M. Giant's
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Saturday, October 21, 2006  

Birthday Balloons

Normally, I don't get up at five in the morning unless it's to catch a plane, or to go into the nursery and stick a pacifier into my son's wailing mouth. And either way, I strive to be asleep again as soon as possible. But M. Small's birthday isn't a normal day.

When our friends invited us out to Albuquerque to stay with them and check out the Balloon Fiesta, they waited until we were safely on the ground in New Mexico to inform us that if you want to catch the good stuff, you have to get there at six in the morning. "What the hell kind of public spectacle is that?" I demanded. "If I wanted to get up that early to go to an event I'd be a fishing fan." But they knew what they were talking about.

There's a road that runs between the eastern edge of Albuquerque and the Sandia Peak, a range of mountains several miles long. This was our route to Balloon Fiesta Park. As we were driving north along this road in stygian predawn, I happened to look over to our left, where something was lighting up down the hill. Something big.

The first official event of the Balloon Fiesta (at least this morning), was the Dawn Patrol. I realize that the name makes it sound like somebody's going to get shot down, but all it means is that the first balloons of the day take off. And if you've never seen a hot air balloon going up in full darkness (which you probably haven't, since ballooning is generally considered a daytime pursuit), you don't realize until you see it how the envelope diffuses the light from the burners, like the world's largest soft white light bulb.

By the time we reached the Fiesta grounds, several more had taken off, looking like slow-moving flashbulbs in zero gravity. We all got breakfast burritos at a stand (and a sweet roll for M. Small, who was being quite the culinary prima donna this trip) and waited for what came next. Which had something to do with this:

Unlike most balloon events, this one allows spectators to go right down onto the field and mill about among the balloons. Somehow they find room for thousands of civilians and acres of deflated nylon to spread out comfortably at the same time.

M. Small wanted to explore, because that's what he does, and Trash and I took turns chasing him and carrying him around the area our group had staked out for ourselves. The sky got light. At some point, the sun came up over Sandia Peak, but I don't know exactly when because my view of it was blocked by this:

Did I mention we were there on "special shapes" day?

When you're the biggest ballooning event in the world, you have to stand out. So the morning we were there was dedicated to what's called a "mass ascension" of balloons in any number of shapes and designs. We thought we'd be able to spot them one by one. We were wrong.

One minute there was nothing but a sea of human heads as far as you could see, and the next the landscape was becoming tumescent with colorful mounds of fabric in every direction.

"Isn't this exciting?" we asked M. Small. He was reserving judgment. But he seemed suspicious.

Then they started standing up. Trash and I were quickly at how fast these huge things just pop erect once they become inflated. It's such an amazing sight that at the time you don't even think of how dirty that is.

Finally, the balloon next to us arose to tower over our heads, the biggest bunch of chili peppers in the world.

We checked M. Small's reaction. "Scary," he mumbled.

I suppose it's a little overwhelming. You're small to begin with, and it's a big world, and the next thing you know you're surrounded by this ridiculous yet awe-inspiring edifices, all of which are belching propane flames at regular intervals. It's like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade meets the Fire Swamp.

But a few minutes after that, it was all better, because they weren't around us any more. They were up in the air. I'm going to shut up now, mostly, and show you some more pictures.

They say that the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in the world. Amazingly, this was true even before I went to it.

On the way out, in the car, M. Small preferred the balloons at a safe distance. Except he was kind of giving mixed signals. "Touch the balloon," he kept saying, reaching one hand towards the window.

So we decided to bring him back the next evening. More on that later.

posted by M. Giant 8:11 PM 0 comments


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