By: Vincent Tropea
“How are you with heights?”
I had been asked a lot of questions since starting my new job as Community Reporter here at County 10 in March, but this one was definitely the most intriguing.
While the question itself, fielded by my supervisor/Community News Manager Amanda Fehring, was indeed vague and simple, my newfound journalistic instinct kicked in, and I assumed what it was in reference to.
“I’m guessing I’m going to find out at the Balloon Rally this summer?” I responded, already dusting off a space on my desk for the 2021 George Polk Journalism award I was bound to recieve for such investigative aptitude.
“Yup. I got to go up when I was a new reporter and I figured it was only fair for you too,” Fehring responded.
And with that, my journey into aeronautics had begun.
For those not in-the-know, the Riverton Rendezvous Balloon Rally has been a Riverton, Wyoming institution and tradition since its inception in 1981, when community members were tasked with figuring out how to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee.
“What could we do to celebrate that is unique, lasting, and will grow in popularity?” they wondered.
Riverton native George E. Peck suggested the idea of a hot air balloon rally, and a tradition was born. Tom Barrow of Billings agreed to be the first Balloonmeister, which is a word I’ve grown to love while writing this story as much as much autocorrect has grown to hate.
Barrow recruited 15 balloons to fly in Riverton in July 1981, and Tom served as the Balloonmeister for the first 3 years. He then turned duties over to John Ditmer of Greeley, Colorado in 1984, who had won the hare and hounds contest 2 of the first 3 years of the Rendezvous rallies.
After Ditmer’s time as Balloonmeister, Bob Peck took over for 4 years, succeeded by Garry Burnette, who served for 2, followed by Roxie Holbert, a locally trained pilot, in 1993.
Currently, Pat Newlin serves as the Balloonmeister, and has done so since 2001.
Little did I know when posed with the question, “How are you with heights?” that not only would I get to know Pat and other aeronauts, I would also get to learn first hand of a local tradition with roots all the way back to 1700’s France.
So, you know how as a kid, around the first week of November when you already start looking forward to Christmas?
That’s kind of the way I felt about covering the Balloon Rally since finding out I would back in May.
Just like with Christmas though, I had a looming sense of, “Don’t look forward to this too much…” creeping in the back of my head.
I call it “Ohio Optimism” (my home state), where you remain steadfast in your belief that you will be let down by something you are looking forward to until the exact moment it happens, then you enjoy it that much more when it actually comes through.
No matter what though, the excitement was building.
In the weeks leading up to the Rally, I found out I would have a flying buddy in the form of 105.1 JACK FM’s morning show host Charene “The Adventure Queen” Herrera.
Charene started working for the radio station and County 10 not long before I showed up, and despite her adventurous spirit, was not afraid to admit she had her own trepidations about going up.
“I’m gonna prove to myself I can do this,” she confidently manifested.
As for myself, I honestly had no idea how I would handle it. I wasn’t lying when I said, “I guess I’m going to find out…” after being asked how I handle heights.
I’ve never had an issue with planes, mountaintops, or really tall staircases, but flying over 1,000 feet in the air in a wicker basket fueled by wildly intense flames that fill something up that looks like your gym teacher would have used as a fun Friday activity…? That might be a different story.
Even still, the excitement prevailed.
Launch day was set for 6:00 AM, Friday July 16th, with a 5:45 AM call time, and the drive to Riverton from Lander that morning was fueled by both coffee and anticipation.
As I approached the city limits, I got a call from Charene asking if I was awake yet. There was a slight disappointment in her voice when she found out I was almost in town, as if she was thinking, “Welp, I guess if he’s there I gotta be there…”
I met up at the office with Charene and Jerrad Anderson, fellow County 10 employee and Charene’s JACK FM morning radio show co-host. Just as he was giving us the lowdown on what to expect, the storm cloud that had formed Charlie Brown style right over the launch field began to spit out rain, and a warm wind picked up.
“I guess that means I can get some coffee now!” Charene exclaimed, relieved. “It’s probably for the best, I was just reading about two media people who died in a hot air balloon crash…”
Despite the looming cancellation, we still made our way over to the launch site located at the Central Wyoming College soccer field on Peck Avenue.
“Peck Avenue, hmmm. I bet that was named after either George or Bob…” I wondered to myself, journalistic spidey senses tingling.
We showed up just in time for the inevitable, as an event organizer made the announcement that the day’s launch had been officially cancelled due to precipitation and high warm winds.
Any disappointment I felt immediately dissipated when Pat Newlin, Balloonmeister and event organizer dispensed some wisdom while being interviewed by Charene.
“We’d rather be on the ground wishing we were up, than up in the air wishing we were down.”
That’s the kind of logic that will make anyone forget their disappointment at not flying thousands of feet in the air in uncertain conditions.
We also got to meet our pilot, Kent Barnes, a Utah balloonist who has flown at locations and events across the United States, as well many international events in the Middle East, Asia, and South/Central America.
Kent had the kind of confidence that perfectly towed the line between cocksure and humble, which is the type of attitude you want from someone in charge of keeping you alive on your first hot air balloon ride.
Our flight was rescheduled for Sunday, which was there before I knew it.
Once again I found myself rolling into Riverton at 5:30 AM, Labi Siffre’s ‘I Got The’ bumping from the speakers. “Then you sailed along, mornin’ come, sun don’t shine.” But the sun was indeed shining, with no Charlie Brown clouds in sight.
