Georgia Lindsey has flown in 34 of the 39 Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.
At one point, the 62-year-old Boise resident took her balloon, Liberty Belle, to as many as 13 hot-air events a year. She has cut back to four annually, but still makes a point of returning to Walla Walla.
"Mainly it's the people and the city -- we just love the city," Lindsey said. "The event is well-organized and it's easy to come here ... to fly here is like being with family."
The Balloon Stampede officially lifts off at 6:30 this morning with launches from 15 Walla Walla schools, covering the sky with many more colors than a rainbow can hold. Launches also are scheduled early Saturday and Sunday.
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"It's a spectacle where every direction you look, the sky is full of balloons," said David Woolson, chief executive officer of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Balloon Stampede.
Around 40,000 people are expected to attend, Woolson said. While the balloons fly early to avoid potential high winds, activities continue at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds from noon to 10 p.m. Friday and from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, featuring vendors, a "kids zone" and live entertainment. The festival closes after a pancake breakfast Sunday morning.
Most of the activities are free, Woolson said. The highlight of the weekend might be Saturday evening's Nite Glow, when balloons lift off tethered to the ground at the fairgrounds arena and light up the sky. A Seattle rockabilly band, the Dusty 45s, will perform.
"The propane lights just light it up like a candle," Woolson said. "It's just spectacular."
The 42 balloons that will launch during the festival, each with crews of five or six people, come from as far away as Texas, with many traveling from different parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Cheri White of Austin, Texas, leads the Touchstone Energy Cooperative balloon team, which travels to 50 events a year. White, 52, started ballooning at 13, following in the footsteps of her father, who still flies at 77.
"I like the peacefulness, especially in the morning when the birds are out," she said.
Lindsey described the experience as spiritual.
"It's better than being in a church, as far as peacefulness, as far as communicating with God," she said.
Even with all the hot air balloon festivals she attends, White sees Walla Walla as special.
"The flying area is just beautiful with the hills all around you, and the wheat fields are very pretty," she said. "I didn't even know what wheat fields were when I came out here."
White warns those who want to see the balloons in flight to arrive early.
"If you are getting there at 8, you will not see anything," she said.
Lindsey asks balloon watchers to leave Fido at home. Not only can dogs interfere with the balloonists preparing to take off, but the balloon's propane burner also makes a sound that people can't hear, but makes dogs uncomfortable, she said.
Woolson said the event, which takes about six months to plan for, relies on 300 volunteers to do everything from booking entertainment to getting flight clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The Balloon Stampede is really an event for the community, by the community," he said.