Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
Albuquerque's annual balloon festival
by George Oxford Miller
The magic moment arrives and the balloons metamorphose into delicate
creatures of the sky,
straining to leave the confines of the earthbound.
What kind of festival brings 20,000 people out in the chilly predawn hours to wait for the main event to start? I squeeze through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and buy a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito, then join the half-awake masses on the grassy field. This isn't a stadium rock concert or a Superbowl tailgate party, it's the largest hot-air-balloon festival in the world. Each October, 750 balloonists from dozens of nations gather in Albuquerque for the nine-day International Balloon Fiesta.
As the first glimmers of light brighten the sky, ground crews spread the balloon canopies in ordered rows across the field. Like wiggling caterpillars, the balloons swell with air. Then the magic moment arrives and they metamorphose into delicate creatures of the sky, straining to leave the confines of the earthbound.
Unlike most mega events, Balloon Fiesta encourages fans to get personal with the star attractions. Crowds mill around the launch field as the first row of balloons springs to life. Then, as the first rays peak over the 10,000-foot Sandia Mountains, wave after wave of balloons lift off.
As the first rays peak over the 10,000-foot Sandia
Mountains, wave after wave of balloons lift off.
The adrenaline rush of seeing hundreds of brilliantly colored balloons floating into the dawn sky takes me by surprise. The child within thrills as each balloon lifts off, and I'm not alone with the elation. Bystanders applaud, shout encouragement, snap photos, and chatter on cell phones to friends who decided to sleep in. By the time several hundred balloons lift off, the sky looks like a blue canvas splashed with every color in the spectrum.
The next morning I join California pilot Gary Michalek in his two-person gondola for the mass ascension. He fires the propane burner and the wicker basket hesitantly inches above the grassy field. "Every balloon pilot dreams of coming to the Albuquerque festival," Michalek tells me as we join the floating rainbow of balloons drifting away in the breeze. "Albuquerque is the absolute Mecca of hot air ballooning."
Besides the traditional teardrop-shaped balloons, special-shaped balloons fill the sky with dream-like forms. The Creamland Dairy "cow" comes to life on one row and on another an 89-foot-tall Darth Vader from Belgium rises above cheering bystanders. Almost 100 imaginatively shaped balloons delight the crowds.
In 2007, more than 700 hundred balloons from 40 states and 24 nations floated
above the city. Weekends feature the spectacular mass ascensions. During the
week, pilots test their skills with contests that offer prizes of cars, trucks
and motorcycles. In the evenings, the balloons stay aground but light up for
flickering "balloon glows" followed by fireworks and live music.
Below us, the forested floodplain
of the Rio Grande, a green ribbon of life
through the desert, meanders through the heart of the city.
Michalek fires the burner and keeps our balloon at an elevation with north-blowing winds. We drift peacefully on a gentle breeze with no sounds except the occasional roar of the burner. "Since we're moving at the same speed as the wind, you get no noise or sense of motion," Michalek explains.
The 360-degree view encompasses the city and a landscape that stretches to distant horizons dotted with conical blue mountains. Below us, the forested floodplain of the Rio Grande, a green ribbon of life through the desert, meanders through the heart of the city. The grid of streets and houses looks like a game board. We float over a corn field maze, horse corrals, and a house that looks like a space station. People wave, dogs bark, and cars inch along winding streets.
After an hour, we start looking for a place to land. "You can't steer a balloon, you go with the wind," Michalek says. "Balloons need lots of wide, open spaces. The great thing about Albuquerque is that it has plenty of open areas for landing, but the city's rapid growth makes finding a safe spot harder every year."
The breeze takes us past outlying subdivisions to an area in the desert with scattered houses. "They say every balloon landing is a crash landing," Michalek warns. "When we touch down, bend your knees and hold on tight."
Michalek skillfully drops down in a vacant block beside a 4-lane boulevard and a church. As we impact, he pulls open the vent that deflates the canopy. We bounce a few times but the basket doesn't tip over. Soon, the chase crew and several eager residents show up to help stow the balloon.
The balloons transform from shapeless cloth to bright bubbles as the canopies are inflated.
The annual Balloon Fiesta isn't the only time Albuquerque residents and visitors can experience the thrill of flight. On almost any given morning, commercial hot air balloons dot the morning sky. Yet, nothing can compare with participating in a mass ascension at Balloon Fiesta. Floating in the tranquility of space, 1,000 feet above the concerns of the earthbound, I easily understand how a person could fall in love with humans' first form of flight.
the time several hundred balloons lift off, the sky looks like a
blue canvas splashed with every color in the spectrum.
If you go:
For information about the 2008 Balloon Fiesta, October 4th through the 12th, see www.balloonfiesta.com. For an Albuquerque visitor guide with lodging and activity information, call 1-800-284-2282, or see www.itsatrip.org.
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