LEWISTON — With no sleep, but a whole lot of enthusiasm, I arrived at Simard-Payne Memorial Park at about 5 a.m. The field was mostly empty and the sky was still its deep, dusky blue, etched with a few remaining stars that would soon disappear into the bright morning sky. They winked at me as they faded, and I felt as though they were wishing us a safe, fun journey.
I had been presented with an opportunity to take my first hot air balloon ride Thursday. This unprecedented adventure had so much more to offer me than beautiful views of the Twin Cities and the chance to cross something off my bucket list. I would leave changed and having made new friends.
Our pilot was Joel Jones of Seale, Alabama, who has been ballooning for the past 15 years. He had just recently laid his very first balloon to rest, called Windspirit, which had graced L-A skies during past festivals, so we rode in his new balloon named Redeemed.
The envelope of Redeemed was spread out across the dewy grass toward the middle of the field waiting to be brought to life. Once it billowed with cool air from a high-powered fan, the burner was fired up to fill the balloon with warm air in preparation for liftoff.
We climbed in and it seemed as though we were about to ascend, but Jones suddenly grew serious and a tad concerned — one of the clips used to close the top of the envelope had not stayed in place, creating an opening that gave view to the blue sky beyond.
Even though he could still fly her — yes, Redeemed is a she — he explained that he would have less control because the heat from firing the burner would easily escape and the opening would permit interference from the air around the outside of the balloon.
We all climbed out and stood back as he let her down, watching as he and his crew readied her again for launch. Redeemed was finally poised and ready to take to the skies. We climbed back in and braced ourselves on the sides of the basket as the crew untethered her. We rose into the cloudless sky and waved to the spectators as they slowly shrank below us.
I was awestruck. There aren’t any words in our language to adequately describe how it felt being up there. I was filled with absolute wonder; it felt as though my eyes couldn’t possibly open wide enough to take in the splendor unfolding around me.
We slowly glided just east of the Androscoggin River, following it southbound. Balloons dotted the sky around us in all directions, each adorned with arrays of colors, prints and patterns. I never realized how uniquely beautiful these creations were until I was flying among them.
Jones asked what we thought of being up there, seeing our hometown from such a new vantage point. He said that each time he flies is just as wonderful and exciting as the first. You could see the happiness in his eyes and his smile, and in the creases his face formed during moments of deep concentration. This man loved piloting his balloon, and he took great pleasure in sharing this happiness with us.
Jones offered bits of knowledge throughout the flight, like being aware of other balloons, power lines and trees; the effects of heat and wind on a balloon’s flight; when to fire the burner or pull the rope to rise higher or drop lower; and what we could expect upon landing.
He extended his piloting skills to conversing directly with Redeemed, in hopes of coaxing her away from the river and toward Route 196, or away from a cluster of trees that we had a brief brush with. “I am the tree king,” Jones said with a laugh.
Our ride ended just under an hour after we launched, at the corner of Lincoln Street and Merton Boulevard in Lewiston. We had traveled about a mile away from Simard-Payne park, and an app on Jones’ phone showed that we had reached a peak height of 461 feet.
We were greeted with delight by Dan Boulet and his wife, Claire, who live in the house beside where we touched down. The Boulets said they had been living there for 40 years and had watched the balloons every summer since the festival began in 1993. “If the wind blows just right, we get this view,” Dan said, gesturing toward the river. “(But) this is the first time anyone’s landed in our yard.”
Jones and his crew welcomed the Boulets to join us as we gave a toast to our ride and listened to Jones tell us the story of the Montgolfiers, the two French brothers who developed the first hot air balloon. I would listen to him tell that story a million times through his thick Southern accent and wide grin.
Gayle Johnson, a member of his crew for the past five or six years, said that many balloonists will tell the story of the Montgolfiers, but she’s never heard anyone else tell it quite like him.
He had seven crew members on this day: Donna Clark and her children, Jacob and Sarah; Donna’s husband, Mark Clark of Auburn; Gayle Johnson; April Anderson of South Portland; and David Johnson of Lisbon, whose business, Advance Orthotic & Prosthetic Services in Auburn, is also the balloon’s sponsor.
David Johnson said he likes sponsoring so he can be a part of the crew, saying it’s like being with family. “We all kind of hang out for the weekend. It’s about the atmosphere.”
Jones spoke about going to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a balloon festival on his 25th wedding anniversary, and how the ride he took there changed him. “I thought, ‘I gotta learn how to do this.’”
He found someone back home in Alabama to teach him. “It changed everything for me. I started learning and the rest, as they say, is history.” He said the peace, happiness and freedom it brings him is unmatched by anything else in the world.
Jones chuckled and asked, “You know how (you know) you’re in a room with a balloon pilot?
“He’ll tell you.”
If I could do it over again I wouldn’t change anything — especially not the folks I was able to experience this with. The sharing of humor, knowledge, history and life stories is something I’ll always hold on to. If I go for a hot air balloon ride again I hope it’s as wonderful as this one was, but the experience with those fine folks was one of a kind.
We ended our flight in classic fashion by saying the balloonist’s prayer: “The winds have welcomed you with softness, the sun has blessed you with its warm hands, you have flown so high and so well that God has joined you in your laughter, and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Although the origin isn’t known for sure, Jones likes to think it’s Irish.
Joel Jones fires up his balloon Friday morning in Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
The balloon crew of Joel Jones of Alabama forces the basket back down to the ground at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Friday after Jones discovered a clip was not fastened. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Balloonist Joel Jones of Alabama, front, and his crew pack up his balloon on Merton Boulevard in Lewiston at the end of the Friday morning flight. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Pilot Joel Jones’ balloon is lowered onto Merton Boulevard in Lewiston at the end of the Friday morning balloon flight. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Joel Jones of Alabama walks into his balloon Friday morning at Simard-Payne Memorial Park to do a pre-flight safety check on the first day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Joel Jones of Alabama smiles in his balloon high above Lewiston on Friday, the first day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A hot air balloon is inflated at 6 a.m. Friday at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on the first day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
The view from inside Joel Jones’ balloon on Friday morning at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on the first day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A balloonist performs a splash and dash, dipping the bottom of the basket briefly into the Androscoggin River and taking off, Friday morning during the Great Falls Balloon Festival in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A balloon floats past the former St. Louis Church in New Auburn on Friday morning, the first day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A balloon flies over Lewiston Friday morning during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A balloon flies over Lewiston on Friday morning during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Balloons take off from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Friday morning during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Hot air balloons fly over Lewiston on Friday morning in this view looking south, during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Balloons take off from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Friday morning during the first launch of the 2018 Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Balloons fly over Lewiston on Friday morning during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Balloons fly along the Androscoggin River in Lewiston and Auburn on Friday morning during the first launch of the Great Falls Balloon Festival. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)