I’ve started the In Good Company portion of the Dakota Uprising initiative because I think it’s important to highlight the creative and good souls of our area. I love putting the spotlight on other people, hearing their stories, and learning from their experiences. If you’d like to know about these souls too, read on my friends.
One of my first cheerleaders for my Dakota Uprising project, I feel like Black Hills Balloons has been by my side since the beginning. With a totally unique perspective on the Black Hills (literally, an eagle-eye view), Keely was kind enough to share her background, hopes and opinions on our beautiful Black Hills region. If you need inspiration as to following your dream, no matter how irrational it may seem, then this is the story for you.
Name: Keely Wade
Where are you from? Born and raised in California and spent the last 15 years in Florida
Where do you live now? Custer, SD
Tell me about your business.
My boyfriend Damien and I recently purchased Black Hills Balloons; a 32-year-old Black Hills business that flies hot air balloons over the beautiful Black Hills, Custer Valley and Custer State Park.
What is a typical day like for you?
Balloons fly at sunrise so we start early. The alarm buzzes just before 5am and we immediately check weather to familiarize ourselves with the days flight conditions and head out to meet passengers. Meeting time is approximately 30 minutes before sunrise then we drive to the designated launch site. A balloon flight lasts approximately an hour but it’s anything but typical. Because balloons go with the wind, every flight is different. The landing site is chosen while in the air, based on current wind speed and direction, and you never know what wildlife you’ll see from the balloon. Frequently we see bison, deer, elk and coyotes. Once safely on the ground, we set up a small table for cheese & crackers, muffins and a traditional champagne toast to celebrate the flight. The balloon is packed up, the passengers are delivered back to their vehicles before 9 a.m. and the rest of the day is spent on equipment maintenance, marketing, social media, answering phones and booking passengers.
What is one favorite thing you thoroughly enjoy about your job?
There’s a saying that says, “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” We’re lucky that we had the chance to, what we call “run away with the circus.” I was working a stressful corporate job, and Damien was flying balloons for another company, but we just wanted the flexibility to live life. Now, on any given afternoon, we can go for a hike or visit with friends. As long as we’re near our phones, so we can answer questions and book future passengers, we’re free to goof off every once in a while.
List three random things you use/eat/drink/watch/read/listen/do on a daily basis.
Coffee. We can’t live without coffee, and if I’m spoiling myself I splurge on a Kona coffee called Delish. If you don’t purchase it in Hawaii, you have to order it over the phone from Stu the roaster, and he’ll drop it in the mail for you. We’re addicted to weather apps, channels and websites. It’s part of the job, staying aware of the upcoming and current weather, so we’re total weather geeks. And we can’t do our jobs without champagne. The first balloon flight was in the 1700’s in France. Pilots quickly learned that carrying a bottle of champagne was the quickest way to befriend local landowners and celebrate the flight. Balloon pilots worldwide still carry on the tradition today.
Where is your favorite spot in the Black Hills region?
I’m so new to the area, but I’m in love with Custer State Park. Every corner of the park is different; it’s just so versatile and full of beauty.
What inspires you most about the Black Hills area?
The laid back lifestyle and opportunity to be healthy and happy, naturally. I love that my gym is a mountainside trail.
Tell me one little, favorite story from your adventures in the Black Hills.
It has to be one of our Stratobowl flights. We’re lucky enough to launch from the historic Stratobowl once a year in September. Each flight from the Stratobowl is amazing but my first flight really stands out. There were 10 balloons that launched that morning and we all flew towards Hermosa, but towards the end of the flight, there were three of us dancing over the prairie together. The three balloons were piloted by Damien and myself, my mother and my stepdad, and we just played in the sky together, contouring the landscape and leap frogging over each other. The sun was just perfect that day and the terrain was so fun. I’ll never forget that flight. It was gorgeous and felt amazing to be so free and have so much fun with my family in the air.
Name one amazing place to eat in the Black Hills and why you love it.
I love Bitter Esters in Custer. The craft beers are fantastic and their menu focuses on homemade sausages and locally sourced veggies. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to call Custer home.
What’s your favorite trail and why?
Ah. I haven’t found it yet. I’ve loved every trail I’ve traveled, but I haven’t found a favorite yet. I promise to do my best to research them all.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned about adventuring in the Black Hills?
Be prepared for weather changes. It’s amazing to watch the clouds roll in on a sunny day and change from sunshine to hail in minutes.
What is one impression you wish you could change about the Black Hills?
I think it’s misunderstood. A bit in the shadow of larger national parks. There’s so much to see and do here, but I think people just aren’t aware of its grandeur.
How does living in the Black Hills impact your life (or creativity or business)?
It’s impacted my life in every way but being surrounded by nature certainly influences my creativity in a positive way.
Tell me one thing about the Black Hills that (maybe) no one knows.
When you view it from the air, you can see an exposed granite ring around the hills. It separates the hills from the prairie, and it’s so neat to see from a balloon.
Being Creative / Leaving a Legacy
Is there anyone in the community that you turn to for inspiration, advice, or creative collaboration?
Because we’re new to the area, we’re always talking to local business owners asking to compare this season to next, what works best to advertise in the area, etc. Not only are we new business owners, but we’re new to the hills, so we always take every opportunity we have to speak to people who are familiar with the tourist season and surrounding area.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
My mom. It might sound cliché, but she taught me to fly when I was young, and she’s constantly challenging me as a pilot.
Have you ever taken a big risk for yourself or your life or your business?
Up until very recently, I was handling philanthropy and promotional marketing programs for a worldwide hospitality chain. The company had over 200 locations in 53 countries. I traveled internationally, worked with a fantastic team, managed million dollar projects and frequently found myself working with star studded partners but the stress and the working hours started to wear on me. After years of contemplating a change and a new direction, Damien and I took the leap and bought Black Hills Balloons and moved to Custer. You couldn’t find a more dramatic change in life, but we knew it was the right thing for us. Was it worth it? Absolutely!
What’s your best advice?
Just do it! If you want to make a change, don’t let anything keep you from reaching for it. So many people are too afraid or too comfortable to make a big change in life.
Are you creatively satisfied?
The business is still going under a huge creative change, so yes. We’re working out new logos, new merchandise, new marketing materials, etc. I’m currently loving the creative side of the business.
What could the Black Hills use more of?
Young adventurous entrepreneurs. I think it’s a gorgeous place to live, work and play. We can use more breweries, more adventure outfitters, more young at heart businesses, etc.
Do you feel an obligation to contribute to something greater than yourself?
Because I spent the last eight years handling philanthropy for a worldwide company, I feel well educated in charity and foundation programs. It doesn’t feel like an obligation but I do feel it’s important to stay abreast of what’s going on in our world. Many people are so consumed by domestic media and pop culture, they don’t even realize what’s happening outside of the US. So many people are struggling in our world. Even if you don’t have the time or finances to help, it’s good to educate yourself and travel so you can see firsthand how others live.
At Black Hills Balloons, we get to spend each morning checking off a “bucket list” item for our passengers. We witness engagements, families enjoying time together, young honeymooners and retirees fulfilling that “I’ve always wanted to do that!” thing. I love that our job adds to someone’s happiness and feeds their adventurer within. It feels good to know we contribute in a way that makes people happy.
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