Current Location: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta RV Camp 84 degrees F and clear
This might end up being what friend Erin used to call a “teaser”, a blog post to basically catch up on where we are at the moment when there isn’t time to write about how we got here. As I continue to write, I think this is a bit more than a “teaser”, but if you want to know what I mean by the perfect “box”, read to the end.
There are just a bit more than 1400 miles between home and Balloon Fiesta Park here in Albuquerque, and the days we spent on the route are well deserving of some blog writing. Instead, I have tracked my daily notes in Google’s Keep app for future use, uploaded photos from the phone without any processing and held off a bit on managing and processing the camera photos. After all, days in the wide open and gorgeous Nevada desert and around red rock country in Capitol Reef deserve more than a phone photo.
Although I do have to admit that the Galaxy S9+ does a surprisingly good job at catching the good stuff unaided. For now, however, I will skip the stories of our journey and jump right into the amazing story of this very day.
The Albuquerque Balloon Festival has been one of those places that has meandered around in the back of my mind for years. I always wanted to see it, but could never quite figure out the logistics of how to actually manage a visit to such a popular and very crowded destination in the MoHo. We have friends who live here in ABQ and they don’t even go to the festival, crowds too big and traffic completely unmanageable for many locals. Doesn’t seem to stop the nearly 1 million people who visit this site over the 9 day course of the festival, but it was definitely daunting for us to think about.
Our other friends, John and Carol Herr, who did a lot of blogging in the past, but less so recently, also waxed eloquent on the magnificence of the Balloon Fiesta. They are true veterans, having visited many times, boondocking in their motorhome, and have learned to manage many of the complexities of camping here. We listened to their stories, laughed with them and talked about it, and then thought….no way.
Still, the daydream persisted, and one day last fall Mo said to me, “How would you like to go to the Balloon Fiesta”. She had read about the trip put on by Adventure Caravans and decided it would be a great way to see the festival without the headaches. We had thoroughly enjoyed our Rose Parade Rally 2017 experience with Adventure Caravans, so had a general idea what to expect we would get for our investment.
This rally is a bit different, however. Instead of 25 rigs and 60 or so people and a nice park with hookups, there are 80 rigs and 171 people. In the desert, in a big dirt parking lot. There is no other way to actually park onsite at the balloon festival, except for a very few elite sites that have hookups that are ridiculously expensive. Most people sprawled out on the big dirt fields are boondocking.
No so with Adventure Caravans. Several days before we arrived, the staff arrived and set up the huge, climate controlled big tent, giant quiet generators that provide 30 amp power, and great clean water with good pressure. During the course of our stay we will also get two pump-outs of our tanks, and on days when the balloons aren’t doing much exciting, we will be treated to visits to Old Town Albuquerque, Sandia Mountain Tram, Santa Fe, the Turquoise Museum, and the Pueblo Cultural Center, among other sites.
We are also treated to a 5 am continental breakfast and then hot breakfast at 7:30 to nine for all the folks that headed for the launch field at 5am for Dawn patrol. We will get a total of 18 meals, entrances to the launch field, and lots of other little side goodies. We thought it sounded like a great idea, and so far, after the first three days here, we haven’t been disappointed.
The Fiesta grounds are huge. Not just football field huge, but dozens of football fields huge. It is almost 2 miles from where we are camped to the launch field, and no way to drive a car in the insane traffic. Instead Adventure Caravans has golf carts to get us to the shuttle bus near the gate. The fiesta shuttle busses come through the RV parking areas every 15 minutes during most of the day, and evening but are sometimes full when they get to our area. Of course, we could walk, but that is a LONG walk in dusty crowded conditions, and once inside the launch field grounds, the crowds are so intense that walking is slowed to that bone numbing crawl that will wear you down faster than any mountain hike.
I can’t count the number of times that someone has said to me, “Oh, I don’t like crowds” and so won’t do such and such. Well, I can’t think of anyone I know who has said, “Oh, I love crowds!” LOL We don’t like crowds either, but as in some magnificent European and US locations, sometimes you just have to bite the bullet to experience something amazing.
We arrived a day before the actual rally start date, and two days before the official festival date to try to beat some of the crowds and confusion that happens as it gets closer to opening day. On Thursday afternoon, many of the rally campsites were already filled and most of the participants had arrived. Once settled into our spot, hookups were simple and efficient, as is the use of space. We had room for our slide, and if needed we could have put out our awning, but with the sun on the far side of the rig we didn’t need to do so. The spaces are lined out in chalk throughout the RV camping area, not just for us, but for everyone. There isn’t much space between sites anywhere.
