It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s 5 a.m.
The East Mountain roads are empty. So are the first streets we encounter in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. Gradually the traffic thickens as we drive north and then west. By the time we approach the entrance to Balloon Festival Park, every lane of traffic is at a standstill.
It’s 6 a.m. We inch toward the gate. Eventually we enter what must be the biggest parking lot in New Mexico. We drive past row after filled row. Finally we find an empty slot and walk.
We are all tired from a nearly sleepless night but still we hurry toward the entry. Those of us with passes present them, and the others pay their $10. This is one of those odd events where the parking costs 50 percent more than the entrance.
The fatigue, the traffic, the distance, the night, the dawn—they all enhance the drama of the impending spectacle, as does the long minutes of uncertainty if weather will permit the mass ascension.
The dawn patrol is up. The flames of heaters blasting hot air into a handful of balloons illuminate the colorful skins. The lit balloons are stark against the blackness of the still enveloping night.
These balloons are not for pleasure or exhibition. They rise to test the air, measure the wind and even check for visibility. Four days ago they found fog and sent everybody home.
We hike the full length of the vast park, from the northern entry to the media tent in the south. There we are tagged with arm bands. Inside we grab cups of coffee and hot chocolate, doughnuts and little squares of some kind of egg preparation.
It is 7 a.m. The decision is a go. Balloons will fly today.
We leave the warm shelter of the media tent and stroll outside. Light is dispersing the night. The glow in the east intensifies. The first rays of the sun peak over the dark shapes of the Sandia Mountains that loom above us.
It is the finest moment of the finest day in the finest place on Earth.
We look around. More than 500 balloons are preparing to take off in waves over the next hour or so. Some 100,000 people are watching and waiting, helping the balloon pilots and getting in their way, snapping photos and staring in awe.
One by one the balloons fill with air, expand their enormous skins until they rub up against each other, then raise themselves from horizontal to vertical. Now those teams who helped fill the balloons are exerting all their strength to keep them earthbound, to prevent a premature launch.
Then they fly, lifting slowly at first, then faster and farther.
The famed Albuquerque box is not working today. When it is, balloons fly south from Balloon Fiesta Park at low levels and return north at a higher level on a different current. Today, however, nearly all the balloons make a beeline to the northwest.
The otherwise cloudless sky is bordered by a gray-black smudge of pollution over Rio Rancho. This is where the line of balloons is headed.
The balloons and their pilots come from many states as well as from the far corners of the Earth. On this Wednesday morning, those from other nations are honored. They are the first to take off.
Following them the mass ascension begins with balloonists from nearly every state. A handful of them are from the Tricounty area.
I try but fail to locate David Tennis of Tijeras. But I do run into another Tijeras balloonist, John Hofter, who with his wife Lyn is filling their balloon with hot air just before takeoff. He says this is his 25th year at the Balloon Fiesta. For the most part he flies close to home. The Hofters have a good bit of time for flying because he is retired from Sandia National Laboratories and his wife is a retired teacher. He calls his balloon “John and Lyn’s Tonic for Whatever Ails in Life.”
Another balloonist from the Tricounty area is Martin Adie, a native Brit who started ballooning in the United Kingdom a couple of decades ago.
It’s 9 a.m. and we leave. Nearly all but a dozen balloons have taken off. Most have landed somewhere out on the mesa west of Albuquerque. I watch one intrepid pilot, however, who with an expert, precise and delicate touch, gently lands his balloon in the midst of the park, almost where he began his airborne journey.
He is an artisan. From his home in Edgewood he makes and sells a wide range of ornamental steel and glass objects. His company Sun Dancer also works through a website, sundancersteelandglass.com.
There is no place, no event, no time like this anywhere else in the world. Last year, nearly 900,000 people attended the nine-day festival. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will conclude Sunday.