When I close my eyes I can still hear the valley floor, resonant with the unique sound of hot air balloon burners.
It’s a sound that ignites the child within me, the burners bellowing their flaming roar, huffing and puffing the life into the vibrant floating vestiges of my youth.
Where only moments before the grass lay strewn with flaccid, wrinkled piles of nylon, onlookers were suddenly dazzled by a pulsating performance of the larger-than-life balloons as they bobbled and towered overhead before releasing into the sky.
With each breath they rose higher and in a slow, gentle movement, the balloons began to seamlessly depart from the earth as if it were never in their nature to be anything but in flight.
Taut and colorful, their perfect symmetry cast unnatural shadows down over spectators, beautifully contrasting the asymmetry of the natural skyline while the brilliant array of floating colors accentuated the earthy tones all around. Much like the recall of our favorite childhood memories, the festival is set against the perfect crisp and early bluest of blue skies with a majestic backdrop.
This vision can capture the imagination of almost anyone. Children’s eyes dilate with wonder as the sights and sounds virtually overwhelm the senses and the scene promises success to the budding photographer in us all.
As little kids, we would rise before the sun in early June to arrive down by the golf course in time to see the the first balloons take flight. We would squeal and run about as the “burns” exploded all around us and watch in disbelief as the giant toys hovered overhead.
Back in the 1980s, the festival balloon races also were the platform for the Little Red School House’s annual fundraiser. Once the sun came up, we would get in a long line with all of our friends and neighbors, carrying the plates we had brought from home and watching the balloons rising and dipping overhead.
For only $0.50 each pancake, you could buy a homemade breakfast served by the preschool families and then make your way up the hill that now houses the Rodeo Place neighborhood. The whole town would be sprinkled over that hillside; no one missed the show.
We sat on picnic blankets silently enjoying the breathtaking view. Photographers came from miles away to roam the hillsides. We would watch the colorful parade in the sky, twirling about in the sage laden hills, feeling the wind on our faces and believing that if those beautiful balloons took people up into the sky then anything was possible.
Over the years, I’ve watched the event expand through the ’80s and retract in the late ’90s. It sinks some years and soars in other and nearly drifted out of sight in the early 2000s, only to arise as evocative as ever over the past decade.
The Snowmass Village Balloon festival has always been a magical and reliable part of life here in this town. It began before I was born and it arrives each year, breezing in with it’s enduring, predictable, yet timeless appeal.
A while back, the June festival seemed almost a ceremonious start to the summer, and as it moved to a September weekend came to initiate the beginning of the summer’s end. But the lasting imagery has varied little through the years.
On a few occasions I have seen the festival from the sky. As the earth slowly drifts away, the peaceful sensation of rising up above it all begs one to ruminate on the nature of our human existence, like an out-of-body awareness. Once in the air there is little sensation of movement as the balloon, basket and passengers all move along with the patterns of the wind.
The sound below carries differently from above as well. At first, you can hear voices speaking in normal tones as if they were up in the sky with you, but then suddenly you are completely disconnected in silence, feeling the earth moving by underneath as you seem to sit still in the sky.
From that perspective, all human impact gives the impression of being insignificant as you rise above the mountains.
But it’s not without a thrill. That same sensation of insignificance is highlighted by an acute sense of irrelevance when considering how a simple gust of wind could offset the equilibrium and send you plummeting downward. After all, you are floating through the sky unnaturally high above the earth using only hot air to guide you.
Still, as you set back down on the ground, it’s almost as if you never left.
Much like the hot air balloon ride itself, I’ve feared the precariously serene nature of the Snowmass Balloon Festival could be lost forever on a wind. This classic event is priceless and precious, but like a butterfly that lands in your hand, it could easily be damaged by an overzealous desire to capitalize on, overprice or under appreciate its nature.
Every so often it’s worth a rising up of consciousness, way above it all, above the earth, above our jobs and obligations, our efforts and the world we’ve built, the events, the construction, the politics, the conflicts and, yes, even the fantasies to gain true perspective. Like the pulsing hot air balloon “burns,” sometimes we should breathe in and other times blow out in order to prevent becoming over inflated and flying too close to the sun.
It seems like we could all benefit from an occasional disconnect in order to truly appreciate the weight of our feet when we come back to earth. But it’s fun to remember, with the heart of a child, that anything can be possible.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind. Share yours and email her at [email protected].