The Chase Is On (Part II, following “Ready, Set, Launch!”)

Even when the kids are all grown up, a mother can’t help being a mom. I insisted on sharing my warmest clothing with my daughter, who was going to wake up in the middle of the night to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with me. She was jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and a very good sport, but at least I could help her stay warm. The locals called the temperature the previous morning “chilly,” my California senses found it “freezing,” and my daughter, an East Coaster, might handle it well now, but I’m an unapologetic mom.

We grabbed a coffee and breakfast at one of the many booths set up next to the field. So early, and all these people are working, making and selling food, inviting the public into their spaces, offering jewelry, native Indian art, handmade clothing, furniture, trading pins, all things balloon-related, and tchotchkes. High school band kids walking through the crowds sell balloon Fiesta calendars as a fund-raiser. The temporary lighting in this area is good even though the sky is star-filled. And in the adjacent dark giant field, balloonists, the pilots and the crews, are also hard at work.

After the warm breakfast, we are ready to hit the field. Balloons are carefully being spread out and inflated on the cold, wet grass. We look at all the different types of balloons and marvel at them, the colors popping, even against the dark sky and unlit field, the styles, artistic swirls, timeless patterns and whimsical themes, and the woven baskets, those Old World vessels of beauty in a high tech world. We talk to team members. Some people have accompanied a single balloonist for years, using their hard-earned vacation time each year “to crew.” Others volunteer at this event and assist many different pilots, with a love for the sport and a hope of being asked to ride in the gondola during a mass ascension.

The public can pay to ride. There is a tent set up with long lines of people waiting to secure a spot in one of the larger gondolas that hold a dozen people or more. On my plane flight to Albuquerque, I spoke to a person who had arranged for his entire book club, on board that flight, to ride in a gondola that weekend. Their sense of excitement was contagious.

And as my daughter and I wandered through the field, photographing, pointing, smiling the whole time, talking to people, and trying to stay warm, we began to feel a connection with this place, with the energy of this crowd, with something so foreign to us and yet so comfortable. We connected with these people, these balloons, and the passion for something requiring hard work, practice, knowledge, experience, a love of beauty, and a desire to explore, to test oneself, and to do it the way it has been done for generations.

One pilot was unrolling his balloon alone. I stopped and asked him if he needed a hand but he looked up at me and said, “No.” He preferred to do it alone. Everybody else had other people helping; perhaps he had a crew coming? I didn’t know the first thing about this process except for what I had witnessed that morning, and the day before. So my daughter and I wandered on through the field and talked and enjoyed our time together; how I loved sharing this incredible event with her.

Over the years, my family has been quick to point out to me that I am always talking to people, “To Strangers!” they would exclaim. I thank my Dad’s Italian heritage for that – he and his siblings, and our relatives in Italy are not reserved individuals. We love to talk to people, to listen to others tell their stories and to add our own to the mix. It’s cultural. It’s who I am. And it’s a good way to connect with others. It’s not something I set out to do, it’s just what happens, and this day was no exception.

So we started to talk to a gentleman with this one beautiful balloon. He and a couple of other people were preparing it, opening it on the ground, and I just asked again, “Could you use any help?” “Yes!” I had to ask if he meant this. Maybe he didn’t understand. “Yes” again. My daughter looked at me with this huge smile on her face. We had seen the balloons being prepared and filled, tilting as the heated air turns them skyward, and ascending, but now we were going to be a part of it!

It turns out that the pilot, a Mr. David “Lopper” Lopushinsky from the Province of Quebec, Canada sewed this remarkable balloon himself. This one piece of information is unfathomable to me. I am no sewer, and have trouble seeing things “spatially.” And this gorgeous, multi-colored spiral step balloon was created by hand? On a sewing machine in his living room? It’s striking and it’s perfect, pure and simple. The pilot’s wife, Ms. Leslie Manion, is the Crew Chief. They were very sweet to us and told us that they were a little short-staffed that morning and welcomed the help. My daughter and I think they were magnanimous and could have taken care of business just fine without a couple of neophytes in tow, but we will remain forever grateful.

As we held the strong rope lines of the balloon, the pilot turned on a powerful fan that rapidly inflated it while crew members continued to spread out the uninflated sections. I had stashed my camera near the towing vehicle, and a passer-by used it at my request to take a few snapshots of “the Mother and Daughter” team doing something we were fairly certain would not be believed without the shot. My daughter playfully said, “Only my mother would get us on a crew!” I laughed. Well within the time allotted to us by The Zebras, the folks sporting the black and white referee-style shirts who manage the order of balloon ascension, Pilot Lopper told us to continue holding onto those lines, but to turn our heads away. Oh man! Out came the flames! The heat! The noise! The thrill! And the energy it took us to keep “Wicked,” the name of this beautiful baby, in one place really surprised me. We were holding our lines with everything we had as the propane burner did its job. I’m not too weak of an individual, and my daughter is an athlete. But this was work! And we loved it. And soon, Wicked tilted, and then you could see her colors spiraling upwards, and there she was. Vertical. Stunning.

