October 4, 1997

What I never got from all the pictures, write-ups, and TV coverage of the Albuquerque Balloon Festival was the sheer immensity. Don't get me wrong, everyone talks about acres of site for all the balloons, 900 registered balloons, an entire week of hundreds of balloons all lined up to fly or even to just glow. I've seen the pictures of dozens and dozens of balloons flying in the air like a bunch of run away helium balloons escaping from some child's party en masse or on the ground glowing like Christmas lights with thousands of different colors. But that made them like Christmas ornaments or children's toys...

Way I figure it's a lot like elephants, most people know what they are and what they look like and that conceptually, they're big. It's not until you stand next to one, lay a hand on warm, rough skin and feel muscles moving underneath over a leg that's taller than you are, with a knee at about eye level that the impact of just what 'big' means.

Balloons are big. I'm sure that most people have seen one or two, or even the handful or two that we get down the Sammamish Valley in the summer. Whenever we play on 60 Acres in the evening we get at least two or three balloons that land on the fields after the soccer players are done with them and can just barely see. They're large things, as it takes quite a lot of rip stop nylon to lift a load of three people, fuel and a wicker basket up into the air on nothing but the differential of heat thinning the air inside the balloon and the cold, thin air outside the balloon at altitude. Walking alongside an inflating balloon is much like what I'd think walking alongside a whale would be like. With just the same unpredictability of movement because a balloon will move as the wind moves, sometimes vague and drifting, sometimes swift and unpredictable. They go way, way up, the rip-stop billowing nearly seven stories overhead.

A single balloon is pretty big. Now cram a whole lot of them together. No, not just the dozen or two or three one normally sees, take a row, of... say... eleven balloons, place them right next to each other so that if two next to each other are raised at the same time they'll bump against each other like the balloons you see a clown holding, Now, take that row of eleven and make 25 of those rows. Then note that there are three or four shifts can take off from each of those sites every morning, and then the feeling of having each of those balloons be at least seven stories tall above, quite a number of the special shape balloons can be ten to twelve stories tall. Add to all that the simple fact that all of them are in the colors of stained glass, gorgeous, glowing colors that greet the dawn by burning true and bright and brilliant.

Of course it's not quite that orderly, and no, they don't all go up at exactly the same time or they would collide with each other in the air, which is a much bigger disaster than the bumper cars that sometimes happens on the ground. They actually coordinate entire rows, and get them to lay down the balloons and fill them up and they send off the rows on the side the wind is blowing to, first. Then row after row are released into the air. There's the roar and naked flame of burners being tested, the rainbows laid out on the ground, then the hum of fans as they cold inflate the balloons by just opening their mouths and blowing cold air in. Then the roar and hiss and glowing of the balloons as they get hot and the air inside is heated enough to raise them from the vertical. And it's all happening all at once, in dozens of different directions and in dozens of different colors and shapes and ways, and it's all going on at once. It's glorious.

Oh, right, yes. For those of you who know me well. Yes, it actually read, "greet the dawn." Heh. For a very short time I've actually managed to join the Dawn Patrol and I'm actually getting up at unreasonable times before 5am in the morning in order to get to the field on time to watch and possibly participate in the show. It's nothing short of a minor miracle, but it's been worth it. I haven't even complained very much at all to Walt, Cathie, Paul or John! I've been a good girl!

We got in somewhat late Friday night and had dinner at the Burrito Company, where we'd had dinner/lunch/whatever on getting off the plane on the trip last year. It is a tiny joint that specializes in local style burritos with green or red chili and they do it very, very, very well. One of their specials is a blue corn chicken enchilada, which John had, and something they called Alameda pileup, which is a burrito buried under fries, buried under red or green chili which is, in turn buried under lots of cheese. I had that, with chicken in the burrito. I probably should have had bean and papitas underneath, but the double dose of potatoes might have been a bit much.

What struck me the most as we were driving to Walt and Cathie's was how big the sky was. I'm so used to the sky in Seattle, which is dominated by mountains and trees, so that it's often hard to see the horizons, and when we do see the horizon it's usually because we're looking over the ocean. Here there's absolutely nothing to impede the view in all directions. Big sky.

What really amused me was that on the way the radio station we'd picked at random started to play "Neun und neunzig Luftballoons", which neither of us had heard for a decade, at least, and here it was in the appropriate spot and time. Turned out that during the week we heard it more times than for a long time, but it was something that they probably toted out for every Fiesta.

