There really aren’t too many things that leave me awestruck. I would say that over the course of my life there have only been a handful.
Just so you understand what I mean, I’ll give you an illustration with a little story of my trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
By the way, I’m telling you this now, as we officially begin the summer season, because if this interests you, you’d best get planning for it soon.
I’d been to Albuquerque a couple of times over the years; once I drove through by myself in my 20’s when I was doing a big driving circle of the US southwest; another time, I think I went through with my ex; and just a few years ago, we hauled our fifth wheel trailer down there over the Easter break.
I always say that if you’re serious about visiting a place, you need to do it at least twice, at the very least—once, to figure out what you really want to see and then to go back and see it.
So I guess I’d heard about the Balloon Fiesta, and I got it into my head that it was something I needed to see.
It’s been held every year since 1972, and it falls at the beginning of October—that wonderful time of year when it’s not too hot and not too cold and if the weather plays nice the air is filled with the smells of fall…and in some places, like Albuquerque, a lot more than that.
The Fiesta started small, with only a dozen or so balloonists, but has now grown to close to 600 entries and a thousand participants.
I don’t know if you can imagine that many balloons in the air at once, but it truly is an awesome sight.
So, here’s what I did.
To save a bit on airfare and car rentals, I flew into Denver. The drive took more than six hours—all pretty much open interstate, and I took some time to stop for lunch and to visit my friend Dina in Colorado Springs.
I was going to say that it wasn’t worth the savings to go from a city outside Albuquerque, but I’m the kind of person who will drop in on old friends if they’re on the way, and I wouldn’t have seen Dina, her mom and kids if I’d gone straight in. And that, in itself, was well worth the detour.
So, by the time I got to Albuquerque, it was getting dark. Rather than go to my hotel, I went straight to the balloon grounds—a massive park to the north of the city itself.
There were literally thousands of people there, and hundreds and hundreds of balloons.
After parking in one of the football-field sized car parks (note to self: next time do everything you can to remember where you parked—took me more than an hour to find the car later on—take pictures of the lots, pay attention to the signage and where you enter the event—you’ll save a lot of time and stress), I headed into the balloons.
On several evenings during the Fiesta, there are fireworks and an event called the
“Afterglow”, where the balloonists fill up their envelopes (that’s the technical term for the balloon part) and hit ‘em with bursts of lit-up gas, so they glow. They don’t leave the ground, so you can walk around and among them—literally in the middle of hundreds of balloons—regular shapes and everything else you can imagine (the year I went, Darth Vader and Yoda were big hits). There’s also a laser light show on these nights and usually a band too. But everything’s over relatively early…because the real excitement starts each morning at 4 am.
I’m not sure how I did it, especially after spending an hour looking for my lost soul (my rental was a Kia, get it?), but I set my alarm at the HoJo for 3:30 am and was on the road back to the balloon park by 4.
The scariest part of the trip was perhaps racing up the Interstate at 4 am at 70 miles an hour, only to come to screeching halt at the Balloon Fiesta Parkway exit. Traffic was completely stopped in the right lane of the highway as the cars were diverted into the lots a mile away. Until there were at least a dozen cars behind me, I braced for the impact that thankfully did not come.
I should mention there are all sorts of transportation options, including shuttle buses; you really don’t need a car if you’re just doing the Fiesta and bopping around town.
I wandered my way into the park (this time knowing exactly where the car was and exactly where I entered) and found a bench and plunked down. Before long I was joined by a woman from Virginia who had driven to New Mexico, leaving her husband back
home with the kids; a pair of seniors who were touring southwest national parks on recumbent bicycles; and a very lovely German tourist in bike shorts who was told by his friends that he had to divert from his time in LA to come here. We were a good group.
We chatted while the Dawn Patrol fired up; this is a group of half a dozen pilots who take their balloons up and test the winds; once airborne, they report back and that’s when it’s decided if the balloons will rise or not. So, visitors really don’t know until then whether it’s a go.
