Regional festivals are something we never think to include in our trip planning. It’s an ongoing blind spot of ours. Mostly we roll into town and discover that we missed an annual extravaganza by a couple of days or weeks. Unless, of course, the event happens to be the big Harley Davidson Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Apparently if it’s the kind of gathering that inspires news segments contrasting this year’s criminal violations with those of past rallies we show up just in time.
Our luck in these things isn’t always bad, though. In Yuma, Arizona, an equally colorful event of a completely different variety awaited us. Every November for the past 22 years hot air balloonists from around the region descend on Yuma for a weekend of floating and plumage flaunting. Without planning it, we somehow arrived in Yuma the Friday before liftoff.
Having barely missed the much larger Albuquerque Balloon Festival last year (as is our custom) we had never been to such an event. I didn’t really know what to expect. I imagined waking at dawn to watch a number of balloons take off from some respectable distance. The best I hoped for was to photograph a dozen or so balloons rising gently on a sunlit horizon. What we actually experienced was so much better.
Instead of watching the event from a roped off viewing area like we expected, Yuma allows visitors to mingle with the balloonists as they prepare their rides.
At first I wasn’t sure where I needed to be. While watching one balloonist fiddle with his gear, a giant bubble of blue and yellow started inflating behind me. Thinking I was missing the action, I hurried in that direction.
Before long, though, a half dozen other balloons started to inflate. Everywhere I looked billowing masses grew from the ground, jostled with each other for space, and surrounded me in a kaleidoscope of color.
And then, in no discernible order, they began to lift off. One by one they floated skyward like brightly colored champagne bubbles.
For something so serene, the whole episode was surprisingly chaotic. There was simply too much to see. Balloons of different colors and designs, in different stages of liftoff, constantly changed their shape and position. The entire visible world ebbed and flowed along the contours of pillowy fabric.
Later, with everyone safely returned to earth and daylight waning, there was one final show. This time, tethered to the ground and in a completely organized manner, burners were fired and balloons set aglow.