there I’ll never know. Not a house or barn was in sight in from any direction. The cows in the pasture were running in unison away from balloons approaching overhead. Could it be that the cows knew better than humans when to get out of the way?
Our Spirit of the Sky eventually came over the crest of the hill and poised for landing in a backyard in what looked like a perfect spot. The pilot yelled down to ask permission to land and the owners nodded and waved upward. Seconds later the balloon was down and the crew started the process of folding it up. In fifteen minutes the champagne and tea crackers were out on a portable table complete with tablecloth, and the landowners celebrated with the passengers and crew.
The morning launchings offered some different challenges. Early on the valley was fogged in, but eventually it lifted sending the balloons north of town landing by the railroad tracks on a narrow farm road running perpendicular to Routes 63 and 36. I talked with someone from the area who is getting his balloon pilot’s license and he put down the balloon that I was chasing.
Here we watched some precision landings, and also one difficult descent where a basket skimmed the cornfield by inches. Camaraderie is the name of the game, and other crews stopped their own work and ran reaching up to guide the basket with their hands in order for it to land on the road instead. The dreaded cornfield landing would have taken a lot of hefty muscle work pulling out the balloon. I had the pleasure of meeting Chase, the dog, who had his role on the team, too. He waited by the basket while his owners assisted the team in distress.
I thought that I had had my yearly fill of balloon chases, until on the way home the following evening we converged on several cars turning up a road. My husband and I looked at each as only married people do, and the next thing we were headed up the road to find ourselves in a virtual traffic jam of cars out in nowhere watching the giant purple people eater balloon deflate.
As the balloon slowly lost air, the purple people eater had a grimace on his face like a sour lemon as if to say, “how embarrassing to be deflated in front of such a huge crowd.”
How cool was that on Lemon Road!
In my opinion the best part of the Festival of Balloons every year in Dansville is the opportunity afforded if you are a bit creative and willing to drift with the winds chasing those colorful giant dancers in the sky.