Music and NPR News for Central and Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Midland woman battling cancer enjoys a hot air balloon adventure

Photo provided by River Days Festival pilots
Tamala Marks and pilot Scott Strouse ascend about ten feet in the foggy air while safely tethered down by the rest of the pilots.

On a hot and misty Saturday morning, Tamala Marks waited patiently in Chippewassee park in Midland, ready to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing hot air balloons ascend into the sky.

She didn’t know that just hours later, she would be having her own hot air balloon adventure.

“It's beyond just crossing something off on your bucket list,” Marks said on the verge of tears. “It's something that if God said ‘it's time to go,’ I'm ready.”

Marks was diagnosed with uterine cancer in September 2021, and just finished four months of chemotherapy treatment.

“I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring,” she said.

On Saturday, she was at the park by 5a.m. to make sure she didn’t miss the balloons being unrolled and blown up.

Then, Pilot Scott Strouse announced that foggy weather would prevent the pilots from being able to take flight and participate in their target competition.

“I tried so hard to be strong, and the tears just flowed from my eyes,” she said. “I was trying so hard not to cry.”

After hearing about her battle with cancer and more than ten heart surgeries, the pilots knew they couldn’t give up on taking flight that morning.

The next thing Marks knew, she was surrounded by pilots who told her that they would take her up in a balloon- safely tethered to the ground.

“We can go out and do something as simple as inflate six balloons for her, and she’ll remember that forever,” said Dennis Hall, the pilot who accompanied Marks on her journey in the sky.

They ascended about ten feet off the ground in Hall’s red white and blue “REMAX” balloon, and five other pilots also decided to hover their balloons for Marks.

“I don't even know the word in the English language, it was beyond magical,” Marks said. “I can't imagine a better feeling in the world. I was just so humbled that these people let me do this.”

Several experienced pilots said they had never seen a balloon fly in fog before, and the directors said the unexpected flight was “better than any competitive flight” they could’ve done.

“To be able to do that for somebody, and really change and give somebody that kind of positive- I just I couldn't be more proud of this balloon family that we have,” Strouse said.

Marks said it was typical of Midland’s “beautiful community” to go out of their way to fulfill her dream.

“If there's any place that anybody can heal, it's here in Midland,” she said. “I really feel in my heart that I'm going to beat it, but it's a win-win situation: we either win by beating it or we win by learning from it.”

Another balloon that was inflated for Marks was the “Cynthia Seal” named after Cindy Rolfe, the wife of pilot Pat Rolfe. She passed away from cancer in 2015.

Marks said this story resonated with her, and she was grateful to share a moment in the sky with the pilots. She said she hopes everyone can have the opportunity to experience a hot air balloon adventure.

Next year, her goal is to see the balloon glow.

“God willing, I'm gonna go every single bloody year,” she said.

Jill Harrington is a senior at CMU majoring in journalism and minoring in theatre and interpretation. Jill grew up in Novi, Michigan and started reporting for WCMU in summer 2022.