Every autumn, Albuquerque plays host to the International Balloon Fiesta: a gathering of hundreds of hot air balloonists (and their balloons) from around the world. People come from as far away as New Zealand to participate in the gathering. It’s quite common at this time of year to look up and see the sky filled with dozens if not hundreds of hot air balloons.
Autumn in New Mexico is particularly attractive for hot air balloonists owing to something known as the “Albuquerque Box“, a strange but fortuitious wind pattern well-suited to the endeavors of those who seek to emulate the brothers Montgolfier. I don’t know if the box persists all day long, but it starts early in the day, perhaps even before sunrise. Which means that if you go to the Fiesta, there will be thousands of people watching the first wave of balloons getting inflated well before sunrise. And there’s hot chocolate and music and vendors and funnel cakes. It’s like the State Fair, but at 5:30 in the morning so nobody is fewer people are drunk.
And there are balloons. Lots and lots of balloons.
Today I made my second visit to the Balloon Fiesta since I’ve lived in New Mexico. I forgot how much I enjoyed it the first time. I don’t know why I waited so long to return. I’m so glad I went to the effort of waking up at o’dark thirty this morning.
The cool thing about the fiesta is that all the balloon crews line up in long rows, like a big checkerboard pattern, on a large field. But it’s not fenced off—you can walk around the field and watch the crews unloading the gondolas, unfurling the balloons, inflating them, taking off… It’s great fun. Once in a while somebody dressed as a referee will warn you to get out of the way so that you don’t get rammed by a gondola sweeping across the field 4′ above the ground. And sometimes, in the case of oddly-shaped balloons, you might have to dodge the occasional hoof as the envelope unfolds:
It’s fun to get there while it’s still dark. (Even more fun once you’ve made it through the traffic jam and have had a cup of coffee.) The field is soft and peaceful (ignoring the PA system and the carnival barkers down the way), with the darkness and (relative) quiet punctuated by the random whooooosh of a propane burner inflating a balloon. The burners shoot impressive gouts of flame not unlike something from The Princess Bride, and when they do, the balloons glow like light bulbs.
(It’s also a little tricky to get a good photo of this phenomenon, if you’re a crap photographer like I am. The problem is that I’ll get ready to take a low-light shot, but as soon as I’ve got it focused, the burner will fire off a bright gout of flame, and the camera tries to reset for the new light conditions. And as soon as it does, the burner stops, and we’re plunged back into darkness. Also, I’m a cruddy photographer. My friend EE Giorgi did a much better job of capturing the balloon glow. In fact, just go look at those photos instead.)
But once the sun rises, and more and more envelopes get inflated, you realize you’re standing in the midst of a bizarre forest.
They launch in wave after wave. Soon the sky is full of hot air balloons:
My favorite balloon of the morning was this one:
That’s right: Spider-Pig.
So that was my morning. Then I went home and flew a kite.