Make your balloon race perfect

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When it’s perfect, it is perfect.

The skies above the river become a child’s dreamland, dotted with colorful orbs like a watercolor painting, only the smears from the water are replaced with vivid 3D lines that only reality can bring.

But perfect doesn’t occur all that often. If we were racing horses, not balloons, the odds on achieving perfection might likely be 50-1.

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But when it comes to the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, perfect isn’t necessary, since a few notches below perfect is still pretty dang cool.

Ballooning isn’t a sport for wusses, and that goes for participants and spectators.

Those who fly or crew a balloon do a good deal of physical labor to simply get the balloon aloft. Once in the air every moment is utterly peaceful — except those moments interrupted by propane burners shooting 12 million BTUs of fire just a foot or two above your head and the requests from the pilot that you help lookout for treetops and power lines.

Those who would prefer to simply watch must also be dedicated and flexible. The ideal time to see beautiful balloons in flight is 7 a.m. The ideal location is unknown until the very last moment.

So as you make your weekend plans to fully enjoy balloon race, decide what your priorities are, and make a plan.

If you like a festival atmosphere, the food, the people, the music and the rides, head to the festival grounds at the Rosalie Bicentennial Gardens.

If your goal is to see a hot-air balloon up close without wrecking your weekend sleep schedule — or that of a young child — go to the balloon glow Friday night. Get to the festival grounds before 6 p.m. so you can get in when the gates open and watch the balloons inflate.

If you are a risk taker who values sleep but wants to see balloons in flight, bet your money on Saturday’s afternoon race — a new event, the key grab.

The best view is going to be from within the festival grounds, so be ready to pay the admission price.

If you can’t spare the dimes, but still want to try your luck spotting balloons, head to the Natchez bluff or the Vidalia riverfront. You might get lucky and see a few balloons, but don’t expect perfection.

For the serious balloon spectators out there, start planning now. First, unless you typically rise at 6 a.m., start adjusting your sleep schedule. Visit The Democrat’s website and sign-up for balloon race text messages.

Set your alarm at the appropriate time for Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings to allow you to be in downtown Natchez by approximately 7 a.m.

Typically, our staff can send a text message alert to your phone in plenty of time for you to read the text, then leave the house and make it to where the balloons will be.

Our texts will provide information about possible takeoff locations and targets.

If you are on the road when the text arrives, head to the general area of expected takeoff. Keep your eyes peeled for trucks or vans hauling balloon trailers — they are marked with a sticker and a number. Follow them, but please leave plenty of room for the balloon crew to turn around often. They are in a hurry, but may change their minds often, so stay out of their way.

Eventually you’ll see the trailers pulling off the road and unloading the balloon. Get out and watch.

If you are 10-15 minutes from town when the text message comes, head to the site of the target. Park at a safe distance away from the X you’ll see marked in a field or open lot.

Sit back and wait, you are likely in prime position to see 20-60 balloons fly right overhead.

Balloon race is the best weekend of the year in Natchez. Please enjoy it.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or