Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates ballooning for nine days in October, continually drawing record crowds and attracting new entries every year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nearly everyone in the crowd is carrying a camera, or becomes a de facto photographer by virtue of their cell phones and selfie sticks.
And those without cameras are usually pushing strollers, or busy juggling food and babies.
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.
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.
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.
It’s as if the winds have shifted, and all who are present have either been transported to the dark side,
or they now move through space and time as if they are moving through space.
Instantly, carriages and strollers become ankle missiles, and avoiding children on wheels while weaving through the crowd becomes an impossible challenge.
Then there are the Bimbos…
who seeingly run out of gas,
and stop in their tracks without warning,
or those who would sooner walk over me as if I wasn’t there.
It’s enough to make a person scream…
or turn to a higher power for strength–
praying for order to return to the universe.
If only there was another way to get around.
Nevertheless, against all odds, I rally against the lawlessness,
and persevere with a determination worthy of Uncle Sam’s attention.
My mission is to get as close as I can to as many of these nylon giants without getting trampled…
And when my camera battery begins to fade,
I know that it’s time to pack it in,
and reconnect with Leah, who’s been wandering the grounds with family.
“Where are you,” I ask into my cell phone.
“I’m under the elephant,” she answers.
We play Marco Polo by phone for the next 15 minutes.
Waves of pedestrian traffic push against me as I attempt to swim upstream.
It’s not an easy reunion, but it’s as welcoming as the sun on a cool desert evening.
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.
And I can’t wait to do it again next year.