“Start them cold.” came the call.
I’m not a balloonist.
I have no idea what “start them cold” means – but I knew in that moment it meant action.
My friend, who is a balloonist, was coming out of his makeshift seat in the hot air balloon basket lying sideways on the grass, bringing the basket forward with him as he came forward and to his feet- “Really?” he questioned in surprise and excitement.
It was my first International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the second Saturday of the ten day festival. I missed attending the fiesta my first autumn in New Mexico and this year’s fiesta was slipping away too fast. I didn’t have any funds for a ticket, but I prayed to God that I would like to have someone invite me. Several mornings on my way into work I had seen the sky filled with hot air balloons. The year before I came upon a balloon that landed just a block or two from my office.
Early on in Albuquerque, I came to learn that hot air ballooning is not an exact science and landing the balloons is all part of the beauty and challenge of ballooning. I heard stories of balloons landing on the freeway and even on top of a Hooter’s restaurant. I grin trying to imagine a man explaining to his wife that landing spot.
The Wednesday before the final weekend, my dear friend Melissa, who had also never been to the fiesta, asked if I would like to go. The balloons launch in the early morning hours of autumn’s predawn. I still understand very little, but I can share that hot air balloons require cooler early morning thermals for ascension.
Melissa and I agreed to attend the Saturday morning launch. After working all week I often spend Friday night at
Celebrate Recovery which doesn’t finish til about 9:30 or so, meaning I probably wouldn’t get home til about 10 p.m. or past. It usually takes me a few hours to wind down for sleep. I had learned the year before that it’s key to arrive by 4:30 a.m. Yes, I know how crazy that seems, but every fiesta veteran was equally agreed on this point. Furthermore, Melissa and I had been hearing from some that by 4:30 the crowds and parking were already challenging. I can’t remember quite all the logic, but we decided Melissa would pick me up at my place, which is fairly near the balloon fiesta park, around 3:30 a.m. She had discovered some free parking and we were hoping to get a good parking spot early – well earlier! Melissa was explaining we could relax in the warm car for a bit once we secured parking before heading down to the field.
About 10:15 p.m. the night before we were texting each other confirming the pick up time.
Melissa texted, “Are we crazy?” with a blue-faced wailing emoji.
I was honestly beginning to wonder myself as I tried to anticipate the short night ahead. “Maybe a little….” I responded, continuing, “All kinds of people do this so it’s apparently not so crazy.” I was working to convince myself as well!
The weather inevitably seems to turn cooler just as the fiesta begins. We bundled up in our winter coats and scarves and gloves, packed snacks, and about 3:40 a.m. Melissa picked me up to make our way to the free parking she had discovered at the evening glow on Thursday night. There was parking crew as we pulled into the lot and other vehicles steadily filling in the empty spots. We spent a while in the car, munching on dry cereal mixed with almonds and other snacks before venturing out.
Although I’d seen the lot we were in quickly filling up, the reality of the crowd appeal didn’t truly hit me til we were heading down the hill to the field and I saw the line of headlights stretching back as cars pulled into the paid parking spots below. I saw the massive stadium lights blasting out over the crowds streaming into the gates below. It was so bizarre and surreal to be going to an event so early, so in the dark – to be arriving for an event to begin before dawn. I tried to think of another type of event I had gone to like this, but I’ve yet to think of anything I’d experienced similar to the balloon fiesta.
Once we were through the gates and the bathroom, Melissa and I eagerly stood in line for hot chocolate. We were
already very chilled and the event wasn’t close to beginning. Even though I don’t think it was anything more than powder packets in cheap Styrofoam, the scalding hot chocolate seemed like an astonishing elixir in the dark and the cold. I had encouraged Melissa to head down earlier than she was saying was necessary because I was used to events where you want to essentially be at the “head of the line” so to speak. But the balloon fiesta is entirely different. All the fields are open to the public to wander freely at will in and out and all around the balloons lying on the ground, spread out, with ropes and equipment, awaiting the word to arise.
We wandered around in the grass in the dark clutching our hot chocolates. At 6:00 a.m. a bit of a laser light show began on the field with some music and I began to feel excitement and anticipation bubble up in me. We drew in close to a balloon that had signs of activity. Others began to press in about us and we were jostling a bit for our
places, but after some time there was no increased activity at “our” balloon. At Melissa’s beckoning I turned around and discovered that while I had been completely consumed in watching the lack of activity at our balloon, a line of balloons were filled up and lying on their sides on the ground. This is what is called the “Dawn Patrol,” the first of the balloons to ascend prior to the mass ascension. Most of the row of the Dawn Patrol was already filled up with air, lying on their sides by the time I turned around and I couldn’t believe how I had missed all this while looking at a lack of activity. We agreed to begin walking toward the Dawn Patrol balloons in hopes of gaining a more advantageous view of the start of the ascension.
