She weighs 440 pounds, with 20-foot ears and a curling, 49-foot trunk. Pea-Nut, the high-flying pachyderm, gave me the ride of my life at the 2013 QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in Readington, an annual hot air balloon festival.
This year’s fest is July 24-26, with live music from Don Felder, a former lead guitarist and songwriter for The Eagles, classic rock band Kansas, and Tedeschi Trucks Band with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
The mass inflation began promptly at 6:30 pm. We were there for one of the twice-daily mass ascensions, which are scheduled when the wind is typically the calmest, either just after sunrise or just before sunset. The 125 hot air balloons slowly raise off the grass fields near the runway at Solberg Airport in Readington, usually home to quaint one-person propeller jets. For the festival, the planes park to the side to make room for the three-day event, packed with food vendors, beer, carnival rides and 80 acres of picnic space.
Our pilot Scott Saxton introduced himself. It was his third time flying Pea-Nut, and he explained that special-shaped balloons have the shortest travel time because they are prone to spinning and are more difficult to operate long distances. After a safety briefing, he indicated a field a few acres away where the other shapes started to touch down. The lighthouse and American flag shaped balloons would be landing right behind us.
As we patiently waited for Pea-Nut’s four legs and trunk to inflate, the normal shaped balloons lifted off around us.
Staring up into the abyss of hot air was frightening and exhilarating. Bits of dead grass clung to the side of the inflating balloon, which had lain on the field moments before. The engine was loud and hot, and the crew raced around, untying the anchors and untangling the web of ropes. My boyfriend and I piled into the small wicker basket, with barely enough room left for the pilot. I supposed we needed him, so we squeezed aside to make room.
Suddenly, we were flying. A crowd of thousands roared with thunderous applause; we were one of the last balloons to lift off. We rose above the festival grounds with unexpected speed, enjoying the rare birds-eye view.
Saxton adjusted the hissing flame. In the distance, a crew was preparing the main stage for a band. The aroma of frying funnel cake wafted up from the ground.
We moved smoothly, responding to the shifting breezes. As predicted, the balloon spun—an experience not recommended for those prone to motion sickness.
It seemed like the ride was over almost immediately, as we rapidly approached the field Scott indicated earlier (seen here beneath Pea-Nut’s behemoth foot).
“Unlock your knees! Brace for landing!” Scott instructed. Squatting like a frog, I grabbed the sides of the basket and screamed though we weren’t even going that fast.
The basket bounced on the ground and tipped on an angle, dragging us on a tilt until we finally came to a sideways stop with help from a nearby crew. Getting out of the basket was a little more difficult than getting in, and we crawled out into high grass filled with chirping crickets. But we were back on solid ground.
Suddenly, the lighthouse balloon was right on top of us.
Our crew rushed to assist in the lighthouse landing, and the American flag balloon safely landed in a field a bit further away.
After helping arrange all of Pea-Nut’s legs so the crew could start rolling and packing her up, we said goodbye to our deflated friend and set out in search of a beer and BBQ pulled pork slider just before Blues Traveler hits the stage. Special thanks to Scott Saxton and Endless Mountains Hot Air Balloons Inc. for bringing us safely back to earth!
This patriotic beauty was parked alongside the runway, and was a perfect vision to end the beautiful summer evening.
Want to give hot air ballooning a whirl at this year’s festival in Readington? Balloon rides are $225 per person in the morning and $250 per person in the evening. You will need to purchase a general admission ticket as well in order to get on the festival grounds.
Friday, July 24: 6:30 pm
Saturday, July 25: 6:30 am & 6:30 pm
Sunday, July 26: 6:30 am & 6:30 pm
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