Just as the sun peeks up Thursday, sleepy pilots and their rolled up hot air balloons meet on the Walla Walla VA Medical Center lawn.
The balloon enthusiasts get jolted with excitement when they see each other.
“There’s only about 5,000 balloon pilots in the whole country, so everyone knows each other,” pilot Myia Danley of Peyton, Colo. said. “It really is like a family reunion.”
Thursday’s early morning ride is a calm before chaos for the pilots, crews and event coordinators. The 39th annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede is the biggest event of the year for the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, and Friday officially begins the weekend of festivities.
After only six weeks on the job, the chamber’s new director of special events, Casi Smith, is getting a quick introduction. Smith said 43 balloons will be in town this weekend — one of the most well-attended years ever.
“It’s just an addiction for (the pilots),” Smith said. “They come and they can’t get enough of it.”
Smith said that in addition to balloon launches, there are activities such as for free tethered rides, dance parties, pancake breakfasts, bocce tournaments, 5k races and a spelling bee. Most events are free to the public.
There are approximately 300 volunteers helping to pull off the weekend, but the real cost comes with bringing the pilots to Walla Walla.
Sponsors pay for the pilots’ propane fuel, champagne rece3ption, lodging and meal discounts and more. In exchange, they get to rise to the sky in the balloons.
Scott Wooge, 52, is piloting what is perhaps the quirkiest balloon in the bunch. He pumps gas into “Lindy,” a 300 pound canvas sack with two Mickey Mouse arms and an enormous pair of sunglasses.
Lindy appears, and acts, apathetic. As Wooge tries to land the balloon in a tiny park, the Mickey Mouse hand resting on a nonexistent hip pulls the aircraft in another direction.
That’s the downside of the balloons with extremities, said Wooge, because they get pulled by the wind more easily. He still likes them, “well, because they’re cool.”
The Walla Walla Stampede is the oldest hot air balloon event in the Pacific Northwest.
Even though Wooge is a ballooning veteran — he took his first flight 30 years ago — this is his first time at the southeastern Washington festival.
“I kept hearing this was a beautiful valley to fly in and now I can see why,” said Wooge as he glides Lindy over a wheat field.
“Now, this is where you stop and take a big breath in.”
Visit www.wwvchamber.com for more information about this weekend’s Stampede.
Contact Natalie Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.