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My Beautiful, Beautiful Balloon

When I was in Junior High, that's what they called it before someone dreamed up the term Middle School, my parents loaded me up into the back seat of the car (I think it was the one with the push button transmission where you pushed buttons on the dash to put it in drive, reverse, etc. instead of a shift lever) and we took off to Indianola, Iowa, for the National Hot Air Balloon Festival.

I loved it and couldn't wait to go back. It's taken 50 years but I finally made it.

Photo of hot air balloon in sky with cloud in background.
Just one of 100 hot air balloons at the National Balloon Classic in Indianola.**

The national championships were held in Indianola through 1988, when the organizing association decided to begin moving them around the country. The event was so popular however the community continued with what is now known as the National Balloon Classic.

Held July 30 - August 7, more than 100 balloonists from across the country descended upon, and ascended from, Indianola.

Back in the early 70s when I first attended, the event was much smaller and held in a park near downtown. It's since been moved to a big ol’ dedicated location just west of town.

For those of you who don't know, Indianola is situated about 20 miles due south of Des Moines and it's four-lane highway all the way in. If you decide to attend the fest, you can choose a hotel in Indianola or make the short drive and stay in the capitol city.

I attended two nights, Monday and Tuesday, and there was more than enough room at the site for everyone.

Don't forget to bring your own chair or blanket and come early, there's live entertainment before and after the event, and a long line of food vendors. The beer tent even offers up beers from area craft breweries in addition to the ever-popular Busch Lite.

Photo of character hot air balloons like tweety bird, a pirate parrot and bumble bee.
Well if you moustache, character balloons were the highlight of Monday's event.**

Monday night featured a shape inflate involving those balloons you sometimes see that are in the shape of various characters or objects. This year that included Tweety Bird, a pirate parrot and a bumble bee.

One thing about balloons, there's no steering wheel on these things. The direction they go is entirely dependent on the way the wind blows. Quite literally, they are going with the flow.

The event is actually a competition with several of the contests designed so the balloons start elsewhere and fly back to the main grounds. For example, one of the nights I was there involved the balloonists dropping sandbags near a large X on the field next to the spectator area. Closest to the center wins.

Photo of hot air balloons behind food stands and a crowd sitting on grass.
Those balloons might look like they're on the ground, but they are very much in the air, coming up over a hill and toward the crowd. **

The pilots have access to whatever technology is available to help them in determining wind direction. In addition, prior to them beginning, three or four small helium-filled balloons, the size you'd have at a birthday party, are sent aloft. I would never have thought the wind direction would change all that much, but it was exactly opposite on the two nights I was there. The first night the balloons all set up somewhere north of the field while they were directly to the south on the second.

Photo taken directly beneath hot air balloon looking up into the clouds.
The balloons literally fly above your head as they come back to the competition field. **

As spectators, we don't know what direction they will be coming in from. We see the balloon vehicles leave the grounds but have no idea where they head to from there. So, those of us who had been there Monday night were facing north toward where the balloons came in from that night, only to discover the balloons were floating in from the opposite direction on this Tuesday night.

That really made for a very cool sight. Not realizing what was happening, we were puzzled to hear the announcer talking about the incoming balloons. We didn't see anything because we were looking in the same direction as the previous night. As we started to look around the big surprise came when we looked in the opposite direction and there were already several balloons almost on top of us coming from the south.

Check out more of my balloon photos here. Tuesday night was my favorite of the two, just because of the direction the balloons were coming in. The spectator area is in a bit of a bowl shape and, coming from the south, the balloons just sort of appeared over the immediate horizon. They also traveled right over our heads toward that giant X on the ground.

Photo of hot air balloon baskets inside National Balloon Museum.
I couldn't help but have a little Wizard of Oz feeling while visiting the museum. That scene near the end where Dorothy climbs into the basket with the Wizard.**

Tickets to the event are only $10 so it's hard to beat the price. One note though, you have to buy them in advance and bring the ticket with you. There are no admissions sales on the grounds.

National Balloon Museum While in Indianola I also stopped in the National Balloon Museum which, coincidentally, was located right beside my hotel. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. A lot of small, specialty, museums are just that, small. A couple of rooms and you've seen everything. While the Balloon Museum isn't huge it is very much a good size with a lot to see. You can see balloon baskets up close, even touch some, see historical pieces like balloons that have set altitude records or crossed the English Channel, learn about women in ballooning and there's a small theatre room with a video about ballooning. The museum is the official site of the Balloon Federation of America and includes its Hall of Fame. 10,000 people a year pass through the doors. Admission is just $5, free for children under 12, but check their website for hours of operation. The museum is staffed by volunteers and the hours can vary, depending on the time of year.

Postcard marking opening of a British exhibit. Postage stamp is photo of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
A real blast from the past. Postcard on display at National Balloon Museum.

The Zoo Bar

Finally, I have to give a shoutout to the Zoo Bar. Located on the town square, the Zoo is a bit of an Indianola institution and the unofficial bar of the Des Moines Opera crews and performers. Remember, I said Des Moines is only 20 miles north of Indianola, on four-lane highway? Well, the Des Moines Opera isn’t in Des Moines. It stages its summer performances at Simpson College in Indianola. Darling Daughter spent two summers working in scenic design for the opera so this was not my first occasion to find myself in the Zoo. I know, I can hear you thinking now, I should have been put in a zoo a long time ago. Maybe that's why I'm so comfortable with the place.

Photo of bathroom doors with unique artwork, with reference to popular classic paintings.
The Zoo is a popular spot for the crew working at the Des Moines Opera. The bathroom doors were painted by an artist in the opera's scenic design shop.**

The Zoo is certainly a dive bar, but it's a great dive bar. The staff and other customers are all friendly. They were in the middle of a Dungeons and Dragons game when I sat down. I visited both nights and spent close to a half hour talking to the owner one night, and a good amount of time talking to the bartender the next. I'm hoping to fit another Des Moines Opera trip into my schedule sometime in the future, maybe when they perform something in English. I really would have liked to seen their performance of Sweeney Todd this year but had a scheduling conflict. Anyway, a visit to the Zoo will definitely be a part of any future visit.

**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask that you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address,, or a link back to this page.


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Never saying,
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