It all started when I went to the Blacksmith Brewery to hear my friend's son's bluegrass band play, back at the beginning of May. I immediately noticed that they had no art on the walls; usually one local artist is featured each month. A friend of mine was working there, so I asked her if they needed some art, as I had quite a few pieces available, just taking up space at home. She said the new installation was going in the next day, but wondered if I could be the artist for June. I found great pleasure in informing her that I already had a show for June--the Artists Along the Bitterroot Studio Tour event. I told her my work was available in July and she checked her calendar. Nope, she hadn't scheduled July yet either and I could have it. I thanked her.
Then it hit me; July was the month of Summer Fest, the hot air balloon festival, sponsored and organized by...the brewery. The brewery would be hopping with energy in July, and my stuff would be on the walls. Sweet.
July arrived and I put up my work. The brewery staff loved it and I very quickly became "that photographer lady" to everyone there. The time for the balloon festival came and I was in the perfect position to offer my services as the official photographer for the event. They were thrilled to have me on board. I went for the evening glow Friday night, but the wind was too much and only one balloon was brave enough to set up briefly. I was back Saturday morning, rubbing sleep out of my eyes at 5:30, and documented all six balloons being set up and inflated. I was struck by the incredible beauty of the balloons in the early morning light, with the Bitterroot Mountains lit up in the background. Close-up, they were huge and so colorful. The crews were very friendly and happy to have me get right in the middle of things.
I noticed one pilot standing inside his balloon while it lay on the ground, being filled with air from an industrial-looking fan. He seemed to be checking on something or other, and I was struck by the scene of him inside the dark red balloon, cloaked in warm red light from the rising sun. I stood near the mouth of the balloon and snapped several photos of him walking around in there. When he noticed me there, he motioned for me to join him. I hesitated, thinking I must have imagined it.
He waved me in, unable to yell to me over the noise of the fan.
I stepped inside and snapped a photo of the huge magnolia flower design, illuminated by the horizontal rays of light, but the angle wasn't just right to get the entire flower, so I quickly lay down on my back to get a wider shot. It was perfect and time stopped right there for me, like I was in a dream. It was surreal. I didn't want to overstay my welcome, though, so I flashed the pilot a huge grin and a thumbs-up, and headed back toward reality. The warm glow stayed with me as I stepped out of the balloon and lit me up from the inside while I got back to work, running around the field to get the right angles for the shots I wanted.
As the crews finished their set up work, the excited and nervous-looking passengers began to climb aboard. One by one, the balloons lifted off. My camera's shutter was really getting a workout.
As the red magnolia balloon went up, I raised my camera to capture the passengers leaving for the ride of a lifetime. Much to my surprise, I found a friend's face in my viewfinder. I had seen Grace, an older lady from church, wandering around the field earlier, admiring the balloons. She had said it was a lifetime dream of hers to go up in one, and maybe she would save up for a ride next year. But there she was, twenty feet, now thirty, now forty feet off the ground. I yelled to her without lowering my lens and continued shooting. "Grace Wilson! What are you doing up there?"
Grace waved wildly and called back, "I don't know, but here I am!" I grinned, snapped a few more shots, and waved back as her grey hair floated out of sight. I would get back to work and grill her for details on Sunday morning at church. She must have charmed the organizers with her Little-Old-Lady-With-A-Lifelong-Dream act. As it turns out, that's exactly what happened. She told me later that they must have thought she didn't look like she'd make it another year to come back and actually pay for a ride, so they might as well let her go up for free. She sure fooled them; Grace is a spitfire--not exactly a frail little lady.
Once all the balloons had lifted off, I began to chase them around the valley, pulling my vehicle over erratically and snapping like crazy. I got some great shots, including one of a balloon landing next to the flag on the fifth green of a busy golf course. The newspaper published that photo, large and in color, with a funny caption about a spectacular hole in one.
I saw the magnolia descend softly into a farmer's field near the golf course, so I followed it to document the end of Grace's flight. I took some photos of the crew and their chase team (the ground crew that follows them around) and had a really nice time chatting with them and with Grace. They asked if I had any kids who would be interested in a little informational brochure that they give to school children. I thanked them and told them of my daughter who had wanted to come with me that morning, but couldn't seem to get up, even with me trying to wake her up. I assured them that she would get up and come with me the next morning, once she saw all the photos. We said our good-byes and they asked if I was going back to the park for the pancake breakfast. I told them I should go home to my family instead, but that I would see them all early Sunday.
