My Daughter’s College Town (Part 2 in the Series on Traveling to See Loved Ones)

The “Duck Tour” ended. We felt cool and relaxed in the middle of the Potomac with a gentle breeze blowing across our faces. But as the amphibious truck motored to the shore, drove up the landing and back to the official assembly area, the triple digit heat and near triple digit humidity smacked us hard. I searched for an air conditioned place within a short walk before we collapsed.

We were touring the city my daughter had chosen for her college experience. The museums beckoned, and while we each had expressed interest in several exhibits, they did not fall within the now self-imposed five minute maximum walk. There was this one option in view that we had not considered and we headed there. Walking in that miserable heat, I couldn’t help but ponder that with only one day to tour our nation’s capital, we were choosing our experience based on convenience. It reminded me of a humorous sign that once beckoned customers in front of a local restaurant: “Let’s eat here before we both starve.”  

When I was a kid I tried my hand at stamp-collecting. I had watched my older brother soak stamps in a tub of water in the kitchen sink to pull the thumb-sized rectangles and squares off envelopes. When dried, my brother flipped through the pages of a large important book with imprinted images of hundreds of stamps in it. I remember he used these little folded clear sticky tabs to affix the stamp to just the right spot on just the right page. The stamps would not be glued against the page because of the folded tab; instead, they would be mounted a tiny bit off the page. As an adult, I knew that people also collected sheets of stamps as a hobby, but my knowledge of philately was weak.

The National Postal Museum was a good choice. It was close by and air conditioned. What we hadn’t expected was the level of enjoyment; these displays and activities held our attention for hours. One particular exhibit surprised us because we would have expected it in a different museum; it was beautifully and sensitively designed for an audience of children. To explain the Holocaust, the postal museum offered a series of letters written by a family attempting to flee to the United States. It wasn’t just the youngest visitors who were captivated by the story in these letters. And another poignant exhibit showcased the postal service amidst the September 11 tragedy. There were postal artifacts from the World Trade Center found in the wreckage, and mail retrieved from the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Then there was the history of the letter carrying trade, and the dangers to the early riders on horseback who delivered the mail. Of course, there were stamps. These included many themed exhibits, and this one table in the open that was covered with them. As we watched people sort through hundreds of U.S. and international canceled stamps, the docents invited us to participate. We were given cards and each encouraged to make a personal collection. People floated their picks in the nearest bowl of water to soften the adhesive and peel the stamps from envelopes. I felt like a kid back in the kitchen with my big brother, culling vivid flowers and famous faces and works of art.

Having stayed in hotels near my daughter’s university, I felt confident moving around by foot and using the transit system. When I inquired which supermarket was closest to my hotel so I could plan my route, one local’s response was, “Social Safeway.” Social Safeway? My daughter may have been the one in college, but I was in for quite an education. The woman I spoke with took a minute to explain Washington’s supermarket nomenclature, and later that afternoon, my daughter and her friends confirmed it. Social Safeway is “where all the singles in Georgetown go to look cute, and buy booze for their parties and pick people up.” Now I don’t know if the “pick people up” part is accurate, but there were plenty of surprisingly well-dressed college and graduate students and young professionals buying groceries and beer in line while I stocked up on Diet Coke, shampoo, granola bars, boxes of tea and other staples on my college kid’s list. But that’s not all. Near my daughter’s university in D.C.’s Tenleytown neighborhood is the store referred to as Secret Safeway, so named because it’s not visible from the main road. Then there’s the Not-So-Safeway in a tougher and undisclosed neighborhood, and my apologetically favorite — Soviet Safeway near Dupont Circle. Why Soviet Safeway? Usually the shelves are empty and the lines are long. 

