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Pilot: There's nothing like flying balloons

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— Unless there is a warm pile of eggs benedict and a cup of Kona coffee waiting for me, I never wake before 6 a.m. on a Saturday.

But when my alarm clock sounded early Saturday morning, I didn't hit the snooze button. Instead, I excitedly found some jeans and a sweatshirt and headed to the Meadows parking lot for the 26th annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo, where I was to meet Dewey and Jeanie Reinhard, two hot air balloon enthusiasts who would be treating me to my first balloon ride.

Shortly after meeting the elderly and overwhelmingly en--ergetic Colorado Springs couple, I felt as though I had known them my entire life.

Dewey's balloon, the Free Spirit II, weighs about 186 pounds deflated, and it was quite a workout just to get the monstrous polyester mass onto the field to inflate it.

I was in charge of standing on the fan that filled the balloon with air while the Reinhards and some of their friends made sure the balloon was ready to go.

I didn't feel any jitters until I climbed into the basket -- where I felt like an Easter egg -- and realized where I was about to go. The jitters subsided when Dewey took my hand and told me to hang on.

Dewey and I waved goodbye to the throngs of people on the Meadows field below as we launched into the cloudy Steamboat sky.

Dewey proceeded to tell me everything I could ever want to know about ballooning. Because the information was coming from a man who had been flying nearly his entire life, who used to race hydrogen-fueled hot air balloons in Europe and who attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, I listened intently.

"This is a unique kind of flying. It's the only kind of aircraft that you can pick pine cones off of trees with," he said.

Dewey became interested in hot air balloons after he and his wife attended a balloon festival in Palm Springs, Calif. They were hooked. It wasn't long before Dewey had his own balloon and began teaching himself how to fly it.

"Back in the day, we taught ourselves. We got beat up in the process. Now learning is a lot more sophisticated," he said.

Either in an airplane or a balloon, Dewey tries to spend as much time as he can in the sky.

"Flying is my thing. It's therapeutic. There's nothing more beautiful than night-flying a hot air balloon," he said.

During our hour-long ride, Dewey brought the balloon back down to the Meadows field because he was concerned about the wind and the weather, the two ingredients that can make or break a successful flight.

"Flying balloons take so many specific skills and knowledge of the weather that it keeps it challenging and interesting. You're absolutely at the mercy of the elements," he said.

Dewey said flying in the Yampa Valley is preferable to flying on the Front Range because the cold air gets trapped between the mountains, and the air is more stable for the balloons.

"This is a very special place to fly," he said.

During the flight, Dewey kept a close eye on power lines, light poles and other balloons, especially those that were approaching from below.

"If a balloon knocks you from the bottom, they can tip your basket, and you could fall out," he said.

Although Dewey has had some rough landings in his day, nothing beats the time he crash-landed in the Atlantic Ocean, he said.

"In the 1970s, I tried to fly a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean, but I had to crash into the ocean when a storm rolled in. I was rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard," he said.

Despite the dangers and unpredictability of flying balloons, Dewey said he could never pull himself away from his beloved hobby.

"I love being here because I see my flying buddies. I love taking the kids up spontaneously. You see things from a view you never would," he said. "There's nothing like it."

The 26th annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo continues today from 7 to 10 a.m. on the Meadows field off of Mount Werner Road and Pine Grove Road.

-- To reach Alexis DeLaCruz, call 871-4234

or e-mail adelacruz@steamboatpilot.com

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