I guess there’s some truth to the old saying that people who live in an area are the ones least likely to attend the events that bring tourists to town.
I thought about that this past Thursday as Jim and I sat in slowly creeping traffic on the way to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Although this event has been going on (under various names) for a long time, we’d never been to it together. It had been about twenty years for me and even longer for Jim.
One reason we hadn’t gone before was that our house is right on the flight path taken by lots of balloons, so we see balloons up close almost every day. We’ve come to recognize the various patterns used by the companies that give rides, and even notice when they add a new balloon to their fleet. It hardly seemed worth getting up the early hour required and joining crowds to attend the Fiesta.
So what made us change our minds? Well, as those of you know who have been reading these Wanderings (or Tangents or Fragments), Jim is a pretty good photographer. When I came across a listing for a contest with the theme of autumn in New Mexico, I encouraged him to enter. He did and, while he didn’t win any of the main prizes, his photo was among the “honorable mentions” which came with four tickets to the Balloon Fiesta.
It seemed like an omen.
We decided to drive over, rather than taking the Park and Ride, since the price of the Park and Ride included the tickets we already owned. Besides, we were going on a Thursday, not a weekend. The traffic shouldn’t be too bad, especially if we left early.
We left our house before 5:30 a.m., which seemed plenty of time given that the event didn’t start until 7:00 a.m., and we’d normally need only twenty minutes to get to the Balloon Park. We were wrong. Traffic slowed to a crawl the closer we came to the park. As we came within a mile, people walking along the paths that paralleled the road were going faster than the vehicle traffic. I realize this is usual in some parts of the country, but it isn’t in Albuquerque.
We finally arrived and were parked by 7:30. Happily, the balloons had only just started launching, so we had plenty to watch. We’d chosen our day because it fit Jim’s work schedule, but an added bonus was that this was one of the days when “special shapes” were featured.
Special shapes are balloons that aren’t crafted in the usual “balloon shape.” You know what I mean – the one where there’s a wide upper dome that tapers at the bottom, providing a place for the gondola to hang. There’s a variation on this “usual” shape that’s more like an American football – tapered at top and bottom. These are more commonly used in racing and agility events.
Special shapes vary considerably. Some are the usual shape with additions. A good example of this sort was an elephant we saw: the main balloon was pink, but extensions in the shape of ears and a trunk had been added on. The effect was very convincing. Another along this theme had side panels featuring three different clown faces. On this one, the extensions were used to give dimensions to the clown’s headgear. Oh! And I can’t forget the one that looks like Carmen Miranda’s head, complete with her signature crown of various sorts of fruit.
Many special shapes don’t bear any resemblance to a classic balloon shape. They’re more like the huge inflated figures that you sometimes see suspended over parade floats – the difference being that these are free flying sculptures. We were treated to an amazing variety. There were three flying pigs – one with wings, one without, and a third costumed as Spiderman. There was “High Kitty,” a tribute to the famous “Hello Kitty.” There was the shoe belonging to the Old Woman who lived therein, complete with a child out on the roof. There was a wizard, with a black and white cat in his backpack. Oh! And the heads of Darth Vader and Yoda rose majestically side by side.
There was a full-body beagle, complete with floppy ears and wagging tail. An orca, leaping through the sky with an enormous grin on its face. An enormous alarm clock. Three bumblebees, two of which – as they rose into the air – “held hands” so convincingly that Jim and I were sure the two envelopes were stitched together. They weren’t – it was the skill of the pilots that enabled this to be carried out.
And these were only a few… And for every special shape, there were many, many classic balloons in every color you can imagine and a few patterns – like the two that appeared to have been made from batik fabric – that I would never have anticipated.
Because special shapes aren’t as easy either to inflate or to pilot, it’s a lot less certain whether they’ll be able to go up. Wind that a “normal” balloon can handle with a little care can ground a special shape.
We were very lucky. Not only was the wind so light as to be unfelt on the ground, the air currents kept bringing the already launched balloons back over the field, so we were able to see them from various angles and at a wide variety of elevations. By the time the last balloon launched and some of the earlier risers were coming down, Jim finally stopped taking pictures and I realized that I was both cold and hungry.
From one of the numerous concession stands, we bought pretty good breakfast burritos and ate them, watching the balloons all the while. Eventually, we joined the crowds, stopping to watch some Indian dancers, to look at the offerings of various vendors, and to amble through the art exhibit. Then we made our way back to our car and joined the crawling traffic. This time it didn’t seem nearly as bad because we had balloons to watch as we made our way home.