We woke up at five A.M. last Monday for Albuquerque’s most famed attraction, its signature event, its raison d’etre: Balloon Fiesta. Having destroyed my knees on a sixteen mile hike the day before and thereby being half-asleep and quasi-immobile, I staggered and fell bow-legged around the house trying to gather my things, slopped a bowl of cinnamon toast crunch all over my pants, and crawled into the car in a stupor. We parked a quarter mile away from the venue and despite feeling like part of an apocalyptic exodus limping alongside heavy traffic and floodlights during the darkest part of the morning, I was looking forward to it. For hot air ballooners and fans alike, this was the Super Bowl, the March Madness, the Olympic Games of their craft. And here I was to see what all the hype was about.
The venue was a mile-long field thronged with people, lined with souvenir shops and restaurants on the perimeter, all of it blanketed in pre-sunrise chills. But the ungodly hour wasn’t stopping anyone. I hobbled through this fever dream of a place and noticed that despite the noise of the crowds, I could easily make out two men talking to each other over a microphone. Maybe I was delirious, but I thought this was hysterical—the fact that Balloon Fiesta had hired commentators. Art and Glen were here to narrate the event, two seasoned veterans in the art of hot air ballooning. And in the constant stream of dialogue between them consisting of wind directions, pilot introductions, wind directions, Balloon Fiesta history, wind directions, fun balloon facts, and more wind directions, both seemed too excited to take a breath. Which of course made sense. Everyone knows that if you take two middle aged men who share an eccentric hobby and sit them down in a room together, you’re bound to hear a lot of chatter. Now imagine giving them microphones. And a crowd. And moving them to a field. And calling the whole thing a fiesta. Art and Glen were having the time of their lives.
If Albuquerque feels like a cross-section of society, Balloon Fiesta feels like a cross-section of Albuquerque. Smartly dressed Mormon missionaries huddled together next to groups of high schoolers in their letterman jackets, who passed footballs to each other over the heads of Buddhist monks in flowing orange robes. A tall bearded man with a fat backpack and a cat-themed toboggan stood alone smiling aimlessly at the sky as if there was no place in the world in which he belonged more than a hot air balloon convention.
Yet at 6:30 A.M., all eyes were on a group of four balloons in the center of the field (“dawn patrol,” which took off early to get a read on the winds). Their domed canvasses had been raised and filled with gusts of hot air created by propane tanks sitting in the baskets, which roared with high flames when ignited. This first group lifted off the ground and gradually rose hundreds of feet into the south, eventually visible only by furious flashes of ember from the propane tanks which coaxed the night sky into softening. But the real spectacle was the mass ascension scheduled an hour later. By this time, the rosy sky over the mountains made it possible to see dozens of balloons inflating all over the field, many in checkered patterns of red and yellow but others with still more creative designs, the most ambitious being a cow shaped balloon that could do nothing but flop on the ground while the others took off and left it behind. In minutes the sky was a mosaic of color cast against a brilliant blue. We admired it for as long as it lasted, or until most of the balloons from this event had drifted out of sight. By then, the next event of the morning was starting: competitions.
To preface, I never thought I would be introduced to a sport that was more confusing than cricket and less thrilling than golf, where I would have enough time to leave, get breakfast, come back, and still have no idea what the hell was going on or who was even winning (probably because no one had scored). That was before I discovered the sport of precision balloon landing (I think it had another name, but this is my best guess). Traffic cones delineated a small section of the field to form a miniature runway, with smaller coned-off areas within the strip forming targets of varying sizes. A couple dozen hot air balloons would hover hundreds of feet above the strip to the north, and every once in a while a brave captain would slowly descend down and south towards the field and, after getting low enough, would throw a streamer at one of the targets, before landing his balloon a hundred yards downfield. Art and Glen were eating it up. Their dialogue would go something like this:
“Art, what is HAPPENING to Joe Smith’s balloon? Is he moving southwest?”
“That’s what it looks like, but why aren’t the OTHERS going southwest too?”
“Art, this is getting CRAZY!”
Meanwhile, all the balloons kept bobbing peacefully in the sky.
Maybe I don’t give it enough respect—after all, the only way to willfully change the direction of a hot air balloon against the wind (besides tugging on some ropes and sending up a prayer to the Almighty) is to strategically pop holes in the side of the craft and let it zoom around the sky like some kind of untied, gargantuan birthday balloon. But on a serious note, being unable to steer is a pretty big problem for even the best of our altitudinous Albuquerque aviators, despite the fact that blue skies and calm winds in the area are why the event happens here in the first place. Having no efficient steering mechanism is the reason why fans of the fiesta without the money to buy passenger tickets sign up online in groups to be part of “chase crews,” whose sole mission is to hop in a truck and drive all over the city in hot pursuit of their assigned balloon, carrying the equipment needed to pack it up wherever it may land. Luke told us a story about a balloon that landed in a baseball field a few miles south of the park and had to use the very last of its propane supply to shoot it up and over the fence because they couldn’t fit the basket through the gate. As a matter of fact, local little league teams have a rule that if a precocious little hitter manages to ding the side of a wayward balloon, he or she automatically wins the game and is instantaneously awarded a scholarship. I made that up. But truthfully, it’s quite an experience seeing balloons drifting lazily over streets, parks, and avenues across town with no serious eyebrows raised.
And it’s not necessarily easy to land a hot air balloon, either. The wind can sometimes push them horizontally at twenty miles per hour, although their speed is deceptive. Art and Glen had to remind us NOT to stand in front of an incoming basket and try to stop it singlehandedly. Valuable advice, because occasionally a balloon would blow off course into the crowd, with the pilot waving his arms and yelling, and spectators running away screaming and diving, and ground crew trying to grab onto the sides of the basket to slow it down and instead being launched off their feet by the momentum, before we would see a massive collapse of people, baskets, and canvas. Miraculously, everyone would escape unscathed. I had lots of respect for the ground crew in these moments—just like Texans and their longhorns, or Aussies and their crocodiles, it takes a true New Mexican to wrangle a rampaging hot air balloon.
Maybe that’ll be me one of these years. Or maybe I’ll never make it back to Balloon Fiesta. At any rate, they should put the Snoop Dogg/Kevin Hart duo on the mic sometime, like in Tokyo. Or maybe just Bill Walton. But no matter. The people will come.
To read more from Peter, click here.