This past Saturday, I convinced Molly to let me take another mini-vacation. Friday night, after the kids ate dinner, I threw my camera bag and a change of clothes into the car and headed over the mountains to the small town of Prosser, Washington for their annual hot air balloon rally. I crashed for a few hours in a Best Western in the Tri-Cities, then drove under the clear pre-dawn stars to the Prosser airport, which is really a grass field with a few small corrugated metal hangars.
Even though I made it to the airport by 6:00 AM, the field was already full of people, pickup trucks, and blue tarps spread over the grass. The balloon crews were stretching the deflated nylon balloons in long thick lines over the tarps. The crowds sipped coffee bought from the PEO Sisterhood table. Everybody had a camera in hand.
> > _The inside of a hot air balloon, photographed during the cold-fill._ > >
The real action started around 7:00. The sun peeked over the nearby hills, the master of ceremonies released two small helium balloons into the sky so the pilots could judge the winds, and then the pilots started filling the balloons. The loud droning of thirty-four large gas-powered fans filled the airport. For ten minutes, the crews used the fans to inflate their balloons with cold air. All across the airport, the colorful nylon popped up from the ground like gigantic mushrooms. When the balloons had enough structure from cold air, the pilots started firing the propane burners. It was as if each wicker basket had magically transformed into a fire-breathing dragon. Each tongue of flame shot upward with a loud whoosh and if you were standing anywhere close to one of the burners, you felt the waves of heat wash over you.
> > _The crew starts hot-filling a balloon._ > >
In surprisingly little time, the sky filled with balloons. Camera gear in hand, I jogged three blocks from the airport to the Yakima river. Just like at the airport, a small crowd lined the sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. From this vantage point, you could enjoy the most picturesque sights of the rally. Most of the balloon pilots rode the wind over to the Yakima river, then descended for a splash-and-dash: They let the basket dip into the river, then fired the burners to ascend from the water. Some were able to cruise along the surface of the river for a considerable distance. Others started their river runs on the east side of the bridge. The winds blew the balloons westward, and the pilots waited until they were right next to the bridge before firing the burners. The balloons skipped over the bridge as effortlessly as you’d step over a curb. The crowd cheered for each of these close encounters. Once on the downwind side of the bridge, the balloons descended again to the water’s surface.
> > _A balloon does a splash-and-dash._ > >
> > _The balloon “Checkmate” gets ready to fly over the bridge._ > >
Unfortunately, the rising sun also brings stronger winds. By 9:00, all of the balloons had dropped back to earth to avoid getting caught in unpredictable currents. The balloon rally was over, but I still had a few hours of mini-vacation left. On balloon rally weekend, Prosser is a great place to be. It’s the heart of the Washington wine country. In California, that would translate to excessive bling. But this is Washington, and “heart of wine country” still translates to “rural America.” Downtown Prosser is a few streets, old-time storefronts (too many empty), a nice park, and a big feed & grain store. Napa it’s not.
> > _A truck outside the feed & grain store in Prosser._ > >
This small town throws down the welcome mat on Rally weekend. There’s a farmer’s market in the morning, complete with a Kiwanis club pancake breakfast. Of course one of the farmer’s market tables was staffed by a local winery: Daven Lore. I talked to the winemaker, Gordon Taylor, at the market. (Of course the winemaker himself was standing at the table at the farmer’s market. That’s what I like about travelling through Yakima instead of Napa or Sonoma.) He described himself as the winemaker for the locals. At the farmer’s market, he even sells one of his wines (“Recovery Red”) in a refillable bottle. If you bring the bottle back to him, you’ll get a discount on your next bottle. Alas, I didn’t get to taste his wine, but I’m going to be on the lookout for it in Seattle. One of the other events happening in Prosser on Rally weekend is the Harvest Festival. This is a small crafts/food/music fair that spreads over a few downtown blocks. The booths at the fair have the typical assortment of candles, photographs, and garden art. The music, though, can be really charming.
The best part of visiting Yakima Valley, of course, is visiting the wineries. I saw the full spectrum in just a few hours. Oakwood Cellars is a small operation run out of the winemaker’s house. Terra Blanca clearly aspires to Napa Valley. But my most cherished memory will be my visit to Chinook. It was my first time there – it’s always been closed on my prior trips to the valley. I’ve bought & enjoyed a lot of Chinook wine from McCarthy & Schiering in the past. So I felt humbled to be in the tasting room, which was a modest, clean farmhouse room no bigger than our kitchen. Kay Simon, the winemaker, was of course one of the people pouring wine and answering questions. It was a low-key, intimate operation, and everything I tasted was delicious. In Prosser, the greatest treasures are found in unassuming locations. I couldn’t leave without buying a case.
> > _Grapes growing at Oakwood Cellars._ > >
The plus side of waking up before dawn? I could have all of these adventures, drive three hours through desert and mountains, and still make it home in time for the kids’ dinner! Surely Molly will let me go again next year…
> > _Seven of thirty-four balloons._ > >
> > _How many balloons can you count in the picture?_ > >