Britta Gustafson: When we paint the sky |

Britta Gustafson: When we paint the sky

Balloons aloft can prompt us to reflect on our humanity

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

To take flight through the sky in a hot air balloon seems an idyllic image, one that for many invokes vintage fantasies of dreamy days painted on the minds of childhood or thoughts of a wonder-filled futuristic utopia. Those fantastic flights of fancy can reawaken both innocence and optimism.

As little kids, we would rise before the sun and make our way down to the golf course in time to see the first balloons of the annual Snowmass Balloon Festival take flight.

We would squeal and run about as the “burns” bellowed and exploded all around us, watching in disbelief as piles of nylon became giant toys, bobbling and towering overhead before releasing into the sky. With each breath they would rise higher, seamlessly departing from the earth as if it were never in their nature to be anything but aloft.

Taught and colorful, their perfect symmetry would cast unnatural shadows over spectators, beautifully contrasting the natural skyline as the brilliant array of floating colors accentuated the earthy tones all around.

We would lay flat on our backs and watch the colorful parade in the sky: a pulsating performance, twirling about in the scrub oak and sagebrush laden hills, feeling the wind on our faces and believing that if those beautiful balloons took people up into the sky, then anything was possible.

Much like the recall of a favorite childhood memory, this year’s 46th annual Snowmass Village Balloon Festival was set against the crisp blue skies of early morning and our everlasting majestic mountain skyline. It did not disappoint.

The Balloon Fest began before I was born, and it arrives each year, breezing in with its enduring, predictable, timeless appeal. The lasting imagery has varied little over the years.

And now, while laying in the grass with my own kids gazing up at that colorful kaleidoscope, the timeless images elicited in me a renewed sense of wonder, expanding the cyclical nature of the send-off for each generation.

Over the years, I’ve watched the event expand through the 1980s and retract in the late 1990s; it sinks some years and soars in others, nearly drifting out of sight in the early 2000s only to arise as evocative as ever over the past two decades. The festival has always been a magical and reliable part of life here in this town thanks in part to the dedicated balloonists who continue to bring the magic each year.

Even in 2020, as the pandemic shut down nearly every event in town, the nature of the balloon flights allowed us some semblance of normalcy and a space to feel a sense of connection. The efforts and achievements of humanity were undeniably on display as we watched the balloons in flight from hiking trails and tailgates last year, and it nourished a sense of hope — something we all desperately needed at that time.

On a few occasions I have seen the festival from the sky. As the earth slowly drifts away, the peaceful sensation of rising up above it all in a balloon begs one to ruminate on the nature of our human existence, like an out-of-body experience. Once in the air, there is little sensation of movement as the balloon, basket and passengers all float along with the patterns of the wind.

The sound below carries differently from above as well, where at first you can hear voices below speaking in normal tones as if they were up in the sky with you before suddenly you are completely disconnected in silence, feeling the earth moving by underneath, as you seem to sit still in the sky. From that perspective, all of the human impact gives the impression of being insignificant as you rise above the mountains.

Limitations, albeit often self-imposed, are our anchors. And like the wonder of childhood dreams, hot air balloons in flight prove the limitlessness of our imagination.

Every so often it’s necessary to rise above it all: above the earth, above our jobs and obligations, above our constructs, the people and politics, and above the conflicts, to provide true perspective.

Like the pulsing hot air balloon “burns,” sometimes we must take in and other times let go to avoid the hopelessness of deflation and our often over-inflated fears.

It seems like we could all benefit from an occasional disconnect in order to truly appreciate the weight of our feet when we come back to earth. And it’s uplifting to remember, with the heart of a child, that anything can be possible.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at

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