It has long been on my bucket list. I don't even remember when I first heard of it but when I did, it stuck with me and the desire to see it only grew. Albuquerque, New Mexico. The International Balloon Fiesta. We were here!
Neither of us slept very well at the Hometown Suites where we were staying. For one, the A/C was loud and located right in the bedroom. Who designed that?? When it was off, the room heated up even though the night was cool and we could open the windows about three inches in each room. Bob gave up and turned on the noisy A/C.
Part of not sleeping though was excitement and anticipation, I'm sure, on my part. We had to leave at 4:30 a.m. in order to arrive at the Balloon Fiesta Park some time around 5 which was suggested in order to get into the parking area on time. My wonderful husband, knowing how much this meant to me, bought us all-day tickets for the Gondola Club. It got us special close-in parking, breakfast and dinner, and a front row seat for all the festivities on the field.
A golf cart driven by a cheery volunteer (must have been a morning person) took us to the Gondola Club which was a huge tented area with chairs and tables inside and out. We checked in and were in time for the start of a fantastic buffet breakfast.
Great hot coffee helped warm us until Bob found an outdoor heater. He claimed a spot under it and I wandered down to a corner of the outdoor area nearest the temporary fence where I could set up my camera and tripod. Thanks again to my beautiful daughter-in-law, Lori, for all the suggestions for how to get good shots at the Fiesta.
In the dark of the early morning, shadowy forms began to rise from the ground and suddenly started to light up for a couple of seconds here and there. It was the early morning dawn patrol getting ready to test the winds. About a dozen lifted off the ground at about 6 a.m. and floated over our heads to the cheers of thousands on the field below us. I was in awe.
But so much more was yet to come! As dawn lightened the sky, more and more balloons began to fill and grow from the field to huge colorful objects, some round like balloons and others taking on the shape of many different characters--a beaver, a cow, Yoda, Darth Vader, Angry Bird, a fire hydrant with a little fireman soon following, dogs, cats, a witch on a broom, the list went on.
At 6:30, the Morning Glow began. Those balloons that were fully inflated began to glow with a controlled burn. The announcer would count down so that they would glow together--somewhat. That was helpful to all the photographers who had their cameras on tripods with a delayed shutter. (I've learned that hands off helps keep the camera steady while the shutter is open longer.)
Soon after, there was the playing of the National Anthem and the Fiesta Balloon rose into the sky with the flag. The music done, the balloons began the Mass Ascension. It was estimated that there would be about 600 balloons participating. The biggest year was 1,000. I wondered how in the world they would all get off the ground without running into each other.
As the balloons began to rise and the sun was high enough to dispense with the tripod since I didn't need a longer exposure for pictures, we stuffed the tripod into my backpack and walked down onto the field where the balloons were still being inflated and launched. The Mass Ascension would take about two hours.
Careful to not step on lines and stay clear of the crews, we were able to walk among the balloons and get a close up view of how the balloons were inflated. It is all done with hot air provided by the heat of propane tanks. Some of those flames seemed so big that I wondered they didn't catch the material of the balloons on fire.
Along the way we found out how the Mass Ascension was organized. There was a team of people dressed in black and white striped shirts like referees and with a big white Mickey Mouse type glove on one hand who would give the all go signal when it was safe to proceed. They were all connected by radio so that various balloons in the field were spaced far enough apart for take off. It's an amazing organization and I'm sure the 43 years of experience have lent to the success.
Crews were often dressed in themed costumes that went with their balloons. At times it almost felt like an early Halloween. Silly hats were the order of the day. And one very daring lady had a fake naked butt hanging on the outside of her jeans. She was the one of the crew who crawled under the balloon to help lift it off of the wet dewy grass. I wondered if the smooth plastic butt helped her to slide beneath the nylon.
The sky was filled with balloons before long and as the day dawned, the winds shifted a bit. Instead of passing directly over the Gondola Club, they were now veering slightly more to the East. I wondered where they would find a place to land. Albuquerque is a growing city and stretches out in all directions. This year according to new reports we'd read, they had sodded a new area that could be used for landing. We also read that a new app was made for balloon operators and tablets containing the app were handed out to balloonists to help navigate (as much as you could a balloon at the mercy of wind direction).
As the sun rose higher in the sky, we positioned ourselves with the sunlight behind us in order to enjoy the balloons more without squinting. It allowed for better pictures as well. The two hours passed quickly watching the spectacle on the ground take to the skies and soon it was obvious that not all would be airborne. The larger character balloons often don't take off but inflate just for show. They are a bit trickier to navigate.
There was still one character balloon before us that we could watch inflate and when it did, we watched delighted children get a "ride" on it. The younger ones were too short to be seen over the gondola so the owner lifted each up for a picture. The tether held the balloon just about three feet off the ground. Later we saw him take older kids up a bit higher, still tethered but about 15 feet off the ground. What a thrill for them. Appropriately the character balloon was a stork.
We found ourselves about halfway down the huge field now mostly empty of balloons and decided to walk back to the Gondola Club along Main Street. Vendors of all sorts mostly with food and souvenirs lined the street. It was like visiting the county fair back home. A larger tent held an entertainment area for bands and/or dancers.
When we got to the place where people were amassing to take the shuttle bus back to their parking areas, we were doubly thankful for the special tickets we'd gotten. The crowd was huge. Still, it was a great way to come to the Park. You could park at several designated areas a couple miles away and get a bus ride (school buses) to the Park and back to your car. The cost of a park and ride ticket was only $12-20 depending upon when you purchased it.
Back at the Gondola Club, we got another cup of coffee and used the temporary facilities set up there which were almost like a regular restroom. Another star for my husband. As we exited to rest for the evening festivities, we collected our gift, stadium seats w/blankets, and souvenir pins. We drove back to our hotel and I crashed for a couple of hours only to awake to the sounds of my husband cheering on the Buckeyes. His second treat for the day--wide screen TV for his beloved OSU Buckeye game. And they won!