St Louis Balloon Glow: Defying gravity

'Krrrrrrrrr!"

The shriek of a burner and flash of its flame make me step back from the wicker basket of a hot air balloon. The enormous craft has been tethered to the ground but seems to want to break free of its ropes and rise above St Louis. It is one of dozens of balloons in Forest Park's Central Field that are taking part in the spectacular Balloon Glow. The flames of their burners fire up intermittently as dusk settles.

The balloons are being shown off as part of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race (greatforestparkballoonrace.com), a two-day festival that takes place each September. Having run for 41 years, it is billed as the longest-running free event of its kind. Each year, tens of thousands of spectators watch about 70 balloonists from around the United States take part.

There are dozens of pop-up food vendors selling a wide variety of cuisine at the Balloon Glow - from Indian to Mexican. My three children and partner join the queues to enjoy the fare. We finish with snow cones before moving among the balloons.

The race itself - which takes place the day after the Glow - is described as a "hounds and hare" event, where one balloon gets a short head start before the other competitors take off and glide after it. When the "hare" balloon finally lands, the other balloonists must drop a bag of birdseed as close as they can to it - the nearest shot wins the challenge.

Many balloons advertise a variety of brands - no doubt the sponsors. However, I'm surprised to see the variety of shapes - for example, one balloon resembles a box of popcorn as it advertises a local cinema chain. Standing between them as the burners go off amid thousands of visitors is almost overwhelming for my two young daughters, who grip my hands tightly.

There is something awesome and frightening about hot air balloons. The idea of hopping in a basket with a tank of fuel, which sits beneath a huge canopy, and floating high above the earth seems foolhardy. But I'd still try it once - floating with the wind to an unknown location and taking in the panoramic views.

Maybe next year.

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