Monday, August 24, 2009

#12 Hot Air Balloon Festival - Centralia, IL - August 23, 2009

#12 Hot Air Balloon Festival - Centralia, IL - August 23, 2009

If you are afraid of heights don't look down over a very excited Pilot Alvin's shoulder! For the first time ever, I flew in a hot air balloon. We soared up and away into the clouds and I mocked all those now tiny suckers who had to walk to get around. Ok, so the balloon was tethered to 3 pickups, and I got to about 75 feet off the ground. But it was a nice feeling to float around on a beautiful day.

This festival featured a cardboard boat building competition I had hoped to join. Yet, I could not find a piece of cardboard to fit into. Another festival event intended for "kids", which I call getting my hopes up. A small person did have an advantage, and the race was pretty entertaining as half the people sank and the others paddled like their life depended on it.

They didn't do a balloon glow (when they fire up the balloons after dark) on this day, but you were able to go right up to each balloon as they inflated them. I was told that many of the artsy (all glow no show) balloons had already left, but I did manage to see these two enormous "Little Bees" that have an odd relationship. Apparently the red one is a girl and the blue a boy, supposedly they are holding hands as they depart.

It was a gorgeous day alongside Catfish Lake in Centralia, IL. There was a lot of downtime which I spent simply laying by the lake and talking to whoever made eye contact. There was also an extensive children's area (with a train kids could ride!), a better than average craft area, and a nicely laid out concessions area. In fact, you know you have been going to a lot of festivals when the vendors begin to recognize you. I had a nice conversation with a vendor I had seen at two other festivals regarding how to be a vendor at these for next year. As you can see in the picture, it was a perfect day for a hot air balloon race. I had way too many beautiful pictures of balloons being inflated, lifting off, and colorful shots by the lake to fit in. you can find more pics of unique balloons here though.
I created this pic too large, if you view it right click the new screen and click on "view image".

Those that have followed the blog know my affinity to a certain Matt Barber who played at the Salisbury Steak festival. Now this band is from the complete opposite direction. Quite possibly the hardest band to rock at a festival, I introduce the Drama Scene. If you like what you hear you can catch them at the K-Mart parking lot in Mt. Vernon, IL on August 29th! For the rest of their schedule and some sample songs, check them out on myspace. I did my part guys. (This may be too loud for cubicles).

Now some of you may have noticed something different about this particular blog. You're right. There was no food featured at it! The holy month of Ramadan began this past Saturday, and while fasting I can not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset. Kind of puts a kink in the whole food festival thing. Yet, the site lives on! I decided that 600 miles was to far to drive for two previously scheduled corn festivals for corn I couldn't eat, so I found this one. My apologies to you food festival purists that may be disappointed. The next food festival is scheduled for a Cheese Festival on Sept. 6th. This may be doable as cheese does not have to be eaten right away like anything fried ought to be. Let me know your thoughts in the suggestion box, or send me an email. For some basic info on Ramadan click here, for more in depth questions click here.

This was a beautiful festival, although they did charge for parking and for admission. I had made a rule that paying for parking a these festivals was a sucker bet, but it was quite a walk if you don't (festivals are not intended to be exercise). Although I ended up walking miles back-and-forth through the festival grounds, I mean they did give you a brochure which included a map of the fairgrounds.

On a side note find out what happens when college students, a hot air balloon experiment, and a hamster combine. I'm not sure why I find this site funny, because the concept is wrong. But, the site flows in a way that makes me laugh (take the time to read the photo taglines). I'd like to state that riz's takes and funnel takes et al. is not affiliated with this experiment at all, and does not condone such irresponsible behavior. Please always monitor your children when they interact with animals. Thank you.

I have a new found respect for food vendors at these festivals. Those who have followed this blog know that I have been thinking about being a vendor next year at every festival I attended this year as a consumer. As I mentioned, I talked with a vendor I had seen a couple times and realized how much they travel as well. Every weekend they need to be somewhere in order to make a profit, then set up and work 16 hour days every day of a festival. Then pack up and move on to the next one. That means a lot of funnel cakes if you think you have what it takes. By the way this group breaks in a newbee worker by having them take a shot of cold oil from the fryer. Still got what it takes?

Now I had mentioned a hot air balloon race that took place that day instead of a glow. By race these crazy balloonists do not mean race. Instead it was better described as a "Hound 'N' Hare" event. One balloon sets off first and drops down in some clearing a couple miles away. There he/she sets up a big "X" target, and sets off to place any more if the "race" requires. The other balloonists then chase that initial balloon and throw weighted bean bags off their balloons at the target. The pilot with the closest bean bag strike wins. The top ten balloonists get a cash prize, and there was no incentive to be the hare. Thusly, none of the balloonists volunteered for this "honor". They decided to eliminate the tenth place money and gave the (I need to get paid) volunteer $100 to be the hare.

