As new sunlight filled the scene, a tower of fire intermittently roared above my head while gas coming from a canister beside me ignited at the pilot's command. As the hot air resulting from the combustion rose, it was captured in a colorful chute, lifting myself and two others off the ground in a basket comparable in size to that of an office cubicle. The ground below slowly grew more distant, but my eyes were fixed on the expanding horizon – that is, until my glasses filled with fog. Blame it on the mandatory face mask.
During the typical year, the Labor Day Lift Off Festival in Colorado Springs, Colorado is attended by around 150,000 people, taking place in a downtown city park. But this was no typical year. There was no public gathering, no collection of vendors, and no live music to be heard. But the show went on, with masks and something that resembled social distancing.
As the flame roared and our aircraft gained altitude, panoramic views revealed dozens of other balloons lifting off in small clusters around the city. A result of the fleet taking flight, life below started to bustle as residential streets filled with onlookers curious about what had disrupted their Saturday morning slumber. Though people living downtown have likely grown used to the annual early morning interruption, those in other parts of the city were getting an up-close look at one of Colorado Springs' most iconic events for the first time.
In an era when a pandemic has seemed to result in a decreased sense of community, Labor Day Lift Off seemed to unwittingly pull people together as neighbors stepped out of their homes in unison to watch the show. The city of Colorado Springs joined in a moment of passive distraction as eager eyes turned to the sky to watch the balloons drift by above.
As I silently observed from my perch in motion, the people below waved to our crew and to their neighbors with smiles large enough to be visible from the sky. I saw families in pajamas standing together on porches and patios as they cheered our flight along. There was community and there was happiness.
In a time when neighbors can seem so distant, moments like this can remind us that we're not alone and that normalcy can somehow exist despite how strange some things might seem.
Eventually, it was time to land. As is tradition, the pilot sought to put the balloon down where he best could – in a stranger's backyard. As we dropped from the sky, the landowner approached with his masked grandchildren in tow. He gave us permission to land on his property and though his grandchildren's smiles went unseen, excitement was visible in their eyes.
Given their obvious curiosity, we extended the offer to let them help. The boys tentatively joined the effort as we packed the balloon into the back of a pickup truck. Several bystanders offered assistance, as well. After a few photos and a few words of thanks, we were packed up and on our way.
In a world where day-to-day life can seem so chaotic and unsettled at times, moments like the Labor Day Lift Off festival serve as a reminder that humans continue to be bound by community. As we watched from above and as the world watched from below, for a brief moment, all worries and stressors for all parties involved seemed to weigh a bit less.
Special thanks goes out to Jeff and Jenny Duff who took myself and Gazette photographer Forrest Czarnecki for a flight around town.