Balloonatic

While I’m on the topic of balloons (see Balloon Glowdeo™, and Botswana by Balloon) I’ve recalled my first balloon ride from two years ago:



“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaim to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.

“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,” she managed.

“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’? I ask.

“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she points out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents–by floating higher or lower, and returning you close to your original launch point.

albuquerquebox
*courtesy of Drumlineramos

“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrug, “and that’s worth $450?”

“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she warns.

“Your price is sky high,” I offer, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.”

And the call is over.

I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”

And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere.

Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?

“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.

After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.

Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.

A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.

Baskets are unloaded,

unloading the basket

and assembled.

building the basket

The burners are tested.

testing the burner

With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.

rigging the lines

An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.

dawn

raising the dome

filling the balloons

Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,

lighting it up

fire and rigging

and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.

inflation

The buoyant balloon rights itself,

sunrise

and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…

aloft

…one step ahead of a second balloon.

balloon sun glow

All the while, balloons below…

balloon party

…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).

USA balloons

Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,

Roy the pilot

carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,

fiesta panorama

where a birds-eye view of the valley below,

self portrait.jpg

reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)

Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.

baloon portrait

After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,

annoyed dogs

and adoring children–

delighted-children.jpg

Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.

attempting to land (2)

However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.

So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.

landing place

crew pulling us in

After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,

group 2 on board

drifting higher into the blue yonder.

group 2 aloft

Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.

holy touchdown

Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,

gathering air

and folded,

wrangling the rigging

and packed away, until next time.

wrapped up

Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:

The winds…

flight certificate

I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.

 

Balloon Glowdeo™

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates ballooning for nine days in October, continually drawing record crowds and attracting new entries every year.

Star Wars fans

But for two days–Thursday and Friday– the special shapes take over, and Balloon Fiesta takes flight without ever leaving the ground. Since 1989, the Special Shape Rodeo has grown into Balloon Fiesta’s most popular attraction.

staging the balloons

The first-of-its-kind rodeo originally attracted 28 shapes and huge crowds, but today, parking has reached near-capacity, delivering crushing crowds and shrinking field capacity for one-hundred balloons that currently participate during dusk.

rainbow pan (2)

Known as the Special Shape Glowdeo™,  the special shapes inflate and glow for 2 hours after sunset, followed by a fireworks display sponsored by Canon.

Canon (2)

On its surface, this is exactly the kind of event I look forward to: colorful crowds and colorful balloons just waiting to be photographed. But I am not alone. Special Shape Glowdeo™ has become a photography touchstone, and claims to be one of the most photogenic events in the world.

frog

Nearly everyone in the crowd is carrying a camera, or becomes a de facto photographer by virtue of their cell phones and selfie sticks.

Cathy's Hope

And those without cameras are usually pushing strollers, or busy juggling food and babies.

papa smurf

Somehow, all of this works during daylight hours. As more balloons populate the horizon, most people are walking in trances as they look to the heavens, all the while focusing on a particular shape nearby.

wolf

It’s hard to calculate all the near-misses, with so many people competing to capture the same image simultaneously, but as long as there is light, accidental collisions are easily forgiven.

unicorn

But all of that changes when darkness takes over and the only available light eminates from the ephemeral flicker of the balloons across the landscape.

angry face

It’s as if the winds have shifted, and all who are present have either been transported to the dark side,

Vadar1

or they now move through space and time as if they are moving through space.

astronaut

Instantly, carriages and strollers become ankle missiles, and avoiding children on wheels while weaving through the crowd becomes an impossible challenge.

cowboy and bear (2)

Then there are the Bimbos…

Bimbo

who seeingly run out of gas,

Willer

and stop in their tracks without warning,

robot

or those who would sooner walk over me as if I wasn’t there.

sneaker

It’s enough to make a person scream…

singing

or turn to a higher power for strength–

Jesus (2)

praying for order to return to the universe.

Yoda2

If only there was another way to get around.

Wells Fargo

Nevertheless, against all odds, I rally against the lawlessness,

mouse sheriff

and persevere with a determination worthy of Uncle Sam’s attention.

Uncle Sam

My mission is to get as close as I can to as many of these nylon giants without getting trampled…

Cynthia Seal

firefly

fruit lady

And when my camera battery begins to fade,

Chicken (2)

I know that it’s time to pack it in,

Beaver

and reconnect with Leah, who’s been wandering the grounds with family.

clown (2)

“Where are you,” I ask into my cell phone.

scarecrow

“I’m under the elephant,” she answers.

pink elephant

We play Marco Polo by phone for the next 15 minutes.

queen

Waves of pedestrian traffic push against me as I attempt to swim upstream.

dancing fish

It’s not an easy reunion, but it’s as welcoming as the sun on a cool desert evening.

Sunglasses (2)

After a time, all the balloons have deflated, except for the sponsor, and our family has settled down on blankets, bracing against the north winds as we dine on pizza ($7 per slice) while enjoying the culminating fireworks display.

Canon fireworks

And I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Bayernhof

“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.

We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–

chandelier

befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.

floor mosaic

Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),

father figure

and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.

Charlie

After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.

Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.

overlook

However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–

painted glass ceiling

featuring 6 bedrooms…

guest bedroom

8 bathrooms, 3 full-sized kitchens, 12 wet bars, 10 fireplaces…

bedroom

a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…

observatory

a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,

basement cave

a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…

swimming pool

a wine celler with a working copper still…

wine cellar

a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…

pool room

a home office…

office desk

and a boardroom (only used twice)–

boardroom

his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.

Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.

A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:

 

 

 

As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.

Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.

Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…

 

 

 

and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

Charlie would have been very pleased.

I know I was.