08 OCT 15
Photo By Tyra Sutak
The darkness was palpable as I gathered my camera and stuffed myself into a warm puffy jacket in an attempt to ward off the cool morning air. A rain storm had passed through the city of Albuquerque the night before, prompting the organizers of the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta to cancel the Balloon Glow, the night’s most anticipated event which showcases the brilliant colors of the wide variety of balloons which light up all over the launch field just before dusk. The opening weekend of the world-renowned week-long festival had ended the night before. It was Monday morning, and at 5:30 a.m., a steady string of cars sporting license plates from all over the country were already vying for parking spots just outside of the park. As I made my way through the entry gates, past the vendors selling green chile-filled breakfast items and Pinon coffee, flashes of light and the sounds of generators guided me towards the launch field, which was blanketed with people cheering on the pilots of the Dawn Patrol—a collection of balloons that launch before dawn to assess the weather conditions for the day. One burst of light illuminated the stars and stripes of a round American flag. Another gave life to a colorful Mardi Gras mask. One by one, they gracefully rose from the ground, leaving behind empty spaces on the field that would quickly be filled with the pilots participating in the Mass Ascension readying their balloons for take off. As the first streaks of light made their way into the park, I set off in search for one pilot in particular. A pilot from Gallup, New Mexico named Bill Lee, who was supposed to take me up in his balloon, the High Lee Like Lee, for a glimpse of the fiesta from above. As I weaved in and out of a maze of expanding balloons, I tracked down Pilot Bill and was quickly whisked into the small basket beneath a beautiful rainbow-colored balloon which shot up into the sky against the morning light.
The higher we rose, the more magical the view became. The High Lee Like Lee and our small crew of three hung in the sky along with hundreds of other balloons that together, created a kaleidoscope of colors against a warm gray sky. The whole scene was effortless. One after another, they lifted from the ground, carrying smiling pilots breathing in the crisp southwestern air and calling out ‘good morning’ to balloons floating nearby. In one direction, the lingering nighttime lights of the city could be seen, illuminating a path to the high-risers that define Albuquerque’s downtown skyline. In another direction, the first light of the day brushed against the nearby Sandia Mountains. In time, patches of blue and rays of sunlight began to breakthrough the early morning grayness, adding to the multitude of colors painting the sky. For nearly an hour, we floated, suspended in time, creating a photograph and a lifelong memory for festival-goers taking it all in from below. When the time finally came to descend, Pilot Bill guided us to small field in a nearby industrial park which was already serving as a landing pad for several other balloons. On nearby streets, in empty parking lots and backyards of neighboring homes, balloons carefully returned to the ground, as cars of onlookers paused their morning commutes to watch.
Even when my feet were firmly planted on the ground, Pilot Bill and his crew let me know that the flight wasn’t completely over. After carefully packing up the High Lee Like Lee, we headed back to the launch field to catch the flying competition, recite the The Balloonist Prayer, and christen the flight with some champagne. “The winds have welcomed you with softness, the sun has blessed you with his warm hands,” Pilot Bill began, finishing the prayer with a quick history recap of the origins of hot air ballooning and capping the whole experience off with a toast of the bubbly.
When it comes to the best seat in the house, it’s hard to beat the view of this beautiful event from up above. But whether you’re driving on the nearby interstate, grabbing a beer on the patio of one of Albuquerque’s downtown craft breweries, or gathered inside of Balloon Fiesta Park, the spirit of the southwest, the uniqueness of the event, and the welcoming winds and rising sun will create a memory that you won’t soon forget.
The 2015 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta takes place October 3 through 11.
Visit balloonfiesta.com for a full schedule of events, ticket and parking information, and how to book a balloon ride.