Fleecy hat on, both cameras at the ready, I watch as wisped clouds grow fuchsia and gold in the waning sun. Country music murmurs from the speakers of the ABQ Public School bus carrying us to the field of gravity-defying ballooners, possibly even the field of dreams.
Taking the down-low back route through quiet neighborhoods and the General Mills factory plant convinces me of a kidnap mission to collect human testers for General Mills’ products (even eating sugar-packed Lucky Charms wouldn’t compensate for the abduction)—until the balloons buoy into sight, anchored by the weight of balloonists and their families, itching to be released.
Saturday’s Glow, 8 pm: the final flickering propane illumination dwarfs me to a pollen speck amidst a firefly nest. Somehow, however much the crowd ripples with applause and cheers for the coordinated flashing sensation of silk bubbles lit on fire, and even though my own cheeks crumple into an involuntary smile of wonder, every balloon feels unnatural, weighted down by a force applicable to everything in the universe except those ethereal creatures of the sky.
Trundling carts of inflatable Dora the Explorers, pink monkeys and Roswell’s extra-terrestrials distract me from the later thunderous fireworks show, as do meandering queues for powdered funnel cakes (shamelessly yummy) and Chile Willy’s tamales every few feet along the perimeter. Yet it is the fried fair food, the vendors methodically shouting “Buy SOUVENIRS,” the thousands of cameras pointed on Creamland’s giant Arabelle, on Humpty Dumpty and on Darth Vader, the cotton shirts brightly advertising the big 40th anniversary of “The Greatest Show Off Earth!” that make up the balloon party, as a toddler names the event on the bus ride. From the memorial pins to the glow sticks to the Navajo tacos, everything compounds the thrill of watching the balloons swell and sway, then collapse with a dramatic whooosh.
Farewell Ascension, 7 am: finally, a release for the impatient gondolas pulled by nothing but hot air. The best part of the ascension is just watching the reactions when the sunrise pierces through the filmy balloons, backlighting another landmark in years of flying—35 in the case of the terse Planet Earth balloonist, who matter-of-factly tells the flock around his wicker basket that the design had taken nine months to build and print digitally. Most of the strollers don droopy little faces—the hour is too early to absorb the helter-skelter battle against gravity. An easy-going family of five, one donning a rainbow balloon hat like meteorologist Steve Stucker’s (though without the millions of pins), boasts five generations of lineage in Hobbs, New Mexico. Yet like me, this is their very first visit to the fiesta, a “great family event” for which they will definitely return.
Steve Stucker himself (hopefully you all know him as the legendary New Mexico weatherman on Eyewitness News 4, and with whom I posed for a picture, shown below!) sees the fiesta as a mushed-together but exhilarating event of nine long days that “really wears a guy down,” although you can’t tell it from his dazzlingly white TV teeth.
I train my camera on countless couples, children and parents wearing pins, old fiesta jackets, jester hats and warm winter clothing; gnawing at burritos (just like I am) and slurping coffee; intently watching the breakfast booths; gaping (as I do) at the rising Rainbow Ryders, the pair of cactus balloons floating side by side, Spider Pig waddling into the sky.
Meanwhile, precocious first grader Antonio from Waco, Texas, is more concerned with the fact that it’s too cold to wear shorts, and enthused that we pass a Cinnabon store on the way back to Cliff’s Park and Ride.
Even when the midmorning sun finally thaws the ground and our skins, making an oily warmth under my wooly earflaps and causing perspiration to accumulate under my parka, rain jacket and nylon shirt, nothing can melt my pleasantly tired ebullience at finally being part of New Mexico’s trademark, along with the Japanese, Texans, New Yorkers and Hobbs-ians flocking to wonder at hundreds of idiosyncratic artists practicing their own craft in the sky.