On that first evening last Thursday, we simply settled in and took some time to recuperate from our days on the road. Friday morning after waiting for morning traffic to clear on the freeways, we piled into the baby car and headed south and east across the city to Kirtland AFB and the commissary and exchange to stock up on some supplies. We were lucky that morning with the cloudy skies so Mattie could wait in the car while we did our errands.
Errands included lunch at a local fast food eatery that I hesitate to include in the fast food category. We had a coupon for a free meal included with the purchase of one meal and for under ten bucks we had two incredibly tasty Mexican Plates and a Dos Equis amber beer to wash it down. The food was fresh made New Mexican, with red and green sauce, and a salsa bar that was varied and perfectly delicious. The flour tortillas were fresh, hot and handmade. Fast food? Wow, I would love to have fast Mexican food like this in my town. Taco Cabana has several locations in Albuquerque, and if they are anywhere else out west you can bet we will look for them.
Back in the car just in time for a huge downpour, we drove home through the rapidly flooding streets of Albuquerque. The night before I had put out the rug, but put the chairs under the rig to protect them from the predicted rain. When we got home, we found that a river of muddy water had run under our rig, depositing inches of sticky mud on the rug, flood debris on the entry mat, and silty guck on our chairs. Ugh. After a day or so of sunshine, it all dried out and Mo managed to sweep most of it away.
It rained hard all night, and the next morning we woke to mostly clear skies. Everyone was excited for opening day of the festival, and for awhile the flag was green for flying the balloons. Mo and I had opted to save our entry tickets for the evening, so took our chairs to the edge of the field with many of our co-campers to watch the morning Mass Ascension.
Instead, we were treated to a stubborn bank of fog and watched only a few balloons ascend into the mist and disappear before the green flag was turned to orange. The announcement came a bit later, no balloons launched on opening day of the festival. Not to worry, there were still many days ahead with good predictions for launch.
We spent a nice day walking the Mattie, and then turned on the air for her in the MoHo and started walking to the Balloon Fiesta Museum, on the edge of the launch field but outside the fee area. It costs ten dollars each time you enter the field, and we were provided four tickets by Adventure Caravans with the option for four more if we needed them. We met two nice women from Southern California the day before and met them along the way. They said, No No, take your car! There is no traffic right now and plenty of room to park.
Good idea! Back to get the car, we drove to the museum to spend almost two hours wandering around looking at the history of ballooning and of the Fiesta. I learned much I didn’t know about ballooning in general, from the comparison of hot air versus gas balloons, to how the gondola baskets are still all hand woven with wicker. The envelope, the big colorful thing that holds the hot air or gas, is made of many kinds of materials, but now is usually nylon and the area close to the burners is a fire resistant material called Nomex.
We got back to the rig in time to feed Mattie and then catch a shuttle bus to the launch field for the evening festivities. The shuttles are local school busses from the city of Albuquerque and are paid for by the Fiesta. In no time we were deposited at the launch field entrance and immersed into a crowd of humanity only rivaled in my experience by Disneyland or the California State Fair.
At first we had no clue where to go, and simply wandered toward what is called Main Street, a mile long strip of vendors with all the typical fair stuff, including souvenirs and any kind of fair food you could possibly imagine, including the hamburger on a donut, and for me the best of all, a foot long corn dog. I love corn dogs, a silly thing, but I marked that location in my mind and sure enough, when the fireworks were beginning, I found the corn dog stand. If you have ever had the delight of perfectly crispy corn bread with a warm perfect center wrapped around a perfectly flavored hot dog, with mustard, you will know what I mean. If I were vegetarian, corn dogs would make me fall off the wagon for sure.
About half way down the row of tents, we gave up and opted to wander out into the crowds settling down on the very soft thick green grass of the field. Every possible version of human was out there laughing, talking, taking selfies and photos, lounging on blankets, chairs, blow up thingies that looked like chair balloons, and just standing around waiting. We had no clue where to be, so we just plopped down on the grass. Never mind the getting up part, we would manage.
Before long the energy began to shift, and pickups pulling trailers squeezed their way between the people, nudging them out of the way and then opening up their trailers to bring out the basket gondolas, and laying out the envelopes on the grass. The sea of humanity was simply moved aside for the raising of the balloons.
