The 41st annual Teton Valley Balloon Rally kicked off Friday with a bit of magic.
Even though flights weren’t possible the first day of the rally due to a foreboding army of clouds, about 20 pilots and their well-caffeinated crews still gathered for a pre-dawn meeting to discuss conditions and exchange affirmations.
“For those who are new to our event, we play the grateful game,” organizer Margaret Breffeilh said during roll call. “When I call your name, tell us one thing that you’re grateful for this morning.”
“Friends with boats!” One pilot called out. Another said: “Friends with extra rooms!”
Dale Justice chimed in too.
“Grateful to be able to fly a balloon at the age of 80,” he said.
Justice got his first hot air balloon back in 2007, after crewing for some “lady pilots” who ditched their dated rig for a newer model. The Air Force veteran didn’t mind the shabby seconds though; he was thrilled to join his rally compatriots in the skies.
“All these people are my family,” he said Friday, putting his hat to his chest as the sun crested the Tetons and the National Anthem began to play. Just as the song crescendoed to the “land of the free” high note, a booming roll of thunder signaled the heavens’ approval, like a stand-in stadium cheer.
“Nice touch,” Justice said. His pilot friend Sharel Isaacs added: “That was perfect.”
Balloon pilots become quite accustomed to the possibility of inclement weather. Instead of being frustrated by the no-fly Friday, which came with a 4:30 a.m. wake up call, everyone seemed glad for the chance to catch up and take in a glorious sunrise.
On Saturday though, the thermoses and side chats were put aside, and the work began.
A brief weather window meant pilots who traveled across the country for the Fourth of July celebration had to launch and touch down before 8 a.m.
If they wanted to fly, the time was nigh.
Daily gratitudes were kept brief. Baskets were hauled out of trailers. Colorful envelopes were unfurled to receive bursts of hot air.
And one-by-one, balloons from Oregon, New Mexico and Minnesota all lifted up into the sky.
As Carla Kelly, crew chief for a balloon out of Riverton, told this News&Guide reporter, “you’re pretty lucky to get to fly in a rally.”
Kelly has followed her pilot Pat Newlin for the past four years, going to rallies framed by the red canyons of Kanab, Utah, or by the hundreds of vibrant participants who flock to New Mexico for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
The 65-year-old moved to Riverton in 2017 after 40 years in Alaska. One day, she was sitting on her deck when Newlin (then a stranger) floated by in her balloon, solo. Kelly was enthralled.
So enthralled, in fact, that she tried to chase down the balloon in her car. Before long, she became hopelessly lost on backroads of the Wind River Reservation, and had to call a friend to help her out. After she was back on familiar streets, Kelly called the Chamber of Commerce to see if anyone knew more about this mysterious hot air balloon pilot.
Someone at the Chamber gave her Newlin’s phone number, and the pair have been friends ever since.
Kelly likes to describe Newlin as the “queen of marshmallow landings.”
And sure enough, after about an hour aloft on Saturday, Newlin set down her balloon soft as sugar, just steps from an access road where her crew was stationed.
Along the 2-mile traverse from the fairgrounds to Dry Creek Ranch, cows romped and passerby stopped to take pictures. A farmer made his morning rounds on a four-wheeler. Grand Teton National Park glimmered in morning light.
In the sky, a reporter, a photographer and a pilot floated in peaceful silence, save for short, thunderous bursts of fire.
When fully stocked with four 10-gallon propane tanks, Newlin’s wicker basket weighs about 450 pounds. That load and its passengers are suspended by 77,000 cubic feet — or about 7 fully grown elephants — of heated air, corralled by a whimsical, fabric envelope.
Newlin is currently designing a new balloon that will hold 120,000 cubic feet, and serve as one of two signature mascots for Riverton.
The Fremont County town, three hours east of Jackson, is hosting its own balloon rally July 16-18. Rich Lawhorn of Louisville, Kentucky is expected to bring a balloon shaped like Humpty Dumpty.
This year, Teton Valley’s festival welcomed 27 pilots and about 41 different parties who camped on site.
“It’s changed a lot,” said organizer Virginia Powell Symons, who penned a love letter to the airy tradition in this summer’s Teton Family Magazine.
But some things haven’t changed. Alee Noland, the event’s unofficial mascot and photographer, still volunteers every year decked from head to toe in balloon patterned prints. Pilots still recite the balloonists’ prayer after every ride. And after every trip with virgin fliers, they still arrange a champagne toast.
“Traditions — particularly over a holiday like the Fourth of July — are something that we need to bring a little bit more value to,” said organizer Breffeilh, who has been coming to the rally since she was a little girl.
“We need festivals where people can get together and celebrate,” she said. “Right now, we just need some positivity.”
She and Powell Symons are already looking forward to next year.
And pilot Justice is right alongside them.
“We’re always waiting for a better day, another day, another rally, another summer,” he said. “That’s what keeps you alive and well, is having something to look forward to.”