Fly Away at the Carolina BalloonFest

By Claire Gaskill

            It’s not every day you see one hot air balloon. At the Carolina BalloonFest, however, you can see handfuls of these helium filled flying baskets. This event entertains families with over 50 balloons the third full weekend each October. Located at the Statesville Regional Airport in Statesville, North Carolina, this festival is grand to say the least; it attracts locals, visitors, and sponsors for a three-day event by holding a variety of scheduled activities centered around hot air balloons and families. That being said, timing arrival to the festival with the scheduled events is essential and preplanning is a requirement to truly maximize the experience.

            Tickets can be purchased online, and it is important to do so in advance. We learned the hard way that the event times will sell out, especially during balloon lightings and lift off. Therefore, a pre-purchased ticket well in advance will ensure you get the most out of your experience. We were disappointed to have missed the Evening Glow Window event (where the balloons are lit up during dusk) due to tickets being sold out. Furthermore, the balloon launch occurs only twice a day at most (weather conditions can alter the schedule), so if that sight is one you are seeking, planning attendance during the short window where balloons take flight is essential. However, do not fret if you cannot arrive during your ideal time. The festival has a variety of activities and a packed schedule. No matter your arrival time, you will find something exciting to fill your festival visit.

            When we arrived at the festival at 10am on Sunday morning, we were by no means the first ones there. The crowd, seemingly early risers, was vast and parking was already a hike from the event itself. Multiple entrance gates and parking lots funneled into the open field at the airport that housed the event. The informal setting was contained by a radius of sponsor tents along the near side and vendor tents (which included food and crafts) along the far side. In addition to the variety of tents, the perimeter also included an alcohol section, featuring booths from local wineries and breweries, and an area for children with bouncy houses and other carnival games. Inside the circle of tents and vendors, the festival was fairly bare. There were two balloon activities and a stage for the performers who were scheduled to join later in the day. A colorful carpet of picnic blankets also covered the dewy grass where parents sat watching their kids play in the open field. Immediately, we were drawn to a tent selling fudge and candied apples. After laughing with the friendly vendor about the lack of fresh fudge around Elon, we decided on a flavor and continued exploring.

            Beyond wondering through the maze of vendors, visitors also had the opportunity to wait in one of the two lengthy lines to spend $5 for a chance to go for a small lift in a tethered hot air balloon. Given this was the only way to truly experience riding in one of the balloons at the festival beyond scheduling a pricey and limited private flight, the line was extremely long. We decided to save the time and money and skip that opportunity.  There was also an additional hot air balloon that visitors could pay for the opportunity to take a picture inside.

            Since we were trying to save our money after paying for the admissions ticket, we were surprised by the lack of activities available to us through the ticket purchase. The number of sponsors in comparison to vendors and the additional cost of many of the attractions was a surprise. We did, however, have the free opportunity to watch a hot air balloon be set up.  This process allowed us to see how the balloon goes from being rolled up in the back of a truck to taking flight. That was a really interesting and unique experience; it was the highlight of the festival for us!

            As we pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the narrow dirt road exiting the airport, we reflected back on the experience a little disappointed by the lack of opportunities a general admissions ticket furnishes. If we were to do it again, we would really consider the schedule of events before going. We felt that it was not worth visiting if there was not an event you were really interested in happening. For future trips, we decided the best way to maximize the experience is to purchase a ticket well in advance for a time period when the balloons are scheduled to take flight. After coming to these conclusions, we were back on the road to our next destination.

The Annual Statesville Pumpkin Festival

By Kate Flinn

A stop in Statesville led to an unexpected surprise of closed roads and throngs of people: the annual Statesville Pumpkin Festival, a beloved community tradition that marks the start of the fall season for this quaint little town. Almost immediately upon arrival, we fell upon the festival’s main stage, garnished to theme with hay and various fall squashes. A young band occupied the stage, performing a twangy, though otherwise on-key, rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Excited about this sudden turn of events, we decided to tackle the festival head on.