I think it is every young kid's dream to be a Hot Air Balloon Pilot, at least until they find out they are afraid of heights like me. I found out that even you can be a hot air balloon pilot by buying your first balloon for about 5-12 thousand dollars. This balloon should last you at least five years until you know what you need next. To find out even more about being a professional ballooner this site should answer most of your questions. For the record you do have to be licensed by the FAA to be a hot air balloon pilot. One thing you have to learn is the high-tec equipment they use to gauge the winds before launch. For the record, they let a kid's helium balloon loose in order to gauge the winds by how the balloon reacts at different heights. For even more info about how hot air balloons work just click here. My pilot Alvin had been soaring through the skies for the last twelve years. In fact he has flown the same balloon I was in to a height of 18,000 feet at a speed of 145 mph from North Dakota to Kansas. Apparently you need to bring oxygen with you at those heights, and some receptacles let's say for certain natural occurrences. Still, it has to be an amazing experience. Now floating at a height of 75 feet may not be the same as a cross-continent flight or even standing on the top of a mountain, but at least it's a start.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

#11 Peach Festival - Grafton, IL - August 9, 2009

#11 Peach Festival - Grafton, IL - August 9, 2009

It was a bumper crop for one local farmer, and he somehow finagled to be the only farmer present at this "Peach Festival". They did look pretty impressive though so I bought the bag o' peaches to the right. Sadly there were no other peach vendors available, although I saw about ten small stands on the roads around the festival.

The peach related items were hard to come by at this event. In fact there was only the peach vendor, a kettle corn guy, and an Italian Ice cart (very shady). This "festival" was held at a lodge so I purchased this peach cobbler at the restaurant. The filling was good and promising, but the crust was severely undercooked and tasted like paste. There was definitely not enough people to create a demand large enough to necessitate hurrying a cobbler.

There wasn't much going on at this festival. I feel that the lodge and the peach farmer may have conspired to put on this whole hoopla and sell it as a festival. Don't get me wrong there was a small car show, a bounce house, and a small flea market, but only three vendors! I got bored and was dazzling people with my peach juggling. For the record I was juggling three peaches, but this photo was taken while people were throwing them in.

After a half an hour I had seen everything this festival had to offer, but it was a beautiful day along the Mississippi River and I thought I'd give it a chance. Unfortunately this balloon animal was the highlight of the next hour. I mean he didn't stop at just a tree. He didn't stop after the monkey hanging on it. He even threw in a bunch of bananas hanging from a vine. I was so impressed I even took this out of a little girl's hands to take this picture (with her father's permission), although in retrospect it may have been creepy.

Unfortunately the ride home may have been the best part of the festival. No, not because I left but because I got lost. The road home along the River was shut down due to an accident. My car was in park and I was thinking to myself that the festival had to have been better than this. I looked to my right and there was a Ferry loading dock. I had no idea where it took me, but I knew I had to cross the Mississippi eventually anyway and I was going nowhere fast where I was. I got to the other side and asked the operator for directions. About 10 turns through country roads I arrived at the second Ferry. I'm not sure how it worked or what kind of wormhole I went through, but somehow I started in Illinois and crossed the Mississippi River twice but ended up in Missouri somehow. It defies logic, but it was serene and calming.

For any Hee-Haw fans, here is some good old fashioned pickin' and grinnin'. And yes, if you listen closely that is the restaurant paging people whose tables are ready. These guys were really good though, but I couldn't get a good recording of their vocals due to the acoustics. Take my word, the Misty Ridge Band's harmonies were excellent.

There really wasn't much to this festival a 10 exhibit car show, a bounce house, 3 vendors I listed, a small flea market inside the lodge and a band. There were no other food options available and for the first time this summer, I left a festival hungry. I was bamboozled by such a pretty flyer. I mean most of the festivals I have been to don't have flyers. This is a 3rd Annual Festival so maybe 4 is a charm. I just don't understand why there was only one peach purveyor placing peaches for purchase (say that 3 times fast). It seemed like everyone was sitting there waiting for some peach related event to begin. I had heard about a peach pie eating contest, but no one knew when or where or if it would take place. So I waited more, then began juggling peaches. I wish I had this little peach riddle to think about then.

Be that is it may, I still had a good time. It was nice to have an air-conditioned respite in the lodge on a day where the temperature was hovering around the 100 degree mark. The peaches were definitely tasty. Although I'm not sure it is possible to eat a peach without getting everything around you sticky. I haven't always been a big peach fan though, something about that fuzzy skin bothers me. Did you know that a nectarine is the same fruit as a peach except without the fuzzy skin? If you need a lot of ideas on what to do with a peach or nectarine just click here and buy some peaches ASAP. If that didn't satisfy your peach curiosity then click here and you might not even want to hear the word peach ever again. Apparently the peach goes back to 2000 BC in China.

Somehow along the way this summer I have become a festival snob. So it didn't have any peach activities, funnel cakes, or gyros. Is that really so bad? I know this much. A grown man should not have been so enamored with a balloon animal as I was allowed to become. The ride home was amazing. A beautiful day to drive along the Mississippi River, complete with two rides on a ferry. I haven't been on a ferry since Dubai about 7 years ago, and there is something very quaint about crossing a river by boat. Simpler times. I had no idea where I was, or how to get home, and that was the fun of it. In today's world of deadlines and iPods, I truly enjoyed aimlessly driving on empty roads without worrying about what time I got home. It was freedom that you only appreciate when you find those few moments you experience them.

For some reason I always think of Roald Dahl's, "James and the Giant Peach" when I think of the fruit. I mean the kid floats off in a gigantic peach pit. That's good stuff. Apparently it has been a long time since I read the book because I only got 4 out of 10 right in this quiz. Grafton, Illinois is a beautiful place irregardless of festivals, and I am happy I found this gem twice through these festivals. From towboats to peaches, I'll be back once again for the Bald Eagles
when they come back in winter. I may even take the ferries again when I return.