In the process of re-positioning ourselves, we caught an announcer on the air from a PA system somewhere down the field explaining about thermals and what was happening a thousand feet off the ground and being patient for safety’s sake. We moved in near the row of Dawn Patrol balloons, but they did not ascend. Weather conditions weren’t right. It was cold and it was dark and the balloons weren’t doing anything. We were waiting. Movement seemed to ease the cold so Melissa and I began walking and talking. Walking and talking, talking and walking. There was a moment when my bags with water bottles was growing so heavy, the sky seemed as dark as when we’d arrived, I seemed to be growing more chill by the moment and the balloons were still showing no signs of activity. I began to seriously consider giving up and heading back for the warmth of my bed, but then the sun began to break over the mountains in the east and the chill, crisp air seemed to receive some warmth from the breaking rays of dawn the tiniest bit.
We ran into a friend who is a balloonist and followed him back to the balloon he was helping to crew. The time
seemed to pass more quickly as we caught up and he explained more to us about what was happening with the weather. It was also warming up a bit as light now filled the sky though it was gray and overcast. The balloon basket was tipped on its side in the grass and our friend, Will, made himself a makeshift seat out of it. We were watching the sky to the south where the clouds seemed to be dropping rain. Will was explaining to us that these were virga, rain that evaporates before hitting the ground. He was also watching the smoke or steam coming out of large chimney stacks at a manufacturing plant to see what the winds were doing 100 feet off the ground.
The morning grew on, the virga increased and the smoke or steam from the plant seemed to be splitting and going sideways rather than billowing up as it had been the hour before. I resigned myself to the reality that my first time at the balloon fiesta was gonna be a no go.
Then came the call.
“Start them cold.”
Suddenly the lingering, the loitering, the small talk all gave way to movement and bustle and activity all about us on the field as different crews raced into position.
Large fans began blowing cold air into the voluminous billows of brightly patterned blue and yellow and red sail of the balloon Will was on the crew of. Eagerly witnessing the balloon fill enough for it no longer be flat, but lifting up off the ground, I began to back up only to realize another massive balloon was filling up on the other side of me! I realized no one was policing me except me!
I came around to the bottom of my friend’s balloon and the crew there invited us to step in closer to look inside of the balloon as it filled up. I don’t know how to express the sheer energy and aliveness in the air as these balloons fill up and lift off. The air feels electric with the excitement of the movement and there is so much action everywhere – all sorts of shapes and colors and sizes, blowing up, crew running out with ropes tied to the balloons, as people dodge and side step and also stop and gawk at the beauty and wonder of it all.
Our friend’s balloon sold rides to the public and they were taking on passengers about to lift off, so we moved on
across the field as various balloons were filling up and ascending. We ran into more friends and happily took a picture near some of Melissa’s favorite balloons, the penguin shaped balloons. The weather began to worsen as the clouds thickened and darkened and we decided it was better to begin to head to the parking lot. I was longing for a funnel cake in the worst way, but I had no funds and no heart to ask my friend to lend me the money. However, after we had exited the gates and were looking at the lines forming for a shuttle up the hill to parking, praise God, my friend asked if I wanted to go back in as we were right next to another gate so that we could get a funnel cake! I think that was one of the most delicious funnel cakes I ever ate, as we found a table with an umbrella over it. There were other occupants as we came and then they left and another small group came to huddle with us under a corner of a white plastic umbrella, where we were gingerly tearing at the still very hot deep-fried, powdery treat.
We made our way out where traffic was diverted all kinds of ways with lanes shut down and poor Melissa ended up driving all the way to Rio Rancho next to Albuquerque before being able to get back to the correct route. It was one of those days where it’s so especially lovely to go home and take a long, hearty nap, but even when I awoke hours later, I was still overcome by the the beauty and wonder of the event.
There was something so stunning in the turn of expectations that moment where everyone was standing about for hours on end with expectation dwindling and hope fading to hear that call to start up the fans to fill the balloons. And I know it’s a simple analogy, but it is that way in our lives at so many different times, where we come, not knowing exactly what to expect, but having an expectation of movement and beauty and excitement. But instead find ourselves in a place of cold and dark and inactivity, having to resign ourselves to doing without, to soldier on and hope for another time, to tamp down our disappointment, then in an instant to have all the stillness and all the waiting convert into movement and the fulfillment of our hopes. And I think there’s a lot to be said for what we do in the waiting time, in the discomfort of the cold and the dark far from our familiar comfort zones. I think there is truly something to be said for how we conduct ourselves and how we behave when things aren’t going at all the way we hoped or dreamed…to be okay if it doesn’t happen, but to never fully quit believing it still…might…turn.