Friday, July 27, 2007

Up, Up and Away

Albuquerque is known as the hot air balloon capital of the world, and for good reason. There’s a long history of ballooning here, dating back to about 1907. The first Balloon Fiesta was held in 1972, with 13 balloons. Now approximately 800 balloons take part in the Fiesta every October.

This morning, as I was driving to work, my eyes were drawn to the skies directly above me, where a dozen or more colorful balloons were drifting by - a pretty typical morning sight in the summer and fall months. I slid open the cover to the sun roof, so I could watch them (when I was stopped at traffic lights, of course!). I’m sure the pilots and passengers were looking down in pity at those of us who were earth-bound, and maneuvering through morning traffic.

Dan and I helped crew a balloon, once, for the Rio Rancho Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally. To thank us, the pilot offered us a ride at the end of the rally. I wasted no time accepting the offer, and climbed into the gondola (now that’s not as easy as you might expect!) along with the pilot and another crew member. The pilot gave us a few instructions and assigned us a job - to watch the balloons beneath us, and warn her if one was coming up toward us. She explained that a lower balloon always has the right-of-way, since it's impossible for a pilot to see what’s above. Then we were up, up and away!

What was most striking about the ride was the eerie silence, broken only by the sporadic whooshing noise of the burner. When the burner was off, we moved with the wind, with no resistance and, therefore, no sound. Everything seemed more beautiful from up high - the blue sky, the Sandia Mountains, and the other balloons around us. All too soon it was time to land. Our pilot spied a patch of desert that looked promising. She gave us landing instructions: “Hang on tight, bend your knees, and whatever you do, do not climb out of the gondola until I tell you to.” You might think a desert is flat, but let me assure you, it is not. Our balloon drug us through sage brush and cactus, and over rutty ground, while we hung on with all our might, and squatted down in the gondola, which was tipping pretty drastically to the side. Finally we came to a stop, and the balloon itself lay mostly deflated, in front of us, upon the lumpy ground. Our chase crew (including Dan) was there in no time, and we all worked together to systematically push and squeeze all of the air out of the envelope (without stepping on it), and fold it up to fit into its container.

Don't turn down a chance go up, if it comes your way!

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