The process was amazing to watch, with the timing of filling the balloon first with cold air, then lifting it and moving it as it grew, to the moments when the hot propane was shot into the balloon to make it rise. At the last moment, the pilot has to be ready for the basket to turn upright as he jumps in to manage the balloon while the crew manages the ropes that keep it from taking flight.
All around us the balloons began to fill, with the sound of hot propane shooting into the envelope, and laughter and excitement as more and more balloons began to rise. They were so close that many were touching, and we wondered how they kept from running into each other.
As sunset approached, the bursts of hot gas lit up the balloons against the sky, with the most amazing blaze of color I have ever experienced. All of a sudden, all the balloons shot flames at the same time, and the synchronized show of light and color began. All around us there was light and color and shape, and the sound of the flames and the hot gas as the balloons shifted in the breeze and lit up the sky. This event was called the Twilight Glow.
The balloons don’t fly at night, but with all of them standing in the field and the synchronized blasts of light and color, flying seemed irrelevant. As the night progressed, the Team Fastrack Skydivers were scheduled to drop. We walked back toward the tents and stood near the local tv station broadcasting the show live, which was great because we could see inside the airplane carrying the sky divers on the big screen before they jumped from the plane. High above us, four divers jumped from the plane, first as little red dots of light, and then comet trails of white until suddenly they began shooting amazing fireworks from their packs as they descended to the launch field. It was a rather amazing and somewhat shocking sight!
Finally the fireworks began, and we watched a bit before beginning the long trek back to the shuttle location. We turned and watched when the finale came after 15 minutes or so, and saw fireworks lighting up the sky from several directions around the launch field. I didn’t try to take any photos, since there were so many people, and yes, my legs were burning from the slow walks in slow crowds and of course, there is NO place to sit and rest your body anywhere in this huge crowd.
Arriving at the shuttle site, we found ourselves at the beginning of a very long line of people waiting and had to wander back a long way to get to the end. A shocking moment as I passed inches within a very familiar face and suddenly John Herr and I recognized each other at the same moment. Our blogging friends John and Carol were right there in line with their daughter. We knew they were at the festival, but with all the activities hadn’t made any arrangements to meet officially, saving that for after the festival perhaps. We hugged and laughed and had some great talks on our way back to the campgrounds. John and Carol are camped with a different RV group, and are not working the festival this time, although they are tail gunners for Fantasy RV Tours, a rival company to Adventure Caravans.
In spite of the lack of balloon launches, it was a gorgeous and exciting day and we were both bone tired when we fell into bed.
This morning, in order to make it to the launch field for Dawn Patrol, Morning Glow, and Mass Ascension, we would have had to catch a park shuttle at 5 am to the field. It is great to be on the field when the balloons launch, but we decided to save that experience for a later day in the week. I was feeling poorly, with an upset stomach and the residual effects of a cold I have been fighting for a couple of weeks. On this morning we slept in until 5:30, and with fresh hot coffee in our cups we set our chairs out in the road right in front of our rig to watch the morning festivities.
The folks at Adventure Caravans had told us that we would discover that watching the balloons from where we are located in the campground is often as good as being on the field. They were right. As the dawn began to brighten, we saw the Dawn Patrol balloons rising in the growing light, and then the morning glow was partially visible as the balloons began to light up the field. The Dawn Patrol consists of 12 balloons which launch first to determine the conditions for the main balloon flights.
Soon word came that the flag was changed from yellow to green and it was going to be a fly day! The balloons began to rise in the early light, more and more as the minutes passed. It was mesmerizing. When the sun at last peaked over the Sandia Mountains and lit up the brilliant colors of the balloons against the sky it just got better and better. Some of the balloons flew right over our campsite, others landing a bit early in the big field across from us, others continuing south on the wind before returning.
Now, about that “box”. The winds in Albuquerque sometimes do a perfect thing for ballooning. The winds close to the surface will blow south, but just 200 feet up, they can be blowing north at the same time. The balloonists fly south on the low winds, and when they are ready to turn, they fill their balloons with big bursts of hot air to rise quickly to the winds blowing in the opposite direction. So it is a pattern of flying south low in the sky, rising up vertically, then flying north up high in the sky, and sometimes flying back down very close to the original launch position. That is “the box”, and today Albuquerque provided a perfect box for the festival, and we were lucky enough to be right here for the beautiful flights.
We have much more happening as the week progresses, but if nothing else happened, our balloon glow last night and Mass Ascension today are no doubt the highlight of our Balloon Fiesta experience.