Up, Up, and Away!

Did you know that the first use of a hot air balloon was in China, over two thousand years ago, as a way for the Chinese army to send messages when surrounded by enemies? Did you know that the first hot air balloon ride happened in France in the 18th century, and the passengers were a duck, a sheep, and a rooster (all of which were found to be safe after the balloon landed a few miles after takeoff)? That hot air balloons were used during the US Civil War as a way for the Union army to spot the Confederate forces on the ground many miles away (via Napa Valley Balloons)? That the average hot air balloon flight is 2,000 feet in the air, but the record is almost 69,000 feet(via The East Texas Weekend)?

Now in its 38th year, the NJ Lottery Festival of Ballooning, based at Solberg Airport in Readington, NJ, attracts almost 100 hot air balloons and thousands upon thousands of spectators over a July weekend. Beside the twice-daily mass ascensions of balloons, the festival also features live music (this year’s performers are The Bare Naked Ladies, Styx, and Max Weinberg’s Jukebox – founded and led by Max, best known as the drummer for Bruce Springsteen), yoga classes, a 5k run, concerts and activities for children, and seemingly countless vendors. It has something for everyone! Having heard rave reviews about the festival, my wife and I purchased tickets in advance, woke up way before dawn, and set off to check out this cool event for ourselves.

Let’s begin:

NJ Festival of Ballooning

Map of NJ with red pin in location of Solberg Airport.
Our destination: Solberg Airport in Readington, approximately a half hour from our front door. With the first flight of balloons scheduled for 6:30 am, our departure time would be early. Very early.
View of I-287 in early morning hours.
My alarm clock rang at 4:50 am. I stared at it in disbelief, before shaking the cobwebs out of my head – yes, we had agreed to get up this early. We dragged ourselves out of bed and were on the road by 5:30 am. One treat? A beautiful moon in the sky (you can just make it out in the distance above the trees on the right side of the road).
View of two-lane road with traffic, and a sign on right that says BALLOON FESTIVAL AHEAD.
Leaving early was critical – thousands of people descended upon the airport and the entrance was reached by a two-lane road in a residential neighborhood. Traffic backed up for over a mile to get to the parking lot.
Walkway through closed vendors stalls.
Fortunately, by 6:15 we had parked the Jeep, cleared security, showed our tickets, and were on the way to find a spot to watch the show! At that hour, the only vendor open was a lone coffee shop. As much as I love coffee, there was no time for that – balloons were about to rise! 
Group of people beginning assembly of hot air balloon, including preparing basket and burners.
We found a spot with an unobstructed view of the field from where the balloons would launch. It was fascinating to watch this crew unroll the balloon and set up the basket. If you look closely in the basket, you can see the propane-fueled burners that fill the balloon with hot gas, which will propel it into the air.
Blue Balloon beginning to inflate on ground.
Using propane burning at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, the crew began to fill their balloon.
Closeup of top of balloon.
The top of the balloon is actually a vent that can be open or closed to aid in the balloon ascending (hot air) or descending (cold air). To land, the pilot will open the vent (the circular patch in the middle of the balloon) completely, causing the hot air to escape and the balloon to safely descend (via NJ Balloon Festival).
TV personality John Elliott in front of cameraman.
Attracting national attention, media outlets from around the region and the country come to the festival. We spotted John Elliott, meteorologist for CBS News – New York, who is often sent to report on fun events around the New York metropolitan area.
Large blue-and-white RE/MAX balloon.
The first balloon to take to the air was the RE/MAX balloon. This is one of over 100 balloons that the national real estate company operates. The RE/MAX website lays claim to the largest hot air balloon fleet in the world (via RE/MAX). 
Three balloons, inflated, on ground, and preparing to fly.
Once the balloons take off, they will follow the wind currents until their pilots land them. As the landing destination is uncertain, the crews will depart in their trucks and vans as soon as the balloon is in the air so they can chase it down.
Balloons on ground, ready to take off, including one shaped as a green monster, and another shaped as a rocket ship with an American flag on it.
As the takeoff time approached, the balloons and their crews readied for takeoff. At this point, I’m going to stop captioning the photos, and let you simply enjoy the sights of the mass ascension.

Multi-colored ballon in flight, moving past two balloons still on ground.

Multicolored balloon above three other balloons.

Two multi-colored balloons in sky.

Two multicolored balloons, and yellow ballon with smiley face.

Three multicolored balloons in air.

Multicolored balloon in sky.

Green monster balloon, blue ballon, and multicolored balloon in sky.

Grey rocket ship balloon with American flag, with

Mass ascension of several multicolored balloons, with green monster balloon in background.

Sloth balloon, surrounded by other multicolored balloons.
Okay, one caption… how can you not love a giant sloth balloon?
Several multicolored balloons rising into the sky.
One other caption – being a lifelong Philadelphia Flyers fan, I almost didn’t include this photo. Let me know if you can figure out why…

Balloon with scene of Tyrannosaurs Rex fighting Triceratops.

Four multicolored balloons on ground, awaiting takeoff.

Green alien balloon.
The truth is out there.

Balloon rising, covered in multicolored pattern, with silhouette of two bears walking.


Hot air balloon of the sun, wearing sunglasses.
Fun fact – a hot air balloon typically costs at least $20,000, although specialized balloons, such as this one, can range to over $200,000!


Large dragon balloon on ground.
Unfortunately, not every balloon was able to get into the air. This dragon had a difficult morning. Another attendee explained that if there is an issue with the vent at the top, or one of the seams, the balloon won’t hold enough hot air to get airborne, as was the case here.
Wind sock hanging loosely on pole.
While balloons need a little wind to get going, too much is dangerous. In hot air balloon parlance, “too much” is defined as more than 7 mph. This windsock shows just how mild the winds were this morning.
Balloons in flight in air.
It was a simply magical time.