It seems that many of my visits to D.C. include beating the scorching heat on summer days. On one such toasty morning we headed to the Metro station, rode down the deep escalator well and boarded a train for Old Town Alexandria. A long-time friend of mine had enjoyed living there years before and suggested we check out her old stomping ground. The kids and I strolled down the street and chose a quaint eatery for lunch. The historical restaurant’s walls were brick-lined and beautiful. Afterwards, we ambled in the shops, and then toured one of the many private historic homes turned museum. We were in a history buff’s paradise. To cap off our outing we popped into a cupcake shop and feasted. Instead of taking the Metro back, we bought tickets for the water taxi. It’s brilliant. For twenty minutes we rode on the Potomac to Georgetown, this time without the duck calls. Some people nodded off while others took in the passing sights from the seats and railing, everyone looking quite comfortable with the light breeze blowing across the water. My daughter and I moved around the vessel, photographing the bridges and buildings and other boats, and pointing things out to my son as he relaxed, all the while listening to the narrated tour. It was a memorable day.

I enjoy attending live sporting events. I have seen the Capitals play ice hockey in the Verizon Center, and the Washington Nationals play baseball at Washington Park. One huge thrill was when my daughter, a member of her college women’s ice hockey team, played an annual game against a rival collegiate team in the Verizon Center, and I was in town. I was staying with her and her two college apartment mates. As she prepared her gear for the big game, my daughter explained that a teammate would be picking her and several other teammates up in one of the dedicated vans the sports teams use at school. She reluctantly warned me that there may not be room for me in the van, and if need be, could I get to the Center by myself? “No worries,” I told her. I could either hail a taxi, or walk down the street and hop on the Metro that would take me right to the Verizon Center. Easy. Besides, it was still a few hours before the game so I had loads of time.

The van arrived and I was informed there was room for an extra person. On the drive downtown, one of the girls casually said that she had a bit of a headache and wished she had taken a Tylenol before leaving her apartment. I opened my purse, grabbed the little bottle and handed it over. She took two tabs with a gulp from her water bottle. A minute later another player said she wished she had had time to eat as she was getting hungry. I opened my purse, found the granola bars and handed them over. The girls were chuckling, thinking that having a mom in the van wasn’t such a bad thing. A few minutes later a third player said she craved an orange. Yes, I even had citrus in my purse. I took out the sandwich bag holding two tangerines and handed it over. Now I was chuckling; we moms live for this kind of thing.

We parked in the vacant underground garage and even met the opposing team there; everyone smiled and greeted each other. It was a nice start. Team members had explained to me that security would be tight and authorities may not let me in with the team. I could wait at the outside entrance for other family members and fans, and we would be allowed into the arena at a given time. “Okay,” I said. I made a snap decision. “Girls, give me your sticks.” So I carried a large bundle of tall hockey sticks (players carry more than one stick) through the garage to the outside door where the team would enter. Allow me to interject here that while hockey players carry a lot of gear in that big bag of theirs, unless they are little kids with parents helping to lug the equipment, players each carry their bag with one hand and grab their sticks with the other hand.

An NHL practice for that evening’s game was running a bit late. Nobody seemed to mind waiting outside; it was a beautiful cool autumn afternoon with a bright warming sun. Finally, the door opened and the team streamed into the building. We waited in a small area while the girls were asked to unzip their hockey bags. Uniformed security guards peered inside them. Then, they led the girls to their locker room, and I just grabbed all the sticks and followed. Nobody said anything to me and nobody tried to stop me. Success! With multiple locker rooms in this large professional facility, the college teams weren’t assigned the space designed for the Capitals or their NHL rivals, but still, I was there with my daughter and her teammates at the Verizon Center. I can’t tell you how excited I was! We entered the locker room, I handed the sticks back to their owners, wished my daughter and the team luck, and was personally escorted through the building to the section where the teams’ fans were taking their seats, getting a little tour along the way.