Statesville is one of the oldest towns in the state, founded in 1789 shortly after North Carolina joined the United States. Due to a series of fires that plagued the original infrastructure, most of what is today recognized as historic downtown Statesville was constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town’s pride for the history and community are evident throughout the festival. Festival-goers interested in learning more about Statesville are encouraged to visit the town’s historical collection, just down the street from what locals refer to as “the square.” For those seeking out recreation, the festival boasts attractions for attendees of all ages. Guests can stroll down historic Main Street and choose from a huge selection of local food vendors. From traditional North Carolina barbeque to enormous Greek gyros, this festival has it all. Personally, I opted for an appetizer of one of my favorite treats: a powdered sugar covered funnel cake.

Aligning with the peculiar human passion for smashing things, attendees of all ages can line up for the chance to bludgeon a pumpkin with a large sledgehammer. Sounds relatively straightforward, right? Yet these attempts may be the most entertaining part of the festival. For as many people lined up to try, there were observers in the crowd, watching five- and fifty-year-olds take a crack at it with a good laugh.

For those willing to fight the crowds and branch out into the streets surrounding Main Street, much more awaits at the Statesville Pumpkin Festival. Diving headfirst down a side street, one will find a sea of merchandise vendors. Hesitantly glancing at a few of the vendor’s booths, we spotted everything from handmade jewelry to mason jars of from-scratch butters and jams. The plethora of options is nearly counterintuitive, inducing an over-stimulated trance that makes it difficult to choose where to begin.

One stand in particular–the unbranded soy-candle tent with over fifty unique flavors–was a big hit for any self-diagnosed candle addict. Of the couple selling the candles, it was the husband who began making candles when a back injury put him out of work. He and his wife import the soy locally from Raleigh and use scented oils to craft their signature flavors including “Sandalwood” and “Clean Linen.” After smelling every single scent they had to offer, at least twice, I settled on the “Ocean Breeze” scent and walked away excited about the new addition to my collection.

Amidst the seemingly endless expanse of tents, booths, and vendors, non-shoppers may enjoy strolling through the Festival’s antique car show. From vintage pickup trucks to glimmering muscle cars, the assemblage of old-fashioned automobiles is bound to transport visitors through time. Though hours could be spent milling through the festival’s beer garden or watching the line up of scheduled performances, for the sake of the college student budget, it was time to end our day there. Though our experience at the Statesville Pumpkin Festival was unplanned, the sounds, smells and history of historic downtown Statesville will stick with us long after we continue our journey down Highway 64.

Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria

By Katie Stewart – 2014

As we pulled into the shopping center that houses Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Statesville, Gina and I were skeptical. It was sandwiched between two small shops in a strip mall, and from the outside, it was not clear whether it was even a sit-down restaurant. Our skepticism changed when we walked inside to a nice, modestly decorated Italian restaurant. It had an authentic feel that one might not expect from a shopping center in Statesville, North Carolina.

The walls were decorated with paintings and the lighting was not too harsh or too dim. My favorite touch was the curtains drawn over the windows, blocking the view of the parking lot to give the illusion that we were not in a strip mall restaurant. It seemed that the owner knew that the location was not ideal, but was able to make up for it in atmospheric changes on the inside.

Sorrento's Italian Salad

After we sat down, a young waiter with a heavy Italian accent greeted us and took our drink orders. After a long day at the Carolina Balloon Fest, we were starving and eager to eat some great Italian food. The meal began with a salad and bread. The balsamic vinaigrette was house-made and surprisingly flavorful. It was a great addition to the fresh lettuce and toppings. The menu was extensive. The pasta menu alone allowed you to choose the type of pasta with any dish you ordered. I decided on the Caprese with penne pasta, complete with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, and fresh basil. The sauce was mild and light, just how I like it. The cheese went well with the dish, blending into the tomato sauce to add a creamy texture to it. And of course fresh basil is a must in a Caprese dish. The pasta had just the right amount of each ingredient and the penne was perfectly al dente.