Throughout the morning, my wife filmed the balloons as they ascended to the sky, and I put together a short film from her footage. I hope you enjoy it:

White Jeep Grand Cherokee parked in field.
When I called the information hotline earlier in the week, I asked about parking, and the operator recommended that, if possible, we bring a vehicle with four wheel drive, as rain tends to turn the parking fields a bit muddy. Although skies were sunny and clear, better safe than calling for a tow truck, I say!  Our Jeep, Grace, got the call for this trip! 
View of grassy field used as parking lot.
After a wonderful morning, we set off in search of some breakfast!
Exterior of the Edison Automat.
We drove to one of our new favorites: the Edison Automat.
Breakfast sandwich on plate, with bowl of home fries, cup of orange juice, and cup of coffee.
Breakfast of (balloon photography) champions! I enjoyed the “B.E.C.” – bacon, egg, and cheese on a brioche bun, while my wife ordered the “Cali” – egg, bacon, avocado, mixed greens, and honey mustard dressing on a gluten-free roll. So good! Refreshed, and re-caffeinated (the Automat’s coffee is excellent), we headed home.
Car odometer reading 69568 miles.
Grace was a champ for our early morning drive. Although she didn’t get to test out her all-wheel drive prowess too much in the field, it was still reassuring to know that if we’d needed to park in a swamp, she could have handled it. 70,000 miles is right around the corner. Aside from needing new tires before the winter, all seems well. Onward!

NJ Monthly Challenge Updates

Map of NJ with red pin in location of Duke Farms.
As I detailed in the last post, my wife and I are attempting to complete the NJ Monthly “Get out and Play” challenge, taking selfies at 36 locations throughout the state. Returning home after the balloon festival, we put Grace back in the garage, grabbed the keys to my Accord, and decided to cross some more destinations off our list (and get some lunch, too).
Exterior of Jammin' Crepes in Princeton.
One of the selfie locations – the Bent Spoon, a local ice cream shop, is in Princeton. While ice cream is always cool, who can resist lunch at Jammin’ Crepes, one of our favorite spots?
Small park near Princeton Battlefield Monument.
This small park near the Princeton Battlefield Monument makes for an excellent picnic spot!
Paper box with crepe, and a ginger ale.
I devoured my “Jammin’ Turkey Club” – turkey breast, bacon, mozzarella, greens, with chutney and horseradish aioli, while my wife thoroughly enjoyed her “Bahn Mi” – Black Forest ham, a pickled radish and cucumber blend, fresh cucumbers, spicy aioli, and cilantro, on a gluten-free crepe (any of their crepes can be prepared with a gluten-free batter upon request). So good!
Little Vintner of Colmar statue.
Although we had passed “The Little Vintner of Colmar” statue in the park previously, we had never seen it with running water – it was pretty cool! The statue was gift from Colmar, Princeton’s “sister city” in France. Colmar is more famously known for another statue – it is the birthplace of the creator of the Statue of Liberty. We took our selfie at the designated location in Princeton, and then set off for our second destination. 
Exterior of Duke Farms visitor center.
Our next stop was to Duke Farms, a large public park and garden, once the home to tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke. Readers of this blog might remember Duke Farms from my birthday adventure a few years ago.
2012 Honda Accord, parked in parking lot, with sunshade that says Honda.
In the past, I’ve managed to park my Accord in front of the Duke Farms visitor center for it’s “car selfie,” but not today. Given the summer tourist season, sections of the driveway are closed off, and traffic is routed directly into the parking lot. In addition, for visits on Saturdays during the summer, you now must making a parking reservation in advance. Fortunately, the parking attendant took pity on us, as a few people had cancelled their visits. Side note: Yes, I have a Honda sunshade. Did you expect anything else?
Exterior of Orchid Range.
We took our selfie in front of the Orchid Range, a conservatory built in 1900. The building highlights subtropical and tropical orchids found in the United States.
Farnese Bull Statue.
On the way back to the car, we spotted the Farnese Bull Statue, which we missed during our previous visit. It is a reproduction of a statue in Naples, Italy, which is the largest statue surviving from antiquity.
Car odometer reading 176507 TRIP A 1.4
Although it’s been a quiet few weeks for the Accord on the mileage-front, it proved a ready and willing companion on our short jaunt to Princeton and Duke Farms today. We have a longer trip for next weekend scheduled – stay tuned as we close in on 177,000 miles. Onward!

Wrapping Up

While I’m not sure if a hot air balloon ride will ever be in my future (remember, your humble scribe has a wicked fear of heights), I will certainly return to this wonderful festival. The spectacle of seeing nearly 100 hot air balloons soar into the morning sky is something that I won’t soon forget! Tickets for the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning are a bit on the pricy side – $40 for adults and $15 for children 4-12 (although free for children 3 and younger), but you get access to the festival for an entire day, and can re-enter if you leave (just get your hand stamped before you exit!). Events run from 1:00 pm to 9:45 pm on Friday, from 6:00 am until 8:30 pm on Saturday, and 6:00 am to 6:00 pm on Sunday, and the schedule is jam-packed with fun activities for the entire family. The festival definitely gets a “The Open Road Ahead” two thumbs up!

As always, thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead (and into the sky).

‘Til next time.

7 thoughts on “Up, Up, and Away!

  1. Looks like a really fun and colorful experience. I agree the character balloons are beautiful and different.

    The selfie challenge gives you more opportunities to share with us. Seems like a great idea to get people back out in the community again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the hot air balloon show! We had a blast.

      One cool thing about the selfie challenge is that while some of the locations are open for tours and visits, you don’t need to go indoors at any of the spots to take a selfie. It’s a great way to encourage people to get out while not making anyone leave their comfort zones when it comes to safety.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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