We got to bed around 10pm and got up around 5am. The air was so dry that I had a bloody lip and two bloody noses before even getting anywhere. Yeesh. We managed to be on the road around 5:30 and then immediately hit nasty traffic going to the field. Took us an hour to get to crew parking, which was really, really bad, according to Walt and Cathie. The night was bright and clear and cold. Desert cold, the pre-dawn chill was deep, and as we were driving in we saw the Dawn Patrol up in the air, doing what they do. Every day, it seems, there are a couple balloons made for night flying that go up just before the dawn starts to light the sky. So while it's still dark out, these balloons go up, glowing in the dark, with tiny flashing lights underneath so local air traffic can spot them more easily.

Only pilots and their balloons are allowed on the field before launch, crew parking was a ways off from the field. We hiked in from there, and met up with the crew of Big Bird. I should say, 'the rest of the crew' as we're now part of the crew for the Festival. Big Bird is owned by Richard and Merry. They have two sons, the eldest, Ryan, is learning how to pilot. Josh has a good time just running around and getting underfoot. There are dozens of people that crew as well. Richard is the pilot, Merry is the crew chief, and everything they say goes. On a chase, Merry drives the truck that normally hauls Big Bird around with its basket and other equipment, normally with Kevin and Charles in the back. Walt and Cathie were in one chase van. Deb was in charge of the second chase van that carried most of the rest of the crew.

Various folks that were there that morning and crewed during the week included all the Rostykus brothers and their partners; Patti, who's a slender, tall brunette who used to do dance competitions and now teaches and judges contests and has a really keen sense of humor; Lynn Baker, who is built much like short, intense Kevin is, but is very much the social butterfly and can beat everyone I've every known with his ability to shop; Linda, who is Kevin's other half; Kathy, who seems shy and retiring, isn't married, yet, but is a very sweet person; Alan, who is tall and quiet but good at helping out a lot; Ann, another slender, tall brunette who works at a lab and also does the most astonishing treats like meringue mushrooms with melted chocolate detailing; and Camille, who, I believe, is Richard and Merry's daughter, but I'm not sure, and she's really, really nice.

They all greeted us happily and we stood around as Richard figured out when we were going to fly and if we were going to fly. So John and I wandered about watching the wonder and the ordered chaos of the balloons going up as the sun gradually came up over Sandia mountain. Another indication of the immensity of the whole event was just the lines and lines and lines of Sani-cans that lined most of one side of the field. That was pretty astonishing.

Anyway. We got a quick introduction to the fine art of balloon inflation by the crew, had a pair of gloves on and I helped with laying the balloon out a little, and as they filled it, we had fun keeping it off the road as the winds started to pick up a bit. Big Bird is a big, yellow balloon with red flags just below the equator, and it was kinda funny having three of us trying to hold back this wall of yellow rip-stop that was so tall I had no hope of seeing over it from engulfing entire trucks that came alongside us. As they got it up, Merry had John and Paul sign a waver while Richard told them that they could be injured or even die on the trip. John and Paul then hopped in and off they went.

Walt, Cathie and I, on the other hand, hopped into the back of Merry and Richard's truck and we zoomed over to where we'd parked the VW van where we hopped out and got into the Van while the Truck took off after Big Bird. The CB coordination was keen, and we were soon on the trail of the balloon we were supposed to be chasing and keeping it in sight and finally we caught up to be behind Merry. All around us, in the air, were other balloons, some flying on, others, as we got closer to where Richard was going to take Big Bird down, were coming down all over the place. In parking lots, intersections, parks, any open area without power lines that folks could find. Trucks and crews were chasing all of them, too, kinda like a car rally with no set destination and everyone's route was changing as the wind changed. THAT was pretty astonishing.

Richard landed it in a drainage area, in the midst of a fenced in bit of rough. We went into the fenced area, got the basket and then walked the basket and the balloon over to the fence. When the balloon is just about at the edge of floating, it's still heavy, but it's possible to coax the floating whole of it in a particular direction, especially with eight or nine people hanging onto the basket and pushing really hard. So we coaxed, swore, pushed and pulled and got it to the fence, where Richard added some heat to the air in the balloon and we handed the basket over the fence! We then walked it over to a clearer area and then let the air out by pulling the Red Line.

