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The International Writers Magazine: Albuquerque Hot Air Balloons

Albuquerque’s Hot Air Balloon Festival: Southwestern adventures in airports, burritos, and balloons
Adee Braun

It’s 5:30am in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I am wide awake. The remains of last night’s burrito are still on my breath. I forage for my clothes in the darkness and the silence. A shower is in order but there’s only one hour until sunrise and some things are more important than personal hygiene. "Get up! get up!" I call out like singsongy morning gunfire. My state of deranged hyper-merriment is the kind that makes all non-morning people cringe. I am not a morning person and therefore understand the full pain of this infliction, and so I dispense it gleefully.

This is only because today I realize a dream. Perhaps not a lifelong dream, or even a year-long dream, but maybe a four month long dream ever since the idea of circus-toned flying objects in a southwestern sky first lodged itself into my stubborn imagination. Today is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. A fact that I was decidedly more excited about then my two friends, Belle and Andree, deemed quite necessary before first light, and more urgently, before first coffee.
Belle and Andree think that I have come all this way from New York to visit them. After all, nobody wants to hear that a friend’s annual visit has been surreptitiously orchestrated to coincide was a hot air balloon festival. But the ugly truth was that the prospect of hot air balloons was one of few things that could have persuaded me to go south of Philadelphia. Albuquerque does boast certain things: dessert mountains, Los Alamos, a few trendy spots catering to its burgeoning community of ex-pat Northerners, and the annual balloon fiesta. This is the city’s pride and joy and its bread and butter. It’s Albuquerque’s little present to the world of eccentric millionaires, small children, and other people who get inexplicably excited over large colorful flying objects. And like all exotic creatures, you have to get up early to see them.

I had somehow cajoled Belle and Andree into foregoing sleep and caffeine in order to witness this strange and stunning spectacle. Their friend Brian, a homegrown Albuquerquian with bona fide shpilkes even at this ungodly hour, had kindly offered to drive us to the ballooning grounds because, as he put it, "I don’t really sleep anyway". I had never been more excited to see giant baskets strapped to bags of hot air.

My journey southwest was two-legged. I departed from New York City, to Denver for a brisk stopover, and then on to Albuquerque: the city of the Sandias, the dessert, and the bane of poor spellers. Having never actually bothered to see much of my own country, I quickly realized that this would be an exercise in culture shock within my own country. I arrived at the sleek Denver airport only to spot my first ever real live cowboy in a 10-gallon hat. I gawked at the man wearing the lamb white cowboy hat and matching calf’s skin boots complimented by a well-fitting grey toned suit. But he might as well have been wearing a sarong and spurs, for there was nothing more excitingly exotic to me at that moment. I bought my 8 oz. TCBY frozen yogurt smoothie and was half surprised not to pay in Yen, Euros, or Kroner, but in green American bills. Handing the familiar currency over to the bespectacled thickly drawled cashier, she might as well have been Tajikistani for all her intriguing foreignness to me. I accepted my change with a slightly psychotic smile saying my thank you a little too enthusiastically. But it was as I passed the tornado shelter sign by my gate, with its forbidding white on black snaking cyclone, that I realized I was not in Kansas anymore. No, I was in the Denver airport. Who knew what curious delights the Albuquerque airport would bring. I spent the remainder of my layover wandering wide-eyed around the Denver airport feeling like I was in the airport version of Coming to America. Soon I was back on a plane and flying through the evening clouds over the glowing Rockies. It turns out, the Albuquerque airport looks exactly how a small southwestern airport should look: all adobe-toned and Navajo patterned—a theme that seemed to run throughout the entire state.

I met Belle and Andree at the exit and were soon flying down Route 66 toward a midnight meal in downtown Albuquerque. They took me to The Frontier, a landmark restaurant and 24-hour shrine to southwestern kitch which they claimed to be the only proper introduction to southwestern cuisine. There, at 2am New York time, I was introduced to the breakfast burrito, marking the start of our turbulent and slightly masochistic four-day long relationship. As Andree noted, "you’re eating about twelve different animals". It’s all rice and beans and eggs and bacon and sausage and hash browns, and all goooood. And it remains all good until about three-quarters of the way through, when it suddenly becomes all bad, and remains so for 8-10 hours and half a dozen bathroom trips thereafter.

