For the last twenty years or so, I have a personal tradition to always try to cross something off my “bucket list” on or as close to my birthday as possible. Past examples were jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, taking a rock climbing class, racing in a sailboat regatta (and winning!) This year, with the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta falling on my birthday weekend, it seemed like the perfect year to cross off……the hot air balloon ride!
I woke up at 3:30am for my first morning in ABQ to a gorgeous October clear night sky. Never having been there before, I wanted to get a jump on the traffic and have plenty of time to find a parking place and familiarize myself with the field. It seemed like the perfect morning, though I was oblivious to the “subtle breeze” causing the many flags along the fiesta’s “Main Street” to flutter. By 7:00am, the entire thing was scrapped due to “high winds aloft.” It didn’t take long for word to spread via text message and the ABQ Balloon Fiesta Facebook page, long before the announcement came over the PA system. What a shocker for a first timer! Thankfully, I had a few more days to wait out the weather, as I learned a whole new appreciation for how the subtle changes in wind can effect this fiesta.
They still do a good job of creating a fiesta-like atmosphere in spite of the weather dependency. It reminded me a lot of a State Fair, with plenty of carnival junk food like fried Twinkies, smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes, and lots of hot coffee, hot chocolate and live music to warm up the morning. But by far the biggest hit and longstanding tradition is the New Mexican Breakfast Burrito. I liked “Sadie’s” the best; bacon, eggs, potatoes, and lots and lots of green chilies! This made waking up at 4:00am not quite so painful. There are also dozens of arts and crafts booths, and more balloon tchotchkes than you could count. Everything adorned with balloons, from wind socks to tube socks, and an entire pavilion dedicated to “official balloon fiesta clothing.” Even Walgreen’s was in on the action, hawking flu shots!
By far my favorite event of the fiesta was the “Twilight Glow.” This event takes place around dusk when the balloons inflate just enough to get the “envelopes” aloft, but remain tethered to the ground, usually by volunteer crew, (or tied to their trucks!) As the clear blue sky turns inky black, they fire up the after burners to a countdown from 10, and the entire field lights up like gigantic Christmas ornaments! I can’t begin to describe the “happy vibe” that permeates, as the crowd is delighted over and over. The excitement and elation are palpable as cameras are clicking and burners are firing up in every direction. As balloons begin to deflate, a spectacular two-location fireworks display follows.
There aren’t many activities during the week, so I headed up to Santa Fe for a couple of days, with the intent to return for what would turn out to be another favorite part of the fiesta — the “Special Shapes Rodeo.” This is the morning ascension where only those balloons with a unique shape are allowed to launch. These balloons were so incredibly innovative, from Elvis to Darth Vader to the Old Woman in the Shoe. Don’t miss this event! So creative!
This was also the day that I finally got to witness the famous “Albuquerque Box,” whereby balloons take off across the field at a low altitude. Then they turn on the burners to lift up into a different air current flowing the opposite direction, which brings them back across the field, ergo the term “box.”
As for my “bucket list,” I actually booked my balloon ride on Sunday, because I wanted to take off during the Mass Ascension. I booked with Rainbow Ryders, because they advertised themselves as being “The only official hot air balloon ride company that launches from Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta® Field.” Against my better judgement, I paid a hefty $150 surcharge for this privilege, a very atypical splurge for me. But it was my birthday, after all, and we were talking “bucket list” stuff, so I decided to splurge. However, the only thing I saw of the balloon field this morning was in the rear view mirror! As soon as I heard our pilot’s name, “Wild Bill” I knew it was either going to be a blessing or a curse. Using his code name “Maverick” over the walkie talkie, he announced that we he would be “goin’ rogue” by leaving the balloon field to “head out west, cuz I don’t wanna get scalped for landin’ in the Indian Reservation.”
So for $150 surcharge, I rode in a basket with twelve other people, floating over the industrial district of Albuquerque, landing in an office building parking lot. I am not saying that it wasn’t a fun experience. I loved the thrill of lifting off, floating on the air currents, feeling the rise and fall of the “aircraft” just from a rise in temperature. It was a beautiful experience, one that I hope to repeat one day. But next time, I will stick with the basics and not fall prey to “fiesta marketing…”
Overall, I enjoyed being immersed in the ballooning community. It reminds me a whole lot of the sailing community — The same type of fun competition and camaraderie between racers versus cruisers, fun loving, adventurous types, their entire experience dependent on the wind, celebrated by few rounds at the bar after landfall!
If you would like to see more photos of the balloon fiesta, please click on the “View Album Photos” link below. There are about a hundred more over in my gallery!