They take their balloons through what’s known as the Albuquerque Box: the mountains
to the east of the city create a buffer in the valley, so the balloons can rise; once they reach a certain height, they catch the air off the range and are pushed gently northward; when they drop in altitude and break away from the wind created by the land changes, they drift back towards the balloon grounds (although on my way out of town the following morning, I did see quite a few in Bernalillo, the community to the north of the city; there was also one that came down right on the side of the Interstate—I suspect that happens from time to time).
I think I explained that right.
Thank goodness the weather in Albuquerque is usually pretty perfect.
As the sun rises, so do the balloons—30, 40, 50 at a time, and before you know it, there are a hundred in the sky with a hundred more about to lift.
It is one of the most amazing, most awesome things I have ever seen. Ever.
It’s something you can watch for hours, which is good, but it goes on for at least that long. Again, you can walk among the balloons, talk to the pilots and ground crews, and yes, if you plan ahead and have a couple of hundred dollars to spare, you too can be up in one of those balloons too.
I’d been on a balloon ride once before—got one for my birthday once, and it was fun. What I remember most is that it’s very quiet up there, except for when the gas is on—you can hear everything on the ground. But I can only imagine what it would be like to be in one during the Fiesta (see what I mean about going to a place twice?)
After the lift, I grabbed my breakfast (coffee and the clear winner–a breakfast burrito flavored with the Hatch green chile—a regional favorite—the equivalent of the hot dog and beer at Yankee Stadium or those little donuts at Stampede, but more substantial than either).
Back to the hotel, a little snooze, a shower and a tour of the town. Pretty crowded everywhere, so plan ahead if there’s something you really want to do (for example, there was a three hour wait to go up Sandia Peak Tramway, so that didn’t happen. You could take a Breaking Bad Tour too, if you really wanted to, but again, you might need to plan ahead for that). I wish I’d done a little more research before I went; one of the local pueblos was open to the public the day I was leaving town, but as I had to get back to Denver, I didn’t have the time to stop.
Later, as I raced back to Colorado, I got to thinking about awe and awesomeness, and what those words really mean, and perhaps what the difference is between them. Later, I looked up them up in a couple of dictionaries; here’s what Merriam Webster says:
Awe: an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime
Awesome: inspiring awe; an awesome task or responsibility; a place of awesome beauty; Informal use of awesome: terrific, extraordinary, as in “I had an awesome time at the concert”
You can see they’re actually a bit different from each other.
What I think I was experiencing when I saw the ascension (that sounds religious, doesn’t it?) was actually awe.
That said, it’s surprising to me that many of the definitions of awe describe the component of fear attached to it…maybe it’s the fear of the unknown or the fear in our imaginations of what might or could happen.
It’s not that anyone is hoping anything will go wrong, but there’s always a chance it might, and that feeling lends itself to deeper respect and wonder, and perhaps admiration for what is being witnessed.
On the other hand, when it comes to our 21st century use of the word awesome to describe something or someone, chances are these earlier definitions of awe play very little part in what we’re trying to express.
Last word on this, and my interpretation: the balloon ascension left me in awe; the breakfast burrito was awesome. Stopped on the highway? That was just outright fear.
I’m telling you about Albuquerque now because, as we enter the first official weekends of summer (it was last weekend up here in Canada, and for you all south of the border, Happy Memorial Day—yes, you can now wear sandals and white pants) it’s time to start thinking about where you might go in the fall. I would most definitely recommend this.
I’m heading off in about ten days for a trip I won’t tell you about now, because it’s too late to plan for this year. But stick around for a year, and….who knows? I may have another awesome tale to tell, full of awe over what I see.
If you’re interested in knowing more and Albuquerque, the Balloon Fiesta, and the area, here are some links:
A handful of quirky things to do (courtesy of Atlas Obscura)
Santa Fe Tourism (I did take a side trip here, but will save that for another day)
And finally, there’s Taos.