LEWISTON — “It was love at first flight,” Trish Whidden of Florida said when she and her husband Bill took their first hot air balloon ride 32 years ago.
Now they are the crew chief and pilot of Great Balls of Fire, which departed Lewiston’s Simard-Payne Memorial Park Sunday morning during the Great Falls Balloon Festival.
For the passengers aboard — myself included — it was our first time, too.
As I lifted my foot into a step to climb into the basket, I trembled considering the height, the burner flame and the landing.
Without realizing I’d left solid earth, the balloon lifted into the air as gently as a birthday balloon slips from a child’s fingers.
It was love for me, too.
Passengers Jesse and Sheila Twitchell of Turner looked forward to being up high and gaining a new perspective. They’ve seen Lewiston-Auburn from above by flying in a plane, but a flight in a hot air balloon amazed them.
“It is like we were floating,” said Jesse. “It was so quiet except when the burner was going.”
The Twitchells were given tickets for the balloon ride as a gift for their sixth wedding anniversary, which they celebrated Saturday.
As the elevation varied, so did the landscape and the distance to the treetops, which occasionally brushed the floor of the basket. A pine tree on the course of Prospect Hill Golf Course slightly tipped and slowed the basket, leaving needles on the floor.
“Swinging through trees, it didn’t even seem like we were elevated above everything,” said Sheila. “I didn’t think I would like (flying in a hot air balloon) as much as I did.”
Leaving Lewiston, the balloon flew over a bird — a lone cormorant — eventually gaining elevation in a wind sheer, offering pink and golden views of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and the fog rising from the Androscoggin River.
This should have been it — the part where I realized I was way up there. But it almost didn’t feel like flying — it was like leaning over the edge of an overlook to get a better view.
Residents who didn’t make it to the early launch were still eager to see the balloons, waving from patios and windows with coffee and cameras.
The Whiddens had never seen a hot air balloon before their first ride, until a friend stated he’d be visiting their Florida farm with his balloon.
“Bill wondered what a grown man was doing with balloon animals,” Trish recalled, “but after that first ride, he wouldn’t get out.”
With hectic lifestyles, flying hot air balloons was a way for the Whiddens and their three children to spend time together.
They started their ballooning careers racing, but now travel nationally and internationally to festivals, including the Chris Columbus Rediscovers America Balloon Festival, which departed Olympia, Wash., and visited 16 cities in 39 days. They have 11 festivals planned this year, including their next stop in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Now came the landing.
I barely felt the liftoff, and the height didn’t leave me feeling unstable, so this had to be the part about the ride that wouldn’t be gentle — oh, but it was.
The bottom of the basket bumped the clover and then the ground, springing forward to bump again. I’ve been bumped harder by rude shoppers in a grocery store.
At the end of a flight, hot air balloons must land in a flat, grassy area. Because weather conditions determine a flight path, property owners can’t expect a balloon to land until it has landed.
Fortunately, South Whitham Road in Auburn had several fields appropriate for landing. We came to a stop on the front lawn of Judy Vardamise.
Peeking out her window, she “suddenly felt like the balloons might land here,” said Vardamise. She was right.
Vardamise and her sister inherited the property in 1998. Hot air balloons had been landing on her family’s property since the festival began, but stopped a decade before.
“It would mean so much to my parents to know you landed here,” Vardamise told Bill. “It brings me such wonderful feelings.”
Sheena Aston of Wales has loved balloons since childhood, when she first began attending the festival. Now she and her son, 9-year-old Jullian Grover of Poland, are balloon chasers, and they chased Great Balls of Fire from the ground.
Someday, instead of chasing, they will fly. “I’m saving to go up next year,” said Grover.
Our Great Falls Balloon Festival section has stories, photos, videos and social media coverage of the launches and non-launches.