Happy Wanderer: Hot air balloons spark flights of fancy


CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM – October 30, 2009

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s the balloon boy. If ever a story captured our collective imagination –the recent balloon

odyssey in Colorado did the trick. And although the saucer-shaped aircraft turned out to be empty, it could very well have housed a boy, a baboon, or even something sinister like the Japanese bomb balloons in World War Two.

It got me thinking about ballooning, and my recent trip to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta – the most photographed event on the planet. With over 600 balloons punctuating the sky, it’s easy to see why.

The carnival atmosphere starts before dawn. Under a blanket of stars, vendors prepare for the throngs of visitors making the pilgrimage to this sacred ballooning site in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains. The smell of burritos and corndogs permeates the still air and flickers of light pierce the darkness as the first shots of propane surge into the nylon envelopes.

For the most part, these aren’t your typical balloons. Sure, some are traditional kaleidoscopes of color, but many others are characters like Nemo and Tweety and even Darth Vader. It’s the shaped balloons that really tickle the imagination – and the pocketbook. The cow balloon, alone, costs $100,000 and has so many appendages (including the udder) it takes a whole crew to get airborne. It’s a crowd favorite and travels the world with its flank rented out for corporate advertising.

Next door to the launch site is Albuquerque’s world class balloon museum. It reminds me of the balloon museum in another great ballooning capital – Château-d’Oex, Switzerland. Both are a tribute to this fanciful sport that “took flight” back in 1783.

A duck, a sheep and a rooster were the first passengers in a hot air balloon launched from a field in Paris. It sounds like the start of a joke, but in fact it did happen. The intrepid trio rose 3000 feet over 25 minutes before landing, and I can just imagine the bleating and quacking and cock-a-doodle-doo-ing coming from that balloon basket.

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Yet, it was nothing like the human sounds emanating from the bottom of the basket on my hot air balloon ride in Château-d’Oex. The weather was dicey, as balloon weather goes, but the pilot felt confident we could make the trip. Four journalists went up that day – three of us standing and one poor guy hugging my ankles. It was a pity, really. He missed the most amazing scenery as we soared exhilaratingly close to the Alps, riding the currents like waves in a surf competition.

But here on this day in Albuquerque, I chose to stay tethered to earth. Had my ego been properly inflated, I may have

balloons

Mass ascension at Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

gone up in the cow. But the winds were a bit shifty and I thought it best not take chances with a hip injury that was already yelping.

Good thing. It was a rough landing for some of the balloons – thanks to a storm that had passed through and actually canceled the launch a day earlier. Still, it was a wonder to witness the event from the ground – this spectacle that celebrates man’s insatiable appetite for adventure.  And I left the event feeling happy and youthful, with a bounce in my step and an ear-to-ear grin. These are the souvenirs that last a lifetime.

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is held annually in early October. If you go:

The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau www.itsatrip.org

The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum www.cabq.gov/balloon

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