Balloon Glowdeo™

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates all-thing-balloons 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.

Tempus Fugit

When I reflect over the past eight months on the road, it’s a focused blur. Like the miles that melt behind us as we’re cruising on the Interstates, our side-view mirrors only serve to remind us what we once observed before it’s gone in an instant.

“Did you see that?!” has been a common cue while driving, that could come at any time. It could be a natural phenomena like a double rainbow, or a dramatic change to an underwhelming landscape, or a man with no teeth whose nose touches his chin passing us in his hot-rod Mustang convertible.

Whatever the case may be, we usually have just a moment to react and make a meaningful connection before we’re on to the next moment in time. Our experience may be filed into memory, but memories can be sketchy, ambiguous and subjective.

“What’s your favorite place so far?” is a question that unquestionably comes up when meeting friends or strangers who hear about the progress we’ve made on our year-long odyssey. It’s also the hardest question to answer, considering the nearly 30,000 miles we’ve covered en route to 90 different destinations.

Leah and I often joke and reflect about our day at its conclusion, just to gauge if our recollections match.

“Was it a top 10 day for you today?” I’m likely to ask.

Certainly more than 30 times to date, she’ll respond with, “I don’t know if it was ‘top 10’, but definitely among the top 20.”

Looking back–with help from impressions of places from past posts–I’m now ready to answer the question, and reveal my top five favorites thus far, in chronological order.

1) August 2, 2017: Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada–Athabasca Glacier

Herbert detail (2)

Athabasca Glacier currently recedes at 16 ft. per year, and has lost over half its volume over the past 125 years.

Glacier water

2) August 21, 2017: Corvallis, Oregon–Total Solar Eclipse

totality

Totality of the eclipse lasted one minute, 40 seconds.

partial eclipse (3)

4) August 29, 2017: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

cinder cone1

The 750 foot ascent up the 35% grade of loose gravel to the rim of the Cinder Cone took 35 minutes.

cone crater panorama (2)

4) October 4, 2017: Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sunset over Rainbow trail

7 minutes lapsed between the sun setting behind the Muddy Mountains to the moon rising over the Valley of Fire.

sheep and moon (4)

5) October 14, 2017: Albuquerque, New Mexico–Balloon Fiesta

lighting it up

The hot air balloon was aloft over Albuquerque after 13 minutes of inflation.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)



Although each adventure is fundamentally different from the others, collectively, they represent before and after transitions.

The ephemeral existence of each event is temporary in its own special way, with its own time-stamp carved in soap. Fortunately, the moment can be captured and preserved in words and pictures, lest there be any doubt that something significant happened in our lifetime.

 

Balloonatic

“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaimed 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 inquired.

“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she pointed 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 return you close to your original launch point.

albuquerquebox
*courtesy of Drumlineramos

“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrugged, “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 pitched.

“Your price is sky high,” I offered, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.” And this call was 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 else.

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.