A sound like Darth Vader breathing over my shoulder interrupts the early morning bird song. Dogs begin hysterically barking. A shadow dims the light from the rising sun.
I look up over my shoulder (I’m out in the yard picking cucumbers), and see the looming shape of a hot-air balloon drifting to the east of me. It’s striped in shades of red, yellow, and white, the colors vivid against the pale blue of the early morning sky.
As I watch, the balloon drifts smoothly to the south, periodically hissing.
Yes. Everything you’ve read about the silent movement of hot-air balloons is perfectly true. However, what these picturesque descriptions usually fail to mention is that the burners that heat the air make quite a bit of noise – the Darth Vader hiss and gasp that I mentioned above.
Another thing that fictional depictions of balloon flights often omit, especially these days when hot-air balloons are becoming set pieces in highly fashionable (but not necessarily well-thought out) steampunk, is how dependant on the vagaries of the wind hot-air balloons are. The burners mediate the balloon’s rise, but not in what direction the craft will travel. That is all up to wind currents.
From late summer through early autumn, I can pretty much count on hot-air balloons drifting right over my house. This is because Albuquerque experiences a wind pattern called “the Box.” If the winds cooperate, a skilled balloonist can arrange to be shunted around the four corners of the compass. This doesn’t mean they’ll land exactly where they took off, but the Box does create conditions that make Albuquerque a premier destination point for balloon enthusiasts.
I am no longer astonished to see a hot-air balloon, but I am still delighted. After a while, you come to recognize locals. Some companies use a variation on medieval heraldry: adorning their fleet with different patterns worked in the same colors. One of my favorites is a rainbow caught up in a swirl like a Turk’s Cap helmet or a soft ice cream cone.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll glimpse a “special shape.” These are balloons elaborately constructed to resemble anything from a teddy bear to a dragon to a human figure, and pretty much anything else that can be filled with hot-air and expected to stay in balance when it rises.
One day, as Jim and I were out driving, we were treated to a full scale Cinderella’s castle drifting over Paseo del Norte. It hovered there for a long moment, framed by both sides of the six lane road. It’s a wonder there wasn’t a multi-car pile-up, because I’m sure we weren’t the only distracted drivers.
I hear dogs barking with that distinctive, frantic note that says the hissing, drifting aliens are passing overhead. I think I’ll wander out and take a look at who is hanging out in the sky.