We held onto each other as we gingerly picked our way in the dark from our Park and Ride shuttle stop, through the throng of people ordering breakfast at one of the concessions until we found a spot alongside one of the east-west paved roads across the Balloon Fiesta field. My son, daughter-in-law and nine-year old granddaughter were in Albuquerque for their first International Balloon Fiesta.
Before long, we could see the twinkling lights of the handful of balloons that form the Dawn Patrol as they lifted into the air to test the wind conditions.
As daylight approached we noticed that the spot we picked was next to a huge white tarp. “It must be a large balloon that will be inflated here,” I commented.
“The truck says Wells Fargo,” Cori said.
“It must be the stagecoach!” I exclaimed.
We munched our breakfast burritos as the first rays of the sun began to peak over the Sandia Mountains, and soon the sky was a kaleidoscope of color as multi-colored balloons drifted south over us.
The special shapes captured Lilli’s attention – a frog,
“Oh, look,” BJ said, “Darth Vader is coming towards us.”
Soon the Wells Fargo chase crew began unfolding and laying out the stagecoach on the tarp. Crew members took a cord on each corner and began walking. With each synchronized step, the balloon began to take shape. The basket and burner were then hooked up and hot air blown into the emerging shape.
Lilli excitedly began taking pictures from our front row site.
Finally it was inflated and upright, but couldn’t launch until the other nearby balloons had been inflated and launched. Colored mounds of nylon emerged along the row, like multi-colored mushrooms that were growing until the entire row was ready.
The launch crew, referred to affectionately as ‘zebras’ because of their black and white zebra-striped outfits,
began to signal for each of the other balloons to launch, and then finally the stagecoach could safely lift into the air and sail over us.
My love affair with hot air balloons began in 1956 when I saw David Niven float over the Alps in in his ancient balloon in Around the World in 80 Days.
I was only five years older than Lilli as she excitedly watched her first hot air balloons.
It would be thirty years before I had the opportunity to experience hot air balloons up close. By 1985, an occasional balloon would be launched on weekends in the Sammamish Valley near where we lived in Redmond, Washington. “Follow that balloon,” I would chant, and my husband Gary would obligingly turn and head the car towards the balloon so I would have a good view. The following year he surprised me with a balloon ride for my birthday – a wondrous experience. My lingering memory of our time floating in the basket is of the absolute silence, with the exception of the occasional puff of hot air from the propane burner.
In 1988, I was fortunate to attend a convention in Albuquerque held during Fiesta week. I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law, and one morning they took me to the balloon field before my meetings began. It was exciting to be among the hundred or so balloons that launched that morning,
including my first special shape – a rolled-up newspaper!
I moved to Albuquerque in 1994, arriving August 1. My son Jay immediately joined the Sandia High School Marching band, and when they put out a request for parent volunteers to accompany the band at 4:30 in the morning, I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t yet found a job, so figured out how to watch the balloons every day, even though I didn’t have money for admission. In those days, the balloon field was small enough that you could hang out around the fence and observe them launch.
For the next few years, I would try and visit the balloon field at least once before I went to work. It was less crowded on weekdays, and I could get close without paying and still make it to work.
One of my favorite days was always Thursday (now Thursday and Friday) for the Special Shapes Mass Ascension. In 2004, I took half a day off of work and went with my niece Liz who was in town visiting.
In an interview with a Brazilian pilot and hot air balloon manufacturer in the Albuquerque Journal that year, he declared, “We really build special shapes for the children.” I must be a child at heart, because the special shapes are my favorites.
In 2008, my long-time friend Sue and her husband were in town for the Balloon Fiesta and I attended my first weekend mass ascension and evening Balloon Glow.
While I don’t go to the balloon field most years, I do stop and enjoy the balloons wherever I am – when one floats over my house after launching at a local elementary school the day before the Festival begins,
counting birds at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park,
or hiking in the foothills.
I hope that my granddaughter Lili’s excitement at seeing the hot air balloons up close, will be the start of a sixty year love affair for her.