No other sound is like it -- it's not a hiss, it's not like the sound of the wind; though loud, it is nothing like a shout or an explosion. The sound of purposeful flames leaping out to heat the air, to make the air lighter than you ever thought it could be -- that sound is a jubilant roar, the sound of a dragon exulting in power, the power to make people fly ...
There aren't many things that make me want to get up at five o' clock in the morning, especially on a holiday weekend. However, over Labor Day weekend, there is one that makes me want to leap out of bed and hurry across town to Mistlin Sports Park before the sun comes up: the Color The Skies Hot Air Balloon Launch.
The little town of Ripon, California (population 14,000) straddles Highway 99 between Stockton and Modesto. On the northern side of the highway, the enormous expanse of Mistlin Sports Park is perfect for gathering a crowd and for the launching of hot air balloons.
The city hosts this balloon launch, called "Color The Skies" each Labor Day weekend, to benefit Children's Hospital Central California. Children's Hospital, located in Madera, California, has as its mission the provision of quality, comprehensive health care to children, regardless of insurance or family income. The service area for this organization ranges from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from Sacramento to Bakersfield.
Color The Skies, Inc. was founded in 2006 by Jessica Coleman, to raise awareness about Children's Hospital, and contribute the proceeds for its financial support.
Admission to the event is $7.00, which includes parking and a pancake breakfast. Breakfast is served from five in the morning; the balloons launch right around six.
This year, in addition to the launch, there will be a Corvette car show, a petting zoo, hot air balloon rides for children, and a helicopter display, as well as vendors, crafts and games.
All that other stuff is wonderful, but for me, the fascination is with the balloon launch itself. It doesn't take place "somewhere over there" -- the balloons are inflated and lift off from within the midst of the spectators. From the magical roar of the propane burners to the sparkling sun on the eastern horizon, casting long shadows on the grass, the morning flight is a sensory extravaganza.
The balloons don't take off one at a time; they fill and leap off the surface of the world in a pack,
filling the air around the viewer like colored mountains. And then they sail away in strange silence on the morning breeze, following the prevailing wind currents south over the Stanislaus River.
Last year we attended the Saturday morning launch, shivering in the morning chill, awestruck by the billowing fabric being transformed into creations of air and flame. On Sunday morning, though, getting up and out the door before the sun rose seemed a bit much. In the summer, we often sleep outdoors in a tent; the early morning air around Labor Day is brisk, and that morning the warmth of the quilt was so sweet and lulling ...
Until we heard the distinctive "Sssss-cchhaaaa!" roar of a hot air balloon burner -- right over our heads. There was no mistaking the sound; we knew that even though we hadn't attended the launch, the balloons had come to us!
We flung ourselves out of the tent and watched, transfixed like children at their first sight of a Christmas tree, as the balloons sailed past us, huge and colorful, barely clearing the roofs of the houses. I waved and called, "Good morning!" and was delighted to see the pilot of this red-stepped balloon wave back and shout a greeting in response.
This year, consider making a trip off the main road Labor Day weekend, August 30 and 31st, and let your heart fly off into the colored sky.