Sorrento's Italian Restaurant

 

The service was prompt until the very end of our meal, when our waiter seemed to get busy with other tables. He offered us dessert – which we turned down because we both ate most of our pasta and plenty of bread – and then did not bring us our check for quite a while. Aside from that, we were both very pleased with our experience at Sorrento’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria. The atmosphere was impressive and the food hit the spot after our long day of traveling.

Richard Parr, Hot Air Balloon Pilot

By Katie Stewart – 2014

How many people can call themselves a hot air balloon pilot? Not many. Richard Parr of Pittsboro, North Carolina has been flying planes, balloons, and gliders for 55 years, and he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. We found Richard and his friend John sitting in camp chairs next to their truck at the Carolina BalloonFest in Statesville. The annual October festival began in 1974 and each year it draws thousands of spectators to watch the launch of dozens of balloons. After 41 consecutive years, the festival holds the record for being the second longest held hot air balloon event in the United States. The festival has events for three days, including a spectacular Saturday night balloon glow. Each morning pilots fly their balloons into the festival, and in the evening they launch again to fly out of the festival. Gina and I made it to the final launch on Sunday to watch balloons flyout of the festival.

Richard Parr Hot Air Balloon

Although we started to feel a bit antsy waiting in the grass for the balloons to appear, it was well worth it to stick around and watch such a magical show. Plus, meeting Richard meant we had an insider’s look at what goes into flying a hot air balloon. When we asked why Richard flies hot air balloons, he gave a simple answer: it’s fun. He gave us some advice that everyone should hear: do what you like. He stressed how important it is to find something we enjoy because we will have fun doing it and it will make us happy. These are wise words worth remembering from a man who has clearly found his passion. He likes to be in the sky, flying towards the clouds, and he enjoys the challenge of navigating in changing air conditions, which can often prove very difficult. Richard explained that balloons are only flown in the morning and evening because wind conditions are more predictable during those times of the day. Pilots are given wind conditions for the day and steer according to the information available to them. Richard always has a print-out of the day’s wind conditions, but sometimes he uses his iPad to see the exact wind conditions when he is in the sky. Richard has two balloons, one for competition and one for passengers, and he flies them in Michigan, Indiana, Texas, and North Carolina. He participates in competitions in which balloon pilots are given a map marked with specific targets. The goal of one of the competitions is to fly in from at least one mile away and drop a small marker on the target. In another competition, pilots are given an area on a map to drop their marker and they must calculate the furthest point from the center. Once they find this point, they must drop their marker so that it is on the edge of the given area, but not outside of it. It sounds complicated, but Richard loves the challenge.

Hot Air Balloon Carolina Balloon Fest

The average hot air balloon is eight stories tall and typically flies at a maximum altitude of 2,000 feet, but Richard has braved heights of 11,000 feet in his balloons. Imagine standing in a hilly field on a beautiful sunny day, surrounded by giant balloons being inflated and taking off one by one. That’s exactly what we got to do at the BalloonFest. Wicker baskets were scattered in the grass, standing as tall as my shoulders, and pressurized fire was being blown into multi-colored balloons. The balloons came in all different colors, and some were even shaped like animals. There was a giant pink flying pig, an owl, and a cat. In the field, the balloons were at all different stages of the preparation process. Some were just being unfolded and laid on the ground; others were nearly ready to take off with pilots and passengers. Every time we turned around, there was another balloon flying away that was laying flat on the ground like a tarp or just half inflated when we last saw it.

 

Carolina Balloon Fest Statesville North CarolinaAlthough we spoke to Richard well before the hot air balloons took flight, we saw him again when all the pilots and their crews were preparing their balloons for the final launch of the weekend. His words about finding something fun that we love to do came to mind when I saw him standing in his wicker basket talking to his crewmembers as his balloon inflated. He looked absolutely ecstatic to be at the Carolina Balloon Fest with his friends, doing what he loves.