The two college women’s hockey teams were announced, player by player, by the booming voice of the announcer. The large score board lit up. I sat in the lowest section, the one next to the Plexiglas where you can see the players’ faces and hear what they are saying, and I cheered for my daughter and her friends. Some parents wore college team jerseys with their daughter’s name printed on the back of them. Throughout the game, I texted updates to my husband and son at home. There was a row of guys in this section from my daughter’s school who stood and yelled enthusiastically, waving signs and providing much amusement to both teams and all the fans.

Frankly, I don’t remember the score or who won. I do remember the thrill. My daughter took up the sport in college, so I hadn’t spent time driving her to the rink and carrying her gear and lacing her skates and trying to stay warm with a thermos of coffee when she was little. Here I was, 3,000 miles away from home, living a dream I never knew I would have. My daughter played college hockey on NHL ice in our nation’s capital. You can’t beat that! See what happens when you travel to visit friends and family?

Kathy Galgano

September 28, 2013

When Your Best Friend Moves, TRAVEL!

When a family member or friend moves away, saying goodbye can be heartbreaking. However, there is one positive piece to take away from the teary experience; a new vacation prospect emerges. Suffice it to say, I have taken full advantage of these opportunities over the years to reunite with loved ones, and to tour, tour, tour. I hope you enjoy reading the vignettes that follow, each one capturing a different aspect of travel and sight-seeing.

We were in the Green Mountain State for a wedding, and which chocoholic can waive an invitation for the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour? There were two highlights on that hot summer’s day: Savoring my luscious ice cream flavor that was only available there at the factory, and delighting when another chocoholic, someone considerably younger, valiantly struggled in the “battle of the drips.” In this case, the chocolate cone was winning but the little girl was all smiles as she worked on it. Grabbing my camera, I asked the mother for permission to photograph this happy child. She consented. As I pressed the camera to my eye, the mom pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped her child’s face clean. I don’t know who was more crestfallen, the little girl or I. I didn’t want to show disappointment, so I smiled, took the photo, thanked them both, and walked back in line as the tour began.

With family in Southern California, the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum quickly earned a spot on the “Must See” list. I’ve toured this gallery of Ice Age fossils several times, and the grounds and museum always strike me as other worldly. If you’re not impressed by the million-plus fossils like the mammoth and saber-toothed cat in their collection, then I suggest you take a walk around the perimeter of the building. To this day, “tar” or asphalt bubbles and oozes to the surface of what is now Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a working excavation site. These animals lived in Los Angeles!

There have been trips to Europe when friends and family lived there. I could list marvel after marvel, the castles and cathedrals and ancient ruins and museums, but what leaps to the forefront of my memory are specific vistas and tastes. On a crisp but sunny January day in the mountainous area of my Italian forebears, the sight of an old man as he collected firewood from the steep grassy and tree-lined incline comes to my mind’s eye. This man gathered sticks and small branches and arranged them on a pack that dropped to the sides of his donkey. Sheep and goats kept the grassy hill sheared. Most hikers would have found this trek rigorous. There were no power lines, no buildings, no billboards, nothing but this man and his work beast, the hills and trees and grass and brilliant sky and an occasional hand-fashioned hay bale.

Also on that same trip to visit Italian family, my cousins roasted a steak on the open hearth in their kitchen. The Italian tile floor near the hearth had been charred from years of extending the coals closer to the table. This was my first time tasting goat, and it was an animal my family had raised. It took very little pressure on my knife to cut through the perfectly cooked piece of steak that had been placed on my plate with a flourish. It was warm, juicy, melted in my mouth, and was the most delicious and memorable morsel I had ever tasted. What made it even more memorable was that when my father translated the conversation building up to this moment, relaying to me that this was “goat” steak, I thought he meant it was lamb or mutton. The only way I could resolve the mix-up I caused was to mimic the calls of sheep, only to be told “No” by my cousins’ shaking heads. This was not the product of a “Baaaa Baaaa.” So I tried my best goat call. “Mehhh-eh-eh-eh-eh.”  Laughing, everyone nodded their heads in agreement, repeating “Si! Capra”! “Yes! Goat”!

