Early mornings and melons at the Arkansas Valley Balloon Festival
words and photos by Katie Schrader, guest writer
About a hundred miles southwest of Colorado Springs lies a little gem of a town called Rocky Ford. This town, which boasts a population of roughly four thousand, is located in the Arkansas Valley, a group of small farming communities east of Pueblo on Highway 50. It’s no surprise that most of the local economy is tied to agriculture. What might surprise you, however, is that Rocky Ford, Colorado is the (self-sworn) melon capital of the world, and nothing makes its residents more proud. In fact, the town even went so far as to model their high school after a melon, dubbing it “The Melon Dome” and painting it with the school motto: “Motivate, Educate, Graduate.”
Like melons, the annual Arkansas Valley Balloon Festival is something very near and dear to the Rocky Fordians’ hearts. For the past 22 years without fail, the town has held the festival on the first weekend of November. Though the town’s festivities begin on Friday, the balloons do not launch until Saturday and Sunday at promptly six o’clock in the morning.
Two weekends ago, some friends and I traveled down to Rocky Ford to experience the festival. As you can perhaps imagine, rolling out of bed on a Saturday at four o’clock in the morning to drive a couple of hours to the melon capital of the world is not an easy task. Despite the pitch black of early morning, we always knew when we were driving past a cow or pig farm (of which there were plenty) from the stench in the air. We arrived in town around 5:30, and there was not a balloon to be seen. The only place that showed any sign of life was the United Methodist Church. Upon entering, I felt like the wounded water buffalo surrounded and stalked by Komodo dragons in the film Life. All eyes focused in. Sensing our foreignness, and perhaps weakness, the Rotary wives promptly told us we were about an hour and a half early. Unbeknownst to us, the launch wasn’t scheduled until seven in the morning due to daylight saving time. Gimping back to the car in the twenty-degree weather, we parked across from the Melon Dome and quickly passed out.
As the sky got lighter and the parking lot began to fill, it became apparent that this was an important event for the town. By six it seemed as though most of the town’s population had congregated at the football field of the Rocky Ford Meloneers. No, really, that is their school mascot, and let me tell you—I have never seen an angrier looking watermelon. I have also never seen more jeans being worn in one place. Jeans and boots. Being in jeans myself, I felt as though I blended right in, except for the feeling of the Rotary wives’ eyes on my back as they passed out coffee and burritos.
As the sun came over the Melon Dome, we beheld a truly fascinating site. People of all shapes, sizes, and shades of jean, pulled giant, colorful balloons out of bags the size of CC’s micro fridges. Flames at least ten feet high randomly burst into the air as the pilots tested their equipment. At last they started inflating the balloons, which grew endlessly until they left the ground and everyone had to scramble to throw themselves into the baskets to make sure they did not fly away on their own. American flags, Colorado flags, and rubber chickens dangled from the ropes as balloons lifted off into the sky.
Some balloons were just your standard variety of colors in fairly geometric patterns, but others were more creative. We witnessed a lake scene with raised swans, fish, and bubbles, as well as a massive Marvin the Martian, take to the clouds that morning. Children reacted in a variety of ways. Some stared off quietly into the sky with jaws unhinged, others screamed and ran away from the balloons as they took flight. There were a few that spent most of the day crying from the cold, but most pointed to the sky with ecstatic excitement. Seventeen balloons lifted off, including one that almost plummeted directly onto the Melon Dome. Luckily, disaster missed Rocky Ford’s only school that day, and the balloons sailed off into the sunrise.