The Red Line is attached to a bunch of clips that keeps a parachute-like sheet inside the top of the balloon. That keeps the air in the balloon, because without a top, all the heat would escape. This is a good thing to have when one has to make an emergency landing, you just rip the top out. It's attached in with a bunch of metal clips just all around the ring and the size of it is what keeps it in place when the balloon is filled. It's also pulled at the end, to let the air out so that the balloon can be deflated and packed to go.

The packing is a pretty intense process. The balloon comes down, all the air gets squeezed out of it, and then the top is rolled up, and then the whole gets stuffed into a stuff sack. It has to be done straight so that the balloon can be pulled out the way it was put in. With a dozen people, it happens pretty fast, and this crew has it all down to a T, enough so to allow people completely new to the process into it and able to help fairly quickly.

Which we did twice on Saturday. First for the flight John and Paul took, which, by all accounts was a very fast flight because the wind was high from the field. Then again for an afternoon tethered balloon session for someone's party. Merry and Richard were paid for the appearance, and we set up the balloon, attached three cables to three cars to the balloon and then it just went up and down and up and down for the amusement of the party-goers. What was fun about that was being on the tether crews, which had the job of trying to keep the balloon centered in the field, whatever the winds were at the moment.

The wind changed a lot, too. I learned just how much momentum Big Bird had and just how much and how little I could affect where the wind wanted it with my own strength and weight, along with the strength and weight of Kevin. Kevin had had a lot of experience with tethering Big Bird and it was fascinating working with him on getting the huge creature to behave.

We brought the balloon down in the street near the place we put it up, and in the process found a rip in the envelope as the field had a lot of cactus and prickly stuff in it, so it could have happened at any time. They fixed it with duct tape, a piece inside and a piece outside and it sealed it really well.

After the morning flight, we all gathered back at the field for food and tailgating and talking about all kinds of things, and as part of it, Paul and John got baptized with champagne and then 'pinned' with a pin for having had their first flight. The pin went an 'interesting' place, as the women with the coldest hands were given the pin and placed it right on the fly of their jeans.

The baptism consisted of three parts. The first was a short history of ballooning, which started when two brothers who ran a paper making company saw the ashes rising up from a fire. They concluded from that experience that the smoke was what made things rise. So they build a kind paper envelope and filled with as much smoke is possible, attached a basket, and set a rooster, a goat, and a third animal which is disputed into it. The contraption was then launched, and the brothers, who were the first chase crew, followed them across the countryside.

Since the brothers believe smoke was the driving influence, they had around rotten meat, mildewed straw, and other smoke producing elements onto the fire; so the balloon billowed terrible smelling smoke. When the whole thing came down peasants were the first find it, and terrible stench convinced them that it was a dragon. So the peasants attacked it to save the animals. On seeing the attack the brothers decided there had to be a way to identify themselves to peasants so that they wouldn't be attacked as dragons. Champagne, had that time, was something that only Frenchman could have, so they brought champagne to show and share with the peasants to prove that they were Frenchman. Which is why, even today, balloonists bring champagne.

And then came the Irish (at this point there is much raucous about the Irish) who all thought that anything that involve drinking in the morning had to be a good thing. And it was the Irish that came up with this prayer (everyone had to take off their hats for the prayer):

May the winds welcome you with softness,
may the sun bless you with his warm hands,
may you fly so high and so well
that God joins you in laughter
and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

The third and final part of the baptism was drinking to the prayer. The initiate had to drink without hands, while getting sprayed by two or three other people with champagne, and much laughter and joy from having shared the unique experience of flight.

We also got green chilies during the small break between the flight and the tethering. We decided to go back to Walt and Cathie's instead of crashing the party a little to eat so that we could peel them. When we bought a gunny sack filled with green chilies at the local market we also paid for the roasting. They take the whole gunny sack of chilies and put them in a wire mesh round cage that spins slowly over a propane gas flame. This roasts the chilies until their skins are burnt and the air is filled with the scent of roasting chilies. The chilies are then put into a plastic bag and allowed to steam for a while so that their skins are easier to peel off.

Walt, John, Paul and I stood around a table on the patio and peeled and de-seeded all the chilies, rinsing them off to get rid of most of the seeds as the greatest concentration of heat is in the seeds. Some of them we were able to peel whole and Walt used them to make really keen chili rellenos and we ate them. My first one almost killed me near the end of it as I got a mouthful of seeds. It actually hurt going down, so I nibbled a little at the second and ate a few flour tortillas instead. Then it was bed time and I was so utterly exhausted I slept very, very well indeed.


© 1997 by Liralen Li

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