LEWISTON — The crowds arrived at Simard-Payne Memorial Park Sunday morning as the baskets were on their side and the balloons were being unfurled.

The roar of the propane burners could be heard and the balloons began to take shape in the brightening dawn. Passengers and pilots climbed into baskets amid the flashing of cameras and maneuvering of spectators against incoming trucks and vans.

By 6:16 a.m., the Androscoggin Balloon Adventures chase crew had assembled their aircraft and watched it drift away with their pilot, Jim Rodrigue, and four passengers.

Then the scramble began.

Passengers of the Tailwinds balloon get ready to take flight Sunday morning from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. In the basket, from left, are Taylor Hemenway, Jerry Callahan, Elaine Hemenway, and balloon pilot Jim Rodrigue. Sun Journal writer Joaquin Contreras, right, joins the chase crew. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Any remaining equipment was packed onto the company truck, a Chevy Silverado, and eyes were kept on the sky. The yellow balloon with a pattern of colored kites was steadily climbing and shrinking from view. Rodrigue has reached 4,000 feet on previous flights, though balloons on average tend to stay between 1,000 and 3,000 feet.

The truck lumbered through the parting crowd onto Lincoln Street and a stream of cars followed. Inside the truck, I asked if the pilot had a preferred spot to land.


“The ground,” said Tim Leeman, who, along with the driver — his mother Tracy — has worked with Androscoggin Balloon Adventures for 18 years.

The sky was alight with balloons soaring above the spectators, speckled like the dew on the grass beneath them.

It’s a task in itself just trying to keep tabs of the one you’re chasing. Pulled over on the shoulder, crew member Jim Bouyea and I have our heads out our windows in the back seat. The crew’s estimations on where Rodrigue will land change with the direction of the wind constantly pushing him.

The “Dazed and Confused” guitar solo on the radio only adds to the delirium.

We move from Lincoln Street to Lisbon Street, up Pine Street and onto Howe Street, 102.9 WBLM scoring our journey. In the Longley Campus parking lot, David Bowie’s “Fame” comes on and Tracy turns the dial up. It looks like the balloon is landing, making a slow descent behind the trees. In the passenger seat, Tim notes Rodrigue’s time in the air.

A ride in one of Rodrigue’s balloons goes between $225 and $250 per person for roughly an hour, just long enough to burn through about 2 1/2 tanks of propane, or 40 gallons, though it varies depending on factors such as temperature and the weight of the basket.


Jim Rodrigue, right, leads his crew Sunday packing up the Tailwinds balloon in the parking lot of the Lewiston Mall. Behind him from right are Barry Babcock, Tim Leeman and Jim Bouyea. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

On Bartlett Street, we spot the balloon hanging low against a backdrop of streaks from planes and the fading silhouette of the crescent moon in the sky. At the right angle, there’s almost a total eclipse of the sun.

Heading toward Lewiston High School, we pass cars stopped in driveways and in parking lots watching the morning migration. The basket passes through some brush, taking with it what the crew calls “treetop bouquets,” or tree branches.

At Connors Elementary, the crew spills out from their cars only to watch the balloon pass over them toward the Lewiston Mall. Soon there’s a row of cars snaking down toward Bull Moose, where the basket slides precariously close to its roof.

“Jim, you better not hit that,” said Caden Babcock, a young crew member, to himself.

Jim does not hit it, and the balloon eases to the ground as softly as it took off. Passengers hoist themselves from the basket, triumphant and relieved to touch the ground once again.

“It was really nice. It was beautiful and peaceful,” said Taylor Hemenway of Sabattus, who marked her sixth hot air balloon voyage and was joined by her grandmother, Elaine.


After the balloon was rolled up and the basket was placed snug behind it in the bed of the truck, the celebration began. The morning sun shone bright like the orange juice in our glasses as the champagne was passed around and Rodrigue addressed the circle formed near the tailgate.

The symbolism of the celebration, according to Rodrigue’s speech, calls back the early voyages of the Montgolfier brothers, 18th-century French aviation pioneers and the inventors of the hot air balloon. They would place a bottle of the local vineyard and small animals in the basket during early flight experiments so farmers wouldn’t destroy it thinking it was extraterrestrial when it inevitably crash landed on their property. Today, it is in commemoration of a safe landing.

Jim Rodrigue shows off his tattooed back Sunday in the Lewiston Mall parking lot. Rodrigue estimates he has spent over 400 hours and $20,000 over the years on his tattoos, many of which are balloon themed. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Jim Rodrigue, the Illustrated Man, wears the icons of his trade on his sleeves — rather, on the legs of the epidermal collage of his passions. After nearly $20,000 and over 400 hours under the needle, Rodrigue has become the walking embodiment of the sci-fi canon. He is covered up to his wrists, ankles and the base of his neck in tattoos, a testament to his love of aviation and pop culture as well his endurance and family. Across his chest are portraits of his late father and brother, as well as his ailing mother.

“Pain becomes just a memory,” Rodrigue said.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story