International Writers Magazine:
Hot Air Balloons
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.
Hot Air Balloon Festival: Southwestern adventures in airports, burritos,
Its 5:30am in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I am wide awake.
The remains of last nights burrito are still on my breath.
I forage for my clothes in the darkness and the silence. A shower
is in order but theres 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.
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 friends 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 citys
pride and joy and its bread and butter. Its Albuquerques 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 dont really sleep anyway". I
had never been more excited to see giant baskets strapped to bags of hot
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 calfs 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
patterneda 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, "youre eating about twelve different animals".
Its 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
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 jeeps
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 beacona 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.
cant 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.
Sunrise happens in fast-forward. We turn the final bend before the park
entrance and its 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 fanslocal Albuquerqueans mingle
with corporate sponsors and CEOs 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 balloons 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 doesnt 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
adeebraun at gmail.com
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