The pilot jumped into the gondola and we were invited to put our weight on the sides of the basket, Quickly! We were holding onto Wicked right before ascension. Amazing! There were two men in the gondola now, and the next thing I knew, we were told to let go and off she went. (I really have no idea if balloons are given female status, much like sea vessels, but it seems right to me.) I grabbed my camera to photograph this sight being directly underneath her. Wicked was now gaining altitude along with dozens of balloons. I thought we could pick out this balloon from all the others, but then I realized that many of the balloons were spirals, and so in less than a minute’s time, I started to doubt that my eyes were following the correct balloon.

Knowing that the ground team was about to take off for the chase, I asked if someone could please just let us know when the balloon landed; the mother in me that always demands a safe-arrival call, text message or email from visiting family and guests, wanted to make sure that Wicked descended safely and that her team was well. Minutes before, we had been told that the winds were Easterly. The pilot said that when winds go toward the East, he looks to put the balloon down quickly. There are too many hazards to contend with when the balloonists don’t have the “Albuquerque box.”

“The Albuquerque box?” We learned about wind conditions next. This is when the lowest winds move in one direction and the higher winds move in the opposite direction, and pilots take advantage of these winds to steer. So the way I understand it is that pilots take off, fly, and land in the same spot, and the ground gazers never have to move to witness the whole thing. Pilots ascend to the lower area where winds push the balloon from the north to the south.  After a time going south, they ascend a bit by turning on the burner, and the winds carry the balloon back to where they started. Then they can descend again, and catch the lower wind and once again drift towards the south, and re-ascend to catch the north-bound winds. Pilots do this for quite a long time, keeping an eye on their fuel gauge, descending, ascending, and the winds will bring the balloon back each time.

But today, there is no Albuquerque box, and Wicked’s pilot, and all the other pilots, need to avoid the high tension wires and the mountains in the not too distant East, and find a landing site. Now the mother in me is getting even more anxious about the crew’s safety, even though they have been doing this for years. But they just looked at me strangely when I asked them to keep me posted on their flight. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Again, my daughter and I exchanged meaningful and puzzled looks, and I asked them to repeat, please. “Aren’t you coming with us?” “You want us to come and be on the chase team with you?” They didn’t seem to think this was out of the ordinary. My daughter and I smiled at each other and at our good fortune and at our most wonderful hosts, and jumped in the chase vehicle. What a rush!

Leslie communicated with her husband, and we were off. Our Crew Chief handed us cards with the photo of Wicked so we could identify their balloon among all the balloons in the sky. From the air, it must be tough to keep an eye on which exact streets you are crossing, and my daughter and I activated our own phones’ GPS systems which were different from the Crew Chief’s system, and after a short drive through town, the team found the street where Lopper told us he was descending. We didn’t know it but there are two parks on that residential street, and we took a right on the street because we could see a large park, instead of a left. It took us several long minutes to turn around and reach the second, much smaller park, where “we” found “our” balloon, because the entire street was jammed with chase vehicles. Balloon after balloon had descended in that large park.

By the time we reached Wicked, a dad and his young son and some other people had helped Lopper land. The story is that as the pilot targeted this area, making his descent over the homes in this residential neighborhood, a family about to sit down to breakfast saw Wicked passing over their house. They realized the balloon was headed straight for their little park. So dad and his son took off, running down the street, following it. Dad had “crewed” before! Lopper fixed his spot on the grass next to another balloon, still fully inflated, and with no room to spare, came down softly without a hop. The kind neighbors grabbed hold of the gondola to secure it, and even helped prepare the balloon to be re-packed.

My daughter and I also helped squeeze the air out of that colorful fabric. According to the autographed cards we were given, Wicked, a 77,000 cubic feet balloon, weighs 180 pounds! It takes a fair amount of strength to work the balloon, tie it up in sections, fold it, and pack it back up. Leslie handed out a little keepsake pin to the father and son team who had been so helpful. When done, the crew playfully “stuffed” the little boy in the basket much to his delight and our cheers.

On the ride back to the field, my daughter and I were so happy. Everyone was safe. The balloon was in perfect shape. We had learned so much. The team was wonderful. We had experienced something we could only have dreamed about. And then, we were asked if we would like to relax with everyone and share a beverage upon return to the field? These people were amazing!

I don’t know how many times we said, “thank you” to our hosts, but it never seemed like enough. Their “Yes” reply to my silly little question asking if we could help was a life-changer for me and my daughter. We have the photos, the treasured pins and cards they gave us, and our memories. Also, we have the experience of what happens when you ask a simple question without giving thought to exactly what that question and request means for the people answering it, and they still respond in the affirmative. We have glimpsed a world of old-fashioned beauty, of industrious, creative, tenacious, smart, thoughtful people with a great sense of humor who seek adventure and drive thousands of miles to practice their craft. We have witnessed humanity at its best, most giving and open-hearted, sharing in the magic they make without reservation. And it was magic.

The Balloonist’s Prayer

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God

joins you in laughter and sets you gently

back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

For more information on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and this prayer, please go to http://www.balloonfiesta.com

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Ready, Set, Launch!

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