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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Balloon Fiesta!

It's fiesta time again! 'Fiesta' is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest hot air balloon event. Some 550 balloons are expected this year, the 40th anniversary of this event, along with an expected 800,000 visitors.

I attended opening day last year, and it was an awesome experience. The highlight, of course, is the mass ascension, as the crowds gathered in Balloon Fiesta Park are treated to the sight of hundreds of colorful balloons being inflated, then launching and floating silently overhead. I loved looking up into the envelope (the part that inflates) and watching the flames of the propane burners as they heated the air that keeps the balloons aloft.

I didn't go to the mass ascension this year, but I feel as if it came to me. The area just over the hill from my house is a perfect landing area, so I grabbed my camera early on opening day and walked a 2-1/2 mile loop, taking more than 360 photographs.The winds were light, the sky a beautiful New Mexico azure, with just enough clouds to add interest to the photographs.

Despite the early hour, local residents gathered in their yards to watch the hundreds of balloons drifting overhead. Many balloons landed on vacant lots, roads and in arroyos in the neighborhood, giving residents an up-close look. People chatted with balloonists awaiting the arrival of their chase vehicles and crews. One crew I talked to, from the Detroit area, had landed two streets over from my house. They were loading the gondola into the van as I walked by with my dogs.

I love seeing hot air balloons in the sky. They are so peaceful and colorful, a real treat for the eyes against the crystal blue skies of central New Mexico. They drift on wind currents, unpowered, totally silent except for the occasional noise of the burners that heat the air to keep them aloft. And I love the sound of the burners as they shoot their yellow flames into the envelope. The sound reminds me so much of another sound I love -- the sound of whales exhaling as they break the water's surface after a long dive. I like being able to call "Good morning" to balloon crews as they pass overhead on their way back to Earth. Chase crews waved as they drove to pick up the balloons and pilots.

Hot air balloons are not uncommon in the skies over Albuquerque at other times of year, but certainly not in the quantities present during the balloon fiesta. Last year, lines for the shuttle buses were long, but despite the early hour, people were cooperative, pleasant and excited to be going to the mass ascension. Visitors are allowed to walk among the balloons prior to launch and to talk to the pilots. It's a family-friendly affair, with people coming from all over the country, and from other countries. Balloonists seem to be a really friendly bunch of people who enjoy their sport and sharing it with others not fortunate enough to be able to fly. And I count myself fortunate to live in a place where I can simply step into my back yard and see these beautiful balloons gliding over the neighborhood on a crisp October morning.