When my daughter completed her semester abroad, I headed south of the equator, to Santiago, Chile to see her and meet her host family. There were two things on my agenda, one playful and one serious. First, I had to check if the water drained clockwise in the southern hemisphere, so I opened the tap in the hotel bathroom, put a little water in the basin and drained it. Of course then I couldn’t remember which direction it was supposed to drain and so came to no conclusions. Good thing, because I have learned since that while the Coriolis force is real, it does not impact the direction of water draining in sinks. So with that fun non-experiment out of the way, I turned my eyes to the heavens. Literally.  On a tour originating in the Elqui Valley, we drove to an observatory in the mountains. Most Chilean observatories are research facilities and closed to the public, so this was a gift. Being that Santiago is such a large city, the lights make for a lovely vista from the nearby mountain communities. However, it also means it is difficult to go star-gazing from the city proper. But there on this cold cloudless night at the observatory, my dream came true. I couldn’t stop staring at the Magellanic Clouds, the irregular galaxies that really do look like clouds in the sky. These dwarf spiral galaxies just aren’t visible to us in the northern hemisphere. They are neighbors to our Milky Way, and since reading about them years ago, I have yearned to see them. A docent took us on a “star tour” using a laser pointer, and described the constellations of the Southern hemisphere. Then we looked through the telescope at different heavenly bodies. It was thrilling. But tilting my head back and just staring at constellations and the Clouds I had not seen before was the best part.

My cousins in Florida took me to their nearby state park in Homosassa and I grew more excited by the minute. Once there, you couldn’t budge me from my perch. Here were the manatees, those giant gray and brown water mammals that dwell in the Floridian rivers, estuaries and coasts. Some may find it difficult to call them “beautiful,” but I had no trouble doing so.  I knew that manatees are cousins to the elephant, but still was surprised to see that same wrinkly skin. These creatures fascinated me. They have an interesting tail that is shaped like a paddle. One docent I spoke to told me that people call them “sea cows.” These slow swimmers are endangered, and this park is a rehabilitation and refuge center for injured manatees; boat propellers are the main reason for their endangerment. Unlike seeing animals in facsimile habitats in zoos and parks thousands of miles away from their home, we were in the midst of their natural habitat.

En route to family and friends in New Mexico, an unplanned roadside stop led to a discovery so profound that I have cherished that moment ever since. Needing to stretch my legs, I noticed a small sign on the highway and turned down the unpaved drive, parked the car, and walked several yards on a trail. I didn’t expect the enormity of what lay before me. Boulders and cliffs surrounding a field provided a treasure trove of rock carvings created by ancient people. There were a few other interested folks there, walking, studying the carvings, stretching their legs, photographing and reflecting in this large, quiet area. I was impelled to see more. In a recent visit to the state, I toured the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. As it was summer, monsoon rains and a lightning storm had turned back all visitors the previous day. The weather cleared overnight and we tried again. This time the parking lot was full and crowds of history buffs, tourists, hikers, and people looking for something to do on a nice Sunday afternoon took to the trails. The National Park Service provided maps to the petroglyphs that also explained the many carved symbols.  With other people walking up the trail behind me, I tried not to linger too long at any one petroglyph while studying and photographing it. Once we arrived at the top of this large hill, the views of Albuquerque in warm sunlight were remarkable. So many people were clicking their camera shutters to capture the city from this vantage point. A few times, however, I found myself reminiscing about that roadside “find” years back, when hundreds of petroglyphs came into view, and I wandered through the field in solitude.

Next week, I will explore the memories of one city, one place, where I never expected to visit more than a few times. However, once again, a family member moved there.  While it offers a wealth of things to do, it will be the link to loved ones and history and culture and isolated everyday moments that I will describe. I am looking forward to continuing my journey and hope you accompany me by reading along. See you next week.

Kathy Galgano


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

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