In addition to the unavoidable COVID-19 challenges brought to every function this year, the 39th annual Teton Valley Balloon Rally battled weather woes.
Participants in the event, which spanned July 2 to 5, were unable to take to the air the first two days, leaving pilots and onlookers disappointed at the Teton County Fairgrounds in Driggs, Idaho.
Then, on the Fourth of July, the winds shifted and the clouds lost their worrisome look.
At the 5:45 a.m. pilot meeting the nervous crowd was directed to hang tight for 30 minutes. In the backdrop the sun rose quietly over the Tetons.
Half an hour later, a second meeting was called, and pilots and crew were directed to “static,” a decision that would allow spectators to watch the massive, colorful balloons fill with hot air and take shape. But that did not yet permit pilots to get off the ground.
Quickly, equipment was unloaded, the baskets put together much like assembling a tent, and the fabric balloons inflated with enough air to hold themselves upright without lifting off.
“We’re committed to providing an experience for people away from their computers and couches,” said Margaret Breffeilh, a co-organizer of the rally who was responsible for making decisions regarding flight. Independence Day especially, she said.
Jenny Wolf and husband Ernie Hartt, with the help of their yoga-instructor-turned-crew-member Julie Bonsack, hustled to assemble their balloon, dubbed “Sex Toy,” from an inside joke with a longtime friend.
The husband-and-wife team hail from San Diego and have been attending the Teton Valley Balloon Rally since 2002 to help crew balloons. They started flying at the event themselves in 2004.
Breffeilh kept her eyes on the sky as she released several black helium-filled balloons, called pi-balls, to determine wind conditions. As the balloonists continued to set up, she decided conditions had improved enough to allow liftoff — at the discretion of individual pilots.
Onlookers sitting in, on or near their cars cheered as the first of nine balloons left the ground, pilot and passenger shaking their fists in victory. One by one the brightly colored, multipatterned balloons lifted off, looking like opaque bubbles in the sky as they drifted away from the start field.
One had no basket but was outfitted instead with a single large tank and a harness for the pilot.
One pilot of a balloon decorated with rabbits opted to stay grounded.
From the air a skyline dotted with other balloons was a gorgeous sight. Spectators below were specks in the green fields. Cars pulled over with drivers’ eyes shielded from the sun glare to get a better look at the magical sight above them.
Balloon crews chased their pilots on the roads. Wind changes left the balloons spread well apart, and eventually they landed anywhere from an open lot in a residential neighborhood to the starting point.
Back at the fairgrounds, co-organizer Virginia Symons kept the rally in line. She had to ask only two people to leave the premises for not following the strict health and safety protocols adhered to by pilots, crews and the land-bound: face masks in place always, observers a short distance from their cars.
“We drew the line in the sand really early,” Symons said, “and we’re like, ‘This is the way we’re doing it, absolutely no exceptions. So if you’re not on board then just don’t come.’ And the message has been received loud and clear. I’m just blown away by how everything came together.”