It’s early October and the sun is nowhere near “up,” and the hotel has a stash of really tasty freshly-brewed coffee with cream and sweetener, or sugar, if you like, and to-go cups with lids. Good. Now we don’t have to stop on the way. There is this one local radio station that is doing live interviews at this ridiculous hour in the morning, and broadcasting the weather forecast every few minutes. Wind. What’s the wind speed, and will it hold steady?
How I lucked out! The night before my sister had given me a beautiful, toasty, gray winter wool coat she didn’t want anymore. I left my California-weight coat in my hotel room. I had gloves, scarf, hat, and wore many layers. I carried a water bottle, and for future use, sunscreen, in my purse, and I also carried an extra shoulder bag complete with camera and a freshly-charged battery, and an extra SD card. I was ready.
I thought I was ready. I had heard about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for years. I have seen the hundreds of amazing pictures my sister’s husband has taken with his camera and that zoom lens the size of Cleveland. How I have stared at the close-ups, and the large full-sky images where there are so many balloons it’s hard to imagine how the pilots manage to keep their balloons from ramming all the others as they drift. Anyway, I thought I was ready.
Try to remember where we parked the car; I made a mental note to myself. It’s still night. And it’s freezing. Literally freezing. The grass is crunchy-icy in spots and cold dew-covered in others. My tennis shoes are becoming damp and after a while my toes start tingling. No matter. Find the paved road to stand on and keep the camera hoisted. We aren’t going to be sitting in bleachers, I am told. We walk on the field, the very same field where pilots are stretching out the bright synthetic balloons and then setting up fans. Inflating begins. As some balloons are being inflated, others are ready to be tilted upwards, so in different areas of the field the propane burners roar. The contrast of the red flames against the darkened sky is a beautiful spectacle, and the warmth generated, welcoming. We are standing right there!
Someone on a loud speaker starts a countdown. Ten. Nine. Eight. . . . One. Zero. And there is this ROAR as inflated balloons in a row all turn on their burners at the same time, and the sight is nothing less than magnificent. Gone is the thought of cold, of trying to work a camera wearing gloves, of marching in place to keep the toes thawed. The gloves go to the teeth – pull them off as fast as possible and shove them in a pocket or drop them – it doesn’t matter now. Go. Go. Go. Photograph like crazy. This is “Balloon Glow.” The colors shine as bright as day and the background sky is that lovely, deep, deep, night-blue. Stars are visible. The crowd cheers. The balloons stay tethered and they continue their glow. I’ve seen pictures of it. My sister and her family have told me about it. But I wasn’t ready for it.
“The Zebras” become really active now. Most likely there are zebra-shaped balloons, but The Zebras are the black and white-shirted volunteers walking up and down the rows, authorizing pilots to open balloons, and later, to ascend.
The sky is turning bluer, less dark, and photographing is easier, and the balloons are on their way. As soon as one ascends, another is being opened and spread out, and a fan is inflating it. This Mass Ascension, as it is called, goes on for about two hours. And all the while, visitors are looking up and remarking and pointing and photographing, and clapping and yelling to each other to come and see, and making their way across the field that could hold more than fifty football fields.
My sister finds me, as I had lingered in one area to continue photographing, and she hurries me to another part of the field where, in this one row, a huge balloon is being inflated. The woman in charge recognizes my sister as they had just spoken, and she lifts a side of her balloon while the large fan is quickly doing its work, and we run through a “tunnel” she makes for us in the not-fully-inflated section. In less than a minute, we would have had to walk around, the long-way, to reach the area where the rest of the family was watching and waiting.
There are the round balloons and oval ones and the ones colored in spirals. The blues, pinks, greens, reds, and every color are displayed against a sky that is first dark, then less so, then bluer, and finally sun-filled blue. Folks point out the polka-dotted balloons, some of these with a bold color dot scheme and others more subtly-toned. The paisleys are pretty; some balloons are color-washed and color-splashed. There are the giant cartoon-character balloons shaped like Garfield and Snoopy. The crew of the impressive black Darth Vader balloon sports Star Wars costumes, complete with Lightsabers and blasters. The Elvis balloon ascended to cheers and appropriate hip-shaking amplified music, and equally impressive was Noah’s ark, complete with a l-o-n-g giraffe’s neck and an entire menagerie peering out of the ark. The alien spaceships, starships, and Space Shuttle replica soared skyward. Pink and red “heart-shapes” were sweet, and the crowd roared approval for the twin balloons, “Salt” and “Pepper,” and also, “The Bees,” holding “hands” as they ascended. Everybody enjoyed the mother duck and ducklings; the larger and smaller yellow duck-shapes were launched in order, mama first. And what’s a day without Super Heroes? They all loomed high above us that morning. Animals of every kind flew, as did the “edibles,” including cupcakes and strawberries. Even the corporate sponsors’ logos-covered balloons soared impressively. In all, somewhere between 500 and 600 balloons ascended in that one field that morning.
As soon as The Zebras systematically authorize one full row, one balloon after another, they move on to the next row, timing each pilot’s ascension for maximum safety. It’s possible for eager fans to gauge how much time they need to be close to a favorite balloon and watch its ascent, and then move to the next one of interest. And the whole time while covering that large field, the camera is perched against the face, with the shutter-finger in continual motion. Every time I thought I had seen the most beautiful or the most whimsical or the most comical balloon, another would take over as superlative.
I took hundreds of photographs. Hundreds! The winds stayed calm, the sun eventually thawed my fingers and toes, and I made sure my face was plastered in sunscreen per my sister’s instructions, as Albuquerque is a high elevation city and precautions like hat, sunscreen and water are critical no matter what the temperature.
There were moments of silence; we could hear pilots radioing their ground crews and talking to other airborne pilots. Then, there would be the blasts of the propane tanks to maintain height or to rise in elevation; these blasts only lasted a few seconds for each balloon. You hear the blasts on the ground and the blasts in the air. One here, another over there, then silence, then some above your head. Then more silence. All morning.
The lasting impression is that there is no one enduring memory. It was a morning of contrasts, of darkness and intense color, of freezing temps and the heat from the flames, of peaceful serenity and noisy blasts, of worrying if we would “make it” in time because the line of cars was so long in the middle of the night, and then later smiling so much that it was impossible to find anything wrong with the world. We strolled with friends and family, and with total strangers. People spoke to each other and to the crews in all possible accents in English, and many other languages. The sky scene changed continually, and each view was as impressive as the one before. All the adjectives work: Beautiful, Stunning, Classic, Picturesque, Superb, Magnificent, Creative, Exquisite.
And so I set my alarm and dressed for winter and did it all again the next day, with the water and the sunscreen and the sunglasses and the camera, and the middle of the night driving and walking in a freezing wet field. Everything. I knew what to expect, where to stand, what to see, how to photograph. This time, I was ready!
But what happened the next day is something I could never have anticipated. I wasn’t ready.
More next time