Richard was a true example of someone who follows his passions and focuses on doing what he enjoys. Seeing him so happy before the last launch of the weekend left a lasting impression on me that I hope I will always remember, along with his advice to do what I enjoy.

Need a lift? Visit Richard Parr’s ballooning company, Mystic Venture, to book a ride.

Balloons Rise

By Jeffrey Flitter and Immanuel Bryant, 2013

The Statesville Balloon Festival is an event held every year in Statesville, NC that brings together more than 30 hot air balloons for a competition. Our group of four – Immanuel Bryant, Anna Mokas, Taylor Hill, and Jeffrey Flitter – followed a massive line of cars through the back roads of Statesville to find the festival on a local airport’s property. We arrived to a massive open field filled with spectators, balloons preparing to take off, food booths, artists booths, and a concert stage. The hill was filled with lots of people watching the balloons set up and prepare for the event. We began by standing at the top of the hill and waiting for the balloons to take off.

BalloonFest_027We didn’t have to wait long before the first balloon hit the air. We cut it close, but thankfully made it just in time for the balloon race to begin. As we watched the balloons begin to take off, we, along with everyone else at the festival, grabbed our cameras and started to snap tons of pictures. Everyone at the festival enjoyed watching the balloons and took up the challenge of skirting around children, families, and photographers to get pictures of the balloons, their children, and others. The ascension of the balloons took about thirty minutes in total, but it felt like the blink of an eye before they were all in the air. We felt there had to be more to this than simply balloons rising into the air; otherwise, what was the point.

A volunteer working the festival’s ticket exchange explained to us what was actually happening during the festival: a hot-air balloon competition. He described the different types of competitions that could take place to us. He said that day’s competition involved the first balloon taking off while all the other balloons chased after it. The first balloon would sometimes leave a trail of items in trees that the other balloons would have to retrieve. Sometimes it is an old fashioned race where the only goal was to reach the place where the first balloon lands before all the other balloons.

IMG_1961After the balloons were in the air and the competition had been explained to us, we began to look around the rest of the festival. We noticed many tents set up featuring local artisans displaying their crafts, local vendors with fudge and alcohol, a music stage, and the large food tents with the boards that anyone who has ever attended a festival in the south would recognize. We all decided to get different foods from the tent so that we had a variety of opinions. Jeff was adamant that the food was good but that it was the same food you would find at any festival or fair. Having some extra tickets, Jeff went to buy a beer. He was disappointed when the local brews were not part of the ticket system, but he bought a local brew anyway and thoroughly enjoyed it. While eating, we sat down and watched the musical performance.

The performance featured a small band, but it was more than enough for the audience. People were dancing in front of the stage, children were running around, and many people sat and simply enjoyed the music. One number brought children and adults on stage to do a “chicken dance” to the amusement of everyone in the audience. Seeing a wide range of people from an elderly woman to young toddlers shaking their “tail feathers” was an amusing site for sure.BalloonFest_037

Having extra tickets from the dinner, especially since Jeff could not use them for his beer, we collectively purchased a funnel cake. Eating the funnel cake as the sun faded from view and was replaced with a darkening sky was a perfect setting to end the day on. We finished our funnel cake, finished taking some notes in our travel journals, and headed for the exit.

Of course exiting an event like this is never as easy or quick as one expects. On the way out, we thought it would be a wise idea to stop at the information tent and get some information and make sure we had our facts straight. We instead had a discussion with the workers about what brought them to the fair and why they did it. One woman described how she had been on the committee for the festival for many years and loved it. She also explained to us that the festival supports a non-profit or social cause every year. This year the event was supporting Relay For Life of Statesville & local charities, but the discussion to change it came up every few years and they would vote to keep it the same or change it. Having all the information we needed, we began to leave. We paused as we came up with an idea and decided to turn around and make our way back to the tent. We arrived back and promptly asked to take a group photo with the information tent workers, to which they happily agreed.

Having our pictures, information, and experiences compiled within our minds and journals, we piled into the car and made our way to the hotel for the night.

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