| TRAVEL / COMMUNITY |
Looking upward on an early August morning, a single balloon can be seen in the distance. A careful glance reveals another and then another until the sky is filled with a cornucopia of colors, shapes and sizes. Spectators marvel at another exclusive joy that only western Nebraska can deliver.
Article & Photography by: Hawk Buckman
Published March 22, 2020
Driving north on Highway 71, crossing the Wildcat Hills and down into the North Platte River Valley for the first time, is a unique experience. As you pass the promontories and open fields, Enchanted Canyon opens up to the west near Roubadeau Pass. Vast vistas of the old west, cowboys, Indians and immigrants trodding along with mule and oxen teams in their Schooner wagons making their way across the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails headed west to a new life, and new adventures, flood the mind as you try to take it all in.
Arriving in Scottsbluff, Nebraska you find a sleepy little town full of friendly people. The town is unique as it’s the largest town in the Nebraska Panhandle. Resting at the base of the Scotts Bluff National Monument, Gering and Scottsbluff are agriculture towns despite more than 100,000 visitors arriving each year to visit the monument. Most visitors come to see and experience the history of the old west.
The Legacy of the Plains Museum is one location, which is visited often during tourist season, especially during Oregon Trail Days. People flock from all over the world to experience the event and there’s rarely a hotel room available for a solid week. The rest of the year is a different story.
Work is the predominant past time in Wyobraska. Farmers planting, harvesting, prepping and trucking their goods is a full time job. Ranches and feedlots dot the landscape and there’s always plenty of work to do. Nothing spectacular happens, or is expected to happen, in Wyobraska, but in 2019, something occurred in the sleepy town of Scottsbluff that took everyone by storm.
On a quiet morning on Aug. 10, 2019, the sky was suddenly dotted with colorful hot air balloons all headed in the same direction. People rushed out to their porches yelling back for their family members to join them. They gathered on their lawns gazing at the sky as the balloons sailed overhead, the pilots waving down at the onlookers as they floated effortlessly over the roof tops. Every few minutes a loud rushing sound filled the air as flames danced upward into the canopy, heating the air inside the balloons.
People piled into their cars and drove in the direction of the balloons. Gazing out of rolled down windows, and yelling directions at each other, drivers tried to keep up with the vibrant shades of the rainbow passing by. Some parked on the side of county roads to watch the spectacle. Children could be heard squealing back to their parents to watch and see the colors, the shapes and the people in the baskets dangling from the end of the balloons. It was as though the Nebraska Panhandle had been diabolically invaded by some foreign army equipped with hot air balloons to attempt to try and take over the world and Scottsbluff was number one on its list.
In a sense it was a foreign army – an army of professional competition balloonist had congregated here for the US National Hot Air Ballooning Championships. The event lasted for a week and despite the weather everyone living in Scottsbluff, Gering, Morrill, Mitchell and surrounding towns and villages showed their support by showing up to witness the event.
Each day, the local radio and television stations would announce the lift-off location of the balloons for the morning and evening competition or if the day’s event had been canceled due to high winds. Over the course of the week, there were night-glows in the evening held at different locations, a meet and greet on 10th street in Gering, a dinner for the competitors and an entertaining time for the hundreds of participants and spectators. Vendors sold their wares at the Mitchell Airfield and the event was supported by nearly every person in the valley. A sense of pride filled the air. It was a summer to remember.
This spectacle began with the arrival of Mike and Colleen Johnson to Wyobraska. Mike and Colleen had been living in Kiowa, Colorado. Colleen was working as an elementary school teacher and Mike was closing in on his retirement.
Mike began his ballooning career as Colleen’s crew chief. Colleen had the idea that Mike could get his pilot license to help fly in out of town events. After two years of training Mike received his private pilot’s license, and his own balloon.
Mike and Colleen spent 3 years in Colorado after moving from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Scottsbluff Department of Tourism was looking to reinvigorate the Old West Ballon Fest and reached out to Colleen who, though still living in Kiowa, Colorado, agreed to help and traveled on weekends once a month to Scottsbluff to assist in the production at no charge.
After living in Kiowa for a while, Mike and Colleen wanted to downsize. They sold their home in Kiowa and immediately began looking for a new home. Colleen found a house online in need of a little TLC in Mitchell. They purchased the home (the old Bay State Ranch) and began repairs and refurbishment.
Mike bought and lived in a travel trailer while making the trip to Mitchell from Denver every weekend to work on their new home. While the house was being renovated, Colleen lived in a travel trailer for six months in the driveway. Mike lived in a travel trailer in Denver, commuting home every weekend to Mitchell to work on their new home.
The Wyobraska weather is perfect in summer and fall for early morning and late evening hot air balloon flights. Mike and Colleen started a hot air balloon ride business to subsidize their retirements. Soon after, High Plains Hot Air Ballon Company was established and became a recognized and respected business in Mitchell and the surrounding areas of Wyobraska.
Mike and Colleen still made frequent trips to other ballooning events. They made friends from all over the world, including a national competition balloonist who told Colleen that National competition had been held in the deep south for many years during the hottest part of the summer and that pilots were looking for a change.
Colleen’s friend suggested she, on behalf of Old West Balloon Fest, place a bid to hold the event in Nebraska. Colleen went back to Nebraska and presented the idea to the board of directors. They thought it was a long shot, but put their bid in hopes of winning the chance to host this amazing event. In December 2017, a representative from the Balloon Federation of America arrived in Scottsbluff to meet with the Old West Balloon Fest Committee, tourism, city managers, mayors, and city councilmen to see if the area was suitable to host a National Competition.
Mike and Colleen normally will not fly in the winter months because it’s too windy. They made an exception with the BFA representative and lucked out. The sky was bright, clear and there was no wind. Over the course of a few days, the area was assessed for take offs, landings and the ability to host other events.
In 2018, the Balloon Federation of America announced their decision to hold the 2019, 2020 and 2021 US Balloon National Championship in Scotts Bluff County. Working together, the people of Wyobraska brought this event to Scotts Bluff County. The volunteers and leadership who worked diligently to make this yearly event happen were thrilled. The announcement was huge. A press conference was held with media from all over the Panhandle attending. As the news was printed, broadcast and sent over radio waves, the residents of Wyobraska were overjoyed.
The balloons will set sail in the early morning and early evening this year, but, as local residents watch from their cars, porches and front yards, they can look up and watch one of the world’s premiere events pass by and know they aren’t just watching balloons in flyover country. They’re watching a major tourist destination thanks to the efforts of so many who worked to make this event happen in Wyobraska.