With sleep-encrusted eyes, a large mug of black coffee and trepidation about the weather, we set off from our East Mountain home at 4:25 Sunday morning. Destination: the 47th annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
Thelma and I have been to the festival many times, stretching all the way back to the late 1970s. The weather this time of year is notoriously unpredictable and the traffic jams into the park predictably horrendous. You never know if the balloons will fly or how long you will spend parked in the middle of a road. But it doesn’t really matter.
You get there when you get there, and you see what there is to be seen. The balloons are full of air but the event never is. Once a year, the local, national and even international media stop chattering about our drought, murders, stolen cars, drug smuggling, child abuse, political corruption lousy schools and the famed Albuquerque-filmed crime dramas “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
Whatever transpires, the balloon festival is still the greatest show in New Mexico.
When we walk into the park at 5:30 a.m., it is still dark. We stroll the full length of the park (we end up walking 4 miles before the morning is over), past the field where 550 balloon teams await the go/no-go decision, the three dozen kiosks selling every imaginable kind of ballon trinket, and some three dozen more stands selling breakfast burritos, doughnuts, coffee and hot chocolate.
We push, shove and dance our way through the throng. Last year, nearly 900,000 people attended the nine days of the festival, and some say the crowds are heavier this year. The greatest number of people attend the Saturday and Sunday opening days. Thus there are likely 200,000 men, women and children, two-thirds of them New Mexicans, packed into the 365-acre park.
We go into the media tent at the southwestern end of the park, where a hot breakfast and strong coffee await us. Outside the tent we climb to an elevated platform. A crescent moon glows like a ghost over the Sandia Mountains. The temperature, in the 60s, is unusually warm, the warmest I have ever experienced at a balloon fiesta. The air is calm and clear. It’s gotta be a go, right?
We sign up for free balloon flights, although the friendly lady handling the signups warns us we are not likely to get a spot. Two Japanese journalists from Osaka signing up just before us have the same problem. The major national and international media (everybody who is anybody covers this event) made their plans months ago and have priority.
Now we wait. We talk with other journalists. We walk around the field looking for our neighbors. Eight balloonists from Sandia Park, Cedar Crest, Tijeras and Edgewood have registered for the festival but we locate only two of them. One of them is Martin Adie, a stained glass artist from Edgewood, with his balloon Hopscotch. The other is Tim Evans from Cedar Crest, with his Crew Balloon; he says he has been participating in the festival for 32 years. Later, after they have inflated their balloons, we will return to shoot their pictures and chat a bit.
The dawn patrol is circling above us checking on wind speeds at various altitudes. Time crawls. The mass ascension is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., but the hour passes with no official word. Everybody waits. Everybody frets. We climb again to the viewing platform and see dark clouds moving in across the mountains.
Word starts circulating among balloonists. A hundred feet above the field, the wind is blowing at up to 15 miles an hour. Balloons are not allowed to take off unless the winds are less than 10 miles an hour.
The mass ascension is canceled.
Everyone is disappointed. Some balloonists and spectators leave, but many, including us, remain. There is compensation: a static display, when balloons are inflated but tethered. Even on the ground, the balloons create a memorable show: hundreds of balloons, some larger than 100,000 square feet, crowd together cheek by jowl across the vast field—private and commercial balloons, special shapes and conventional teardrops, every color and pattern imaginable.
Some stand out: The artistic rendering of Vincent Van Gogh by Dutch balloonist Herman Kleinsmit, a sinister Darth Vader, the iconic Wells Fargo stagecoach.
Among the 557 registered balloonists, 16 countries are represented. The one who came the furthest is probably Rapee Korn, who brought his 105,000-square-foot balloon Golden Singha from Bangkok, Thailand.
Eight balloonists are from the Tricounty area. In addition to Evans and Adie there are Angelica Howes from Tijeras, John Hofer from Tijeras, Johnny Anthony from Sandia Park, Richard Hueschen from Cedar Crest, Denise Despress from Cedar Crest and David Tennis from Tijeras.
The festival lasts through Sunday, Oct. 14. Anything could happen, but I hope to return again.