I drove home slowly, savoring the images in my mind's eye. Whether setting up on the field or floating through the sky, clustered together on the same wind currents, the six balloons were just the prettiest sight. They were so photogenic that it almost felt like cheating to get credit for such gorgeous images of them. I was hooked. Sometimes the word 'awesome' is used flippantly, but not this time. It was the only word I could come up with.
I was back home by 9 AM and was surprised to find my children just getting up. I had seen so much beauty since I left the house four hours before that it hardly seemed possible that it could still be so early in the day. I found Ellie in tears that I hadn't awoken her to go along. I assured her that I tried, and that she could still go with me Sunday morning before church. That helped a little. I realized that I was famished and wondered aloud if perhaps a pancake breakfast with the balloon crews might help even more. She raced downstairs to get dressed. Tano was still too groggy to care about either the balloons or the pancakes, and Andy was already working, so the girl and I headed back to Stevensville to rustle up some grub. When the fire department throws a pancake breakfast, it's good eating.
So that was Saturday morning.
By Saturday night, my mind was spinning with possibilities and I was beginning to have a good feeling about things. Andy raised his eyebrows when I announced with confidence that I was going to pull a Bluebird the next morning. "Oh, really? " he asked, smiling at my phrasing, and understanding completely what I meant. It was like Babe Ruth's famous called shot in the 1932 World Series. I had stepped to the plate with a swagger and pointed to center field. All that was left was to see if I could really hit a homerun to center on the next pitch, like the Bambino did.
I suppose a word of explanation is necessary here, as Andy and I are the only ones who know what 'pulling a Bluebird' might mean: In the fall of 1993, Andy and I were still technically newlyweds, living in a little rental house on Locust Ave. in downtown Long Beach, California. We watched with delight as a brand new little diner was erected within easy walking distance of our house. It would be great to have a place so close to grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. When the highly anticipated opening of the diner finally arrived, we were excited. We walked to the Bluebird Cafe, hand in hand, both carrying a load of paperwork, prepared to spend all evening holed up in a cozy booth. The menu was broad and the two middle eastern men who seemed to be running the entire show were friendly and outgoing. We sat down with our tasty meals and got to work. I was a first year teacher and was grading English papers. After a while I needed a break and opened up the simple brochure that served as the Bluebird's take-out menu.
It was terrible. There were spelling and grammatical errors everywhere and the layout and design left much to be desired. Their lack of fluent English showed clearly. If they had been touting middle eastern fare, that would have been just fine--perhaps even desirable, but their intent was clearly to create an all-American feel to the diner. I had my red pencil in hand already, so I playfully ripped the brochure up. There was red everywhere. The final clincher was the the byline: under The Bluebird Cafe, it said in smaller letters, "Quite simply, a better food." Ouch. At first we giggled, but then I realized that I had what they needed and they had what I wanted. I had good English skills (and some experience with graphic design), and they had good food close to my home. Hmmm...
A trade was arranged. The brochure was revised and Andy and I enjoyed half a dozen free dinners for two. "A Bluebird" came to mean for us anything bartered.
Now you can guess what I meant when I told Andy I was going to pull a Bluebird.
I went back to the park again Saturday night for the evening glow, but again the wind kicked up and it didn't happen. I collapsed into bed and slept until my alarm startled me out of bed in the dark again. I'm not a morning person AT ALL, so this is never easy for me, but I had high hopes. I woke Ellie up (Tano had already told me he wasn't interested in getting up that early, even if the balloons were really cool) and we stumbled to the car.
By the time the sun was up, the balloon teams and I were back in action.
Ellie wandered around the field in awe while I worked at getting the shots I'd missed the day before. I kept one eye, however, on the organizers from the brewery. They were responsible for arranging rides for paying passengers as well as sponsors and other VIP's. I saw them cluster around their clipboard and I moved to within earshot. They were discussing the fact that they didn't have as many passengers lined up for that morning. Should they consolidate and tell one of the balloons that they don't have to go up this morning?
