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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sport of the Gods

A friend of mine, who should probably remain nameless here because he's the Mayor of Gardner, once told me, 'Gardner is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.'

Sorry, Dave, I guess it doesn't sound like something a mayor should say, but it's generally true. We have some fantastic local eateries, Bob & Dee's, the Downtowner, and more (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives could do a whole episode without leaving our fair city, true story), but mostly the stuff that rocks about living in Gardner is stuff that doesn't make much of an impact on a tourist.

But Dave's absolutely right: It's dullsville, as most decent places to raise a family are. Amenities like the massive Aquatic Center are great for locals but fall short of attracting people from around the region like Oceans of Fun or Schlitterbahn. The County Fair and the city-wide garage sale are our big deals. And Celebration Park, while a stunning piece of civil engineering for a small town, is just a collection of ball fields and playground equipment on what used to be a sod farm.

But hosting the Kansas City Hot Air Balloon Festival there, that's far from dull.

I took the girls out to Celebration Park for the balloons at 2:00 this afternoon and there was a handful of bored vendors and not much else. When I asked where the balloons were, I was told to come back at 7:00, they fly at the crack of dawn and at the end of the day.

Mmmmkay. So when we got back there a little after seven, they were staging a reenactment of the closing scene in Field of Dreams, and endless flow of cars into the boondocks, in this case a sod farm, a school built on what used to be a sod farm and a city park sculpted out of what also used to be a sod farm.

It's a stellar rocket launching field, and for the same reasons an ideal site for launching the Kansas City Hot Air Balloon Festival.

Kansas City Hot Air Balloon Festival in Gardner from Chixulub on Vimeo.

Between the news pimping it, Facebook, and the perfect weather, the turnout was, I think, better than expected. I base this on the handful of vendors, who cleaned up no doubt, but who had long, long lines the whole evening. And I heard more than one person complain that there were no portapotties brought in. There are restrooms, permanent ones, in the park, but they were built, as far as I can tell, with the idea that the park was being used to capacity when maybe 1000 people were there. Not unreasonable for a city park in a city of maybe 20,000.

But people came in droves, from all over Hell's half acre. I talked to a former coworker who lives in North Kansas City there; I met a family who drove from Iowa for this; I saw license plates from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri, and that wasn't on the trucks/trailers the balloons came in, it was on cars parked back to back and belly to belly on every legal and illegal spot conceivable within two miles of Celebration Park.

Me, I had to park on a near vertical patch of grass at the edge of the far northern soccer field of the park, and I had to drive between other cars parked on the grass to get there. And all things considered, I got a kick-ass parking spot compared to where I saw some people parking and hiking in from.

The girls, well, it was mixed reviews. Em had a pickle up her butt and didn't want to be there no matter what. Then she saw how awesome the balloons were, and that seemed to make her feel even worse about not being able to have fun and being dragged along anyway. Hard to be fourteen sometimes.

Mo loved the balloons, but I think she found the crowd and everything to be a bit much and she started nagging me to go in her way, which is to get all lovey and start hugging on me and stuff. All in all, I prefer her method of bitching about being there to Em's, since Mo's takes the form of trying to butter me up, but still, it's not like you get to see 28 hot air balloons up close and personal every day.

Em said it wasn't fair, and I responded that it wasn't fair that a Dad could take his kids to an awesome spectacle and be thanked with grief. Apparently while this is absolutely true, my saying so is also 'not fair.'

Kansas City Hot Air Balloon Festival in Gardner from Chixulub on Vimeo.

The balloons, though, they were amazing. Even Em's bad mood couldn't dampen the fun of watching them inflate and take off. Hobbies, I've learned, will take all the money you'll ever want to throw at them and then come back asking for more. Inquire about the expense of most hobbies, though, and someone will say, 'It's not that bad.'

'It's not that bad,' and I've said it of homebrewing, beekeeping, model rocketry, cycling, etc, translates roughly to, I'm in denial about just how much cash I've thrown down that hole.

You never hear anyone talk about hot air balloons this way, however. Ask what it costs to get into this hobby and you get an answer along the lines of, 'If you really need to know, you probably can't afford the fuel alone.'

And I'll bet the fuel isn't the big expense with these things. Not that it's cheap, a burner that can generate 15 million BTUs... Doing a rough calculation, my King Kooker is a 200,000 BTU monster, and it'll drain a twenty pound tank in about an hour running full blast.

So if I'm figuring right, 15 minutes of burn with one of these dudes would use about $500 worth of propane.

I suppose I could try and figure out the expense of the nylon by multiplying 7 foot kites until I had enough of them to make a 60,000 cubic foot balloon. Looking for information online, I've had trouble finding out what a new balloon, the whole flight system would cost. I found a used flight system advertised for $27,000, but when I find new balloons it appears I need to call so they can break it to me gently.

I gather, then, that a hot air balloon is roughly equivalent to a yacht in terms of expense. A yacht that can only be used if the weather is fair and the winds are below 12 mph, that eats fuel like a race car and needs a crew to get it up and back down (and to chase your ass to wherever the wind blows you.

By the way, can anyone explain to me this 'No Pepper' sign I saw on the backstop to a ball diamond? It's really bothering me, because who the hell brings pepper to a softball game in the first place? And if they did, so what?

I wanted to go back after supper for some night shots after hearing about them 'lighting up' some balloons in the dark, and neither of my daughters was having it. They've gotten old enough where I'll occasionally make a quick errand, cell phone in hand, with them at home. It might not sound like much for a 13 and 14 year old, but the younger one has autism and that kinda changes the game.

All Lit Up from Chixulub on Vimeo.

But I've run to Ace twice and I think Price Chopper once without them dismembering each other or burning down the house, so I decided to see if I could get those night shots alone.

I could and did, and I ran into this guy I used to work with and his kid, who was a baby just a minute ago. His baby is eight years old. When I revealed that mine were old enough to be left home alone for an hour, he fell out.

What can I say? The days are long and the years are short.

They're doing all this again tonight, and we are so going. Even Em isn't poo-pooing it, much to my astonishment. She's riding the emotional analog for the Mamba, that 70 mph undulating coaster at Worlds of Fun. Except the ride isn't as smooth, brief or predictable.

We're going at 6:00, though, to beat the parking madness a little bit. If the weather holds, I don't see any reason why the turnout would be any less than it was yesterday.

In fact, with everyone posting Facebook pics and videos, blogging (yours truly), etc., I wouldn't be a bit surprised if even more people came out tonight.

Pee before you come, the park has bathrooms but the lines were epic last night. I also heard the occasional complaint that there weren't nearly enough trash cans and of course the parking was nuts. But everyone who complained about such things in my hearing immediately followed with something like, 'This is amazing!' or 'Worth it, though.'

They launch at 7:00 provided the winds are below 12 mph; after dark they light up tethered balloons, burning so much propane the park starts to smell like a giant fart (but in a good way).

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