Oh, my God … ”
They’re the only words I can utter, over and over again, as I rise higher and higher in the red, white and blue hot air balloon that is the RE/MAX real estate company’s trademark. I should be thrilled. This media flight at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival Balloon Classic Invitational — the event that kicks off a week of festivities in and around Canton before the hall’s annual inductions — is the realization of a childhood dream.
But as I pull away from the earth with seemingly fast-forward speed, excitement turns to anxiety. I feel a blast of heat against my neck and jerk my head up just in time to see a propane-fueled plume of fire shoot through the 8-foot-wide mouth of the balloon into its 90,000-cubic-foot interior. That’s normal, my fellow travelers assure me. I’m along for the ride with veteran pilot Ken Myers and repeat passenger Kayleigh Kriss, midday drive-time personality for Canton radio station WHBC-FM 94.1. I close my eyes and try to relax.
And then it suddenly hits me that the three of us, along with the propane tank, are now more than 1,000 feet above the earth in what is essentially a little basket. An incredibly sturdy, little wicker basket reinforced with thick leather patches at the corners and a platform of wood underneath, but a little basket just the same. What if the whole thing catches fire? I wonder hysterically. The thought turns my stomach with we’re-all-gonna-die fear and literally sends me to my knees.
Even as I cower at the bottom of the basket, I realize that I am one of the more fortunate people to attend the three-day event. Most of the approximately 125,000 visitors expected to converge on the Kent State University Stark Campus and adjoining Stark State College of Technology July 28 through 30 will only be able to watch as 73 pilots, some from as far away as Utah, launch their balloons to participate in the daily “target drop,” a competition that, as the name suggests, involves dropping bean bags at targets on the ground.
The closest spectators will get to the balloons is the Friday-night “balloon glow,” when the fully inflated-but-grounded crafts light up the evening sky. The knowledge shames me into opening my eyes and getting back on my feet. The view is truly spectacular.
To the southeast I can see downtown Canton, still three miles away, a distant cluster of high-rises piercing a swirl of morning mist near the rolling, wooded horizon. Myers tells Kriss that if she turns around, she can see downtown Akron, too. I forget my fear and turn around with her to see a similar sight to the northwest. And then I notice the other balloons.
There are approximately 20 of them, all slowly drifting to the southwest in a colorful floating parade. Some, like ours, bear the logos and names of sponsors such as Mayflower Transit, Advance Auto Parts and a Harley-Davidson dealership. Among the more elaborate shaped balloons are “Sushi,” a tropical fish with big blue eyes, pouting red lips and inflatable fins, and “Sunny Boy,” a smiling sun sporting a pair of dark Wayfarer-style shades and ring of inflated rays. Myers points out a football-shaped balloon hovering just inches over a nearby lake. He explains that the pilot appears to be attempting a “splash,” an aptly named maneuver in which the basket briefly touches the water.
We drift over Dillard’s department store at Westfield Shoppingtown Belden Village into a series of leafy residential neighborhoods, where adults and children alike are standing in yards and on sidewalks, shielding their eyes from the sun and gazing up at the soaring spectacle. By now my fear has dissipated, most likely because I’ve finally gotten used to the sensation of floating — it’s kind of like getting the air equivalent of sea legs — and we’ve lost enough altitude for me to see the kids’ smiling faces.
We continue our descent, and Myers begins to look for a good place to land. When I first talked to event competition director Maury Sullivan about arranging this flight, he cautioned me that I may have to walk a long way through muddy fields to the nearest road and “chase vehicle” that follows the balloon’s course on terra firma. The passenger release form warns of rough landings, advising riders to grab hold of the basket’s sides and bend their knees to absorb the shock.
Muscles don’t break; bones do, it advises. But we land gently in an affluent new subdivision just across the road from a golf-course fairway at Glenmoor Country Club. Crew members reach up to grab the basket and guide it to the ground, walking it a few feet from the street to a vacant lot. I look up and see a balloon shaped like a giant pink piggy bank, complete with a coin stuck in its back slot, pass over us.
I want to go up again.
Great Lakes Options
Sauce and Soul
If you missed our rib cook-off in May — or you just love music and food — Columbus is the place to be this month. The 27th annual Jazz and Rib Fest, July 21 through 23, will feature local and national jazz musicians along with barbecue booths from nine states. Butch Lupinetti, owner of Butch’s Blues and BBQ in Mount Laurel, N.J., will showcase the rib sauce that earned him second place at this year’s Tops Great American Rib Cook-off in Cleveland. The National Marine Manufacturers Association will host its national Discover Boating and Take Me Fishing Tour with exhibits featuring the best boats and underwater adventure. Jazz veterans Spyro Gyra will highlight the festivities with a Saturday evening jam session. And the best part? It’s free.
The Jazz and Rib Fest is held at the Columbus Riverfront. For more information, call (614) 645-7995 or visit www.musicintheair.org/jazzfest.htm.
— Marissa Beechuk
You say you love summer. Prove it!
Celebrate the season with a trip to Sandcastle Waterpark in Pittsburgh. With 14 waterslides, a lazy river, a wave pool and a kiddie area, there are boatloads of ways to spend the day. And if you need to dry off, head over to Sandcastle’s sister park, Kennywood, for a ride on the new dragster-type coaster, the SwingShot. For really big kids in search of a beach party, Sandcastle’s Sandbar provides a dose of nighttime entertainment in its outdoor nightclub. And, starting July 1, Sandcastle is keeping the wave pool open late on Saturday nights for a Saturday Night Swim for adults 21 and over.
The park is open daily, 11 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. through Aug. 27 and will reopen for Labor Day weekend. A day pass is $22.95, or you can purchase a combo day pass to Sandcastle and Kennywood for $28.95. For more information, call Sandcastle Waterpark at (412) 462-6666 or visit the park Web sites at www.sandcastlewaterpark.com or www.kennywood.com.
— Jenn Parson