By Ashley Lodato
When Kurt Oakley attended the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in the 1980s, he saw the balloons and said to himself “I gotta have one of those.”
So he and his wife, Melinda, bought one. “I was a firefighter, she was a ski instructor,” Oakley says. It was the American Dream, with a twist. “Marriage, a house, a balloon.”
The new pilots spent six years in Vail, working and flying their balloon, before moving to the Methow Valley in 1997. Now, 30 years after purchasing their first balloon and opening Morning Glory Balloon Tours, the Oakleys are retiring from the commercial balloon rides business.
When the Oakleys were married, they vowed to provide each other with “laughter, fun and adventure.” They’ve had three decades of that, but are ready to get even more serious about their quest for travel and outdoor recreation, which requires, they believe, “going free-range.”
Although a lofty pursuit like ballooning may seem to the uninitiated like a whole lot of play, it actually involves some work, the Oakleys say. The free-range lifestyle “will offer up more time for play and less time working.”
Timing the retirement with the COVID crisis is purely coincidental, the Oakleys say. “We were already planning to cut back on our availability to schedule rides last spring. When the pandemic and restrictions evolved it was a good time to test out ‘free-range’ and take a hiatus.”
The Oakleys have had a good 30-year run in the skies. “It has always been fun,” they say. “We compare it to working in an ice cream shop. Guests are there purely to enjoy themselves. That makes it enjoyable for us and the crew.”
They’ve also witnessed some poignant moments while aloft: salmon spawning, eagles soaring, marriage proposals, even a doe chasing a coyote away from her fawn.
The Oakleys’ retirement isn’t a full retreat from work – Kurt is an Advanced EMT for Aero Methow Rescue Service and Melinda works part-time at the Methow Valley Veterinary Clinic –and they “still plan to float above the valley on occasion.” They just won’t be offering commercial rides, and “are exploring options for the future of the business.”
They’ll continue to help the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce with the annual Balloon Roundup, serving as liaison for visiting balloons, providing weather data, and offering local flying information.
This commitment to the community is aligned with the way the Oakleys have run their business in the Methow Valley, where nearly every nonprofit auction features a donated balloon ride from Morning Glory Balloon Tours – often accompanied by a champagne breakfast.
“Donated rides are a big deal for us,” they say. “The valley has been exceptionally welcoming to us as we float over and drop in on our neighbors. Since we live where we fly, it’s important for us to be connected to the community and give back. It’s rewarding to be a part of that.”
In the short term, the Oakleys plan to bike and camp as much as possible this spring. Longer term plans are, for now, still up in the air.