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Our skyscrapers

Jul 20, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

For the 32nd summer, hot-air balloons grace the local skies

They say the first time two brothers named Montgolfier flew their hot-air balloon -- made of paper, with an open fire burning in the basket -- over the French farmland near their home, the local farmers were so frightened that those who didn't flee charged the balloon with pitchforks when it landed, thinking the thing was a monster.

So the Montgolfiers wised up. The next time they went aloft, they carried a bottle of champagne with them and toasted the locals when their fire-breathing flyer set down in the countryside.

That was nearly 230 years ago, but today it's still customary for balloonists to carry champagne.

If you're lucky, you'll get to take a ride in a hot-air balloon at least once in your life. If you live in Riverton, or visit over the third weekend in July, then your chances are better than most. We host an annual mid-summer festival here called Riverton Rendezvous, and its signature event is a hot-air balloon rally.

As we mention every year since a version of this editorial first appeared in 2004, the balloon rally is far from the only thing happening during Rendezvous. The Day in the Park last week drew more on-site spectators. Many more people will be at Friday night's street cruise downtown and/or wander through the car and bike show Saturday than will see the balloons up close. All of these are fine, fun events.

But the balloon rally retains its magic -- partly because the balloons don't need to be seen up close to be enjoyed. Quite the opposite, in fact. The sight of two dozen balloons, all similar but each different, floating above a field of baled hay, or a plain dotted with sagebrush, or a downtown cityscape, or, yes, an industrial parking lot or even a junkyard, isn't to be forgotten.

And the show on the ground is just as grand. A close-up look at the balloons as they stand up on the Central Wyoming College launch field for those wonderful few minutes before they lift off and scatter with the breezes is one of the best parts of Riverton's year. Even the most-jaded person's heart swells when the balloons tower over the field.

In the early morning July sun, the balloons are our small town's skyscrapers. And then, they fly.

Over the previous 31 years, Riverton's balloon rally has brought some marvelous sights. One pilot landed his basket in the Wind River, floated downstream 50 yards or so, then took off again.

Once a golf foursome stopped play on the 11th hole at the Riverton Country Club and let a balloonist "play through" as he landed just in front of the green. Once a balloonist landed his basket directly in the back of the pickup truck that was following him.

Once a magazine zillionaire, Malcolm Forbes, his flight rained out, sat on a bench and ate pancakes with the common folk who had come to see him. The next morning, with the storm cleared, he flew a balloon shaped like a castle -- and almost as big.

We've hosted the first men to fly a balloon across the Atlantic, the first across the Pacific, the first around the word. We've had the guy who flew his balloon to the North Pole, and the one who made a balloon out of raincoats and used it to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

We've had the man who invented the portable gas burner every balloon now uses, a man who flew under a cluster of hundreds of smaller balloons that looked like a bunch of multi-colored grapes, the man who photographed the milestone balloon flights for National Geographic, and the old Riverton uranium prospector who set ballooning's first great record.

This year we welcome Rich Lawhorn as the featured celebrity. He's one of the fine ambassadors of hot-air ballooning, and his distinctive Humpty Dumpty balloon will be a guaranteed crowd favorite, both on the ground and in the air.

And we also have all the skilled, adventuresome, fun-loving "ordinary' pilots who travel to balloon rallies around the nation each year purely for love. Some have been here many times. Others will fly our friendly skies for the first time this weekend.

It doesn't cost any money to see the balloons, either at the launch field or in the sky. There won't be any car crashes (at least there'd better not be), no bucking bulls, no skyrockets and no cold beer at that hour of the morning.

The balloons rely only on themselves, offering grace, majesty and awe. They are throwbacks, but they still deliver. Every time.

So we gather again this summer to watch and smile and sigh, all with the full realization that a balloon isn't the fastest way to fly, nor the newest, nor the most powerful, nor the most accurate, efficient or convenient.

It is, simply, the most beautiful.

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