The energy at the launch site was contagious, with folks from all over the country buzzing back and forth, testing burners and gas cylinders, unfolding the envelopes, and placing the stabilization poles.
As I was walking around the site taking photos, Kent asked, “You ever take a picture inside of a hot air balloon while the burner’s are ignited?”
Another intriguing question. “Nope,” I replied.
“It might melt that mustache off your face if you get too close, so make sure to stand where I tell ya,” Kent matter-of-factly assured me.
“To think, all the money I could have saved on razor blades over the years if I had just used the fumes from a hot air balloon to trim my facial hair,” I thought. “Live and learn!“
I regret to inform any readers of this story, that two things didn’t happen while taking this picture; my mustache did not in fact melt off, and the fumes from the gas made the photos I snapped look as though there was an inch of Vaseline on the lens. Sorry to disappoint.
After we all got turns taking pictures inside the balloon, game faces were put on as the last preparations were made before takeoff.
Kent operates 3 balloons, the Belle Star, the Heat Wave, and the Baby Balloon. Our aerial chariot for the day was fittingly, the Heat Wave.
“To be, aeronaut to be, that is the question…” I joked to Kent, Charene, and rest of the aeronaut crew as I assumed my position in the basket with Dee, Kent’s wife.
Maybe it was the nerves, maybe it was the concentration, or maybe they’d all heard that one before, but dear readers, my comedian ego was irrevocably scarred from not getting a laugh for such a timely pun, hence its use in the title. If you just heard a chuckle from the other room, it’s probably your father laughing at his new favorite dad joke.
Before we knew it, Charene, Kent and I were all in the basket, the envelope was full of hot air, and we were ready to go.
Words can’t express what the feeling of taking off was like for me, so I’ll let this video I took of our ascension and Charene’s commentary do the talking for me.
Once we were in the air, the sheer beauty of it all became so overwhelming that I almost forgot to take pictures.
If I had to equate the experience of a smooth hot air balloon flight to anything, it would be a lazy river raft ride, at least in terms of pure relaxation.
The zen-like appreciation of my current, heavenly habitation was momentarily disrupted when Kent asked, “Have you ever picked leaves from the very top of a tree?”
Aeronauts really seem to like rhetorical questions.
The next thing I knew we were due course toward the tallest tree in the area, which had a slight dip in between its two highest points. Once again, I’ll just let the video do the talking for me:
Moments later we also got to witness another balloon performing a “splash and dash,” where the pilot ever so lightly dipped the basket into a nearby pond. Suffice to say, I think both balloons had some pretty cool pilots who really knew what they were doing.
In total, we were up in the air for about a half hour, and it honestly only felt like 5 minutes.
Kent had told us prior to takeoff that landings were usually the roughest part of the trip, and even experienced riders can hurt themselves if not done properly.
Luck was on our side once again as we made as smooth a landing as one could hope for as first timers, and were immediately greeted on the ground by Dee, the crew, and fellow co-workers.
Between the 10-15 of us, we then packed up the Heat Wave and equipment, and were on our way home.
Juuuust kidding. I learned over the weekend to expect that aeronauts have a number of tricks up their sleeves.
Kent and Dee rolled out a blanket on the ground, and produced two bottles of champagne from the basket.
Kent then told us the history of why two bottles of champagne are brought on every hot air balloon.
“Champagne was initially used for three reasons. First, was as a makeshift fire extinguisher. Shake it and spray in an emergency. Second, was to demonstrate to people who had never seen a hot air balloon that we were not from the devil or some evil thing, by lowering down the bottle before we landed. Third, is as a peace offering and thank you to the land owner for letting us use their land. We still do the third reason today.”
Charene, County 10 head honcho Will Hill, who had flown the day before, and I all took a knee, and stared expectantly at the the cups of champagne laid out in front of us. Kent then recited the ‘Balloonist Prayer’:
“The wings have welcomed you with softness,
The sun has blessed you with his warm hands,
You have flown so high and so well,
That God has joined you in laughter,
And set you gently again,
Into the loving arms of mother earth.”
“Now, each of you must put your hands behind your back, bend over, and drink from the glass without using your hands or spilling a drop of champagne. We don’t want to waste any,” Kent explained with a smirk.
My drinking game days at Ohio University kicked in, and I immediately accepted the challenge.
Any pride I may have felt at “not spilling a drop” was promptly humbled by the spray of water I felt go down my back while still in the precarious pose, and the uproarious laughter from everyone not kneeling on the blanket.
Will, Charene, and I all looked on disbelief as Kent explained that aeronauts in the past used to do this with champagne. I suddenly understood his “we don’t want to waste any…” comment. I couldn’t help but laugh as well, water, cascading down my back.
Kent also gave us the history of the first manned hot air balloon flight, which took place in 18th century Paris, and was flown by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, and François Laurent d’Arlandes.
There was definitely more to Kent’s history lesson, but if I’m being perfectly honest, the combined effect of little sleep and a champagne breakfast left details a little hazy.
Charene and I were then presented with our commemorative pins and official certificates acknowledging us as honorary aeronauts, and who knows what’s next for us. Maybe a future as Balloonmeisters? (Sorry, just had to use that word one more time.)
One thing was for certain though, this was definitely an experience of a lifetime, and I’m truly appreciative of the City of Riverton, the Rendezvous Balloon Rally, Pat Newlin, event organizers, our pilot Kent and his crew, my adventure buddy Charene, my boss and co-workers for letting me ride, and all the other aeronauts who came before us that made this day possible.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”