I realized it was time to make my move. With Ellie by my side knowing nothing of the hope for a Bluebird--or what that would even mean, I nonchalantly moved a few steps closer to them.
"Hey, guys, I just wanted you to know that I have been getting some great shots this weekend. I looked at my images from yesterday and they are amazing. I have also been thinking through some ideas for next year's poster and other publicity materials." This was true. I went on, "I'm really excited about making these images work for you guys in promoting this event so that it continues to grow. I'd like to see it get huge and be one of the premier events of the valley. I can't wait to show you what I've been getting."
"Sherry, have you been up yet?"
"No, I never have, but I would love to someday. I'm loving this whole balloon thing and I'm hoping to save my pennies up for next year's event."
"Well, we happen to have some extra space today. Would you and your daughter like to go up?"
"Totally. You could get some great shots from up in the air."
I looked down at Ellie and her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head. I asked her if she'd like to go up in a balloon and she gulped and nodded, trying hard to play it cool, but obviously excited beyond belief.
And that's how it happened.
I continued to run around taking pictures while the balloons got set up. Ellie wandered the field with a dreamy grin on her face. The organizers found me again a bit later and said they'd had to shuffle passengers and now only had one space available in each of two different balloons. Would my daughter and I be willing to split up? I cringed a bit and went to find Ellie. Would she be willing to go without me?
"Well, Mama," she said, "I'd rather go with you...but really, I just want to go up in a balloon, so I don't mind."
That settled it. I went to find out which balloon would be taking my precious daughter a thousand feet off the ground with no safety net below. It was the magnolia crew. I breathed a sigh of relief. I almost felt like they were friends by that point, and they felt the same about me. They were very happy to have my daughter with them, and as their only passenger, even. They would send up three crew members and her. I signed her life away on a release form, watched her climb into the basket, kissed her cheek, told her I loved her and wished her a great flight. I snapped a photo, then ran back to the other end of the field. My balloon was waiting for me.
I turned as I ran and saw her floating up into the air. We smiled and waved at each other, and then she was gone. I felt a little twinge of parental irresponsibility, but it passed. I had a flight to catch.
I was going up with a local hotelier and his daughter, as well as a pilot. I must admit, though, I didn't take time for much conversation with them. I was busy working, snapping photos left and right. I felt the tiniest bit of nervousness when the balloon first began to leave the ground, but by the time I was twenty feet above the ground, it passed. I was floating.
I pulled out my cell phone and took a photo of the St. Mary's Mission as I went over it, still quite low. I sent it to Andy, who was probably still sleeping. The call would wake him up and he would know. He would know I had hit the homerun. It was already 440 feet over the center field wall.
The experience was amazing, from start to finish. I looked down on a patchwork of farm and ranch land, on hay fields recently mowed and on grassy meadows dotted with cattle. I looked down on slivers of dark blue creeks flowing into the broad blue ribbon of the Bitterroot River flanked with white gravel and sand bars. I looked down at pristine green forests and my eyes followed them up the hillsides until the mountain peaks, some still splotched white with snow, met up with the deep blue of the sky. I looked at all of these things with other beautiful hot air balloons in my viewfinder.
The only sounds were the occasional bits of conversation between the pilot and the other passengers, and the frequent bursts of flame from the propane burners.
The only movement was the occasional high-flying bird. A bald eagle soared across our path on the breeze. We were not wind-blown. We WERE the wind.
We floated up high. We dipped down and skimmed the surface of the river.
Look at the images on my website. They tell more than I can here.
We came down in a farmer's field and hit the burners just enough to stay above the surface of the field so the ground crew could grab the handles on the basket and pull us across the irrigation ditch to the waiting truck and trailer. We all helped tear down and put away, although I did less than the others because I was busy documenting the process. We loaded into their Suburban and drove back to the park where my daughter's balloon crew was waiting with her in the nearly empty parking lot. I thanked them all, we drove home, surprised everyone (Andy hadn't heard his phone ring) with the news that we'd gone up, showered, and went to church like nothing was out of the ordinary.
Except for the smiles. We couldn't wipe them off our faces.
For days, I was still floating, every time I closed my eyes. When I look at the photos, I can feel it again.
Thanks, God. That was cool. Really cool. I arrogantly called the shot, but I know it was you who let it fly.