The next morning I got up with a burrito hangover, but nevertheless ready for my day with the balloons. For me hot air balloons would have to remain a spectator sport since I was on a budget and unwilling to shell out $200 an hour to actually take a ride in one of the balloons. But I figured a sufficient consumption of breakfast burritos could adequately simulate the experience.
I can’t explain my infatuation with hot air balloons. I only know that growing up on the eighteenth floor of a New York apartment building never seemed high enough. I might also just be a sucker for slow moving high flying objects. The Ferris wheel was always my favorite ride and I have always been jealous of liberated party balloons. And so, I suppose it follows the hot air balloon would provoke my excitement. There is something innocent and childlike about the hot air balloon. And yet the idea of going up in a basket that is tied to an overgrown bag of heated air strikes me as downright unbalanced. But propane and pyrotechnics aside, there is something unapologetically happy about them, and that is a rarity.
We were out of the house by 6am and by quarter to 7am we were stuck in the twilight traffic that snaked under the bypasses along the ballooning grounds. There was a full moon shinning over our shoulders like a singular off-roading jeep’s headlight hovering above the Sandias, which only now began to emerge out of the darkness but remained mere cutouts. I scoured the sky for anything circular and heading skyward. I was exuberant, but it was hard to tell if this was the byproduct of preceding sleeplessness or forthcoming balloons. The traffic was dense and we made little progress. My anxiety over missing the first balloons was escalating to nail biting proportions as I stared determinedly out the cold car window. And then I see it. Puncturing the un-dawned sky, the first glowing balloon rises steadily upward into the awakening dessert morning like a sacrificial child who got tossed into the frigid waters before the rest. This is the tester balloon, explains Brian. The other ballooners will wait for its report on the conditions before their flights can begin. The solitary balloon continues to rise against the navy sky like a beacon—a bubbly, skyward soaring, Crayolla colored, propane spewing, beacon. And soon others follow, and together the balloons make a school of circus toned electrical jellyfish floating through the thin morning air; their erratic blips of light smattering the dark sky like a swarm of lightning bugs.

Sunrise happens in fast-forward. We turn the final bend before the park entrance and it’s already pale morning. There is a carnival feel mixed in with a kind of rock show exhilaration. At its heart, the Albuquerque hot air balloon festival is both a giant tourism ploy and an indulgent gathering of moneyed hobbyists and young-at-heart neck-strained spectators alike. And it attracts an odd mix of fans—local Albuquerqueans mingle with corporate sponsors and CEO’s enjoying their man-child hobby. Down on the festival grounds the balloons lounge partially bloated and sideways as they are being filled with air. They make a rainbow quilt shuttering with hot air across the valley. Children run ahead of parents and abled grandparents lift babies onto shoulders as everyone marches toward the massive carpet of color ahead. Our little foursome makes a detour to the left were we see an equally glorious sight among the many food stalls: the coffee tent.

Once caffeinated, we move ahead toward the isles of balloons to get a closer look. There are many of the classic balloons involving a grotesque assemblage of primary colors. Then there are the boring corporate sponsors with uninteresting patterns and a logo splashed on the side. Then some that are more striking, like the balloon in the shape of a giant ristra and one like a silver rocket ship. And then there are the novelty balloons of the unexpected and truly weird variety, like the giant baby head balloon, the cow balloon (complete with 10-foot long pink udders), and the twin balloons of unidentifiable and strangely menacing cartoon insect characters. By 7:30am, the first batch had already gone up, and a second group hurried to fill its place, and a kind of dance emerges. Everyone moves to the balloon that is ready to go up next while the balloon’s few passengers, crowded nervously in the basket, are camera ready and smile generously as the ground crew pulls this way and that on ropes that drape over the top of the balloon and hang down like vines. With a few warnings to the surrounding crowd and some large sweeping motions, everyone backs away and the balloon begins its slow float across the field then gently ascents to join its florid brethren in the sky. By now the morning sky is full of balloons rising like slow motioned bubbles in a rainbow colored effervescent drink. Looking up at the passengers themselves looking first skyward then earthward in amazement, I realized that this truly is good clean fun. That is, besides the explosive tendency of propane and the inevitable yearly run-in with an electrical pole that renders ballooning passengers and the occasional young child balloon-less and clinging for their lives atop a 200-foot power line. But from the excited wide-eyed crowd in the valley, loitering among a billowing sea of inflating balloons, it all seemed quite innocent.

By 9am the balloons are all up and dot the sky as they scale the stratosphere like a flock of migrating oblong tropical birds. But the day has claimed some casualties. The giant ristra balloon doesn’t make it up, and sadly neither does the slightly eerie Benetton-inspired, children of the world balloon. Along with a few others, they remain the un-flated failures, splayed across the sodden field like colorful beached sea monsters. The early balloons are not even visible anymore and even the late ones are distant points of color. As the last of the defeated balloons are packed away, there is nothing to do but to head for the stalls where I get started on my fifth burrito in two days.

© Adee Braun Aug 12 2007
adeebraun at

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