I have a confession to make. When I travel abroad and people ask me where I am from, I don’t tell them Albuquerque. I don’t even tell them New Mexico. I tell them…wait for it ... Santa Fe. (Go ahead and start throwing rotten tomatoes – I deserve it).

Why on earth would I diss the Duke City?

Because people 'round the world know about Santa Fe. And once they get a point of reference, then I can tell them Albuquerque, bypassing that whole Old Mexico/New Mexico confusion, which is compounded by the fact that my Spanish is a mess – a mélange of Mexican/Argentinean/hard of hearing accents.

Sometimes Santa Fe isn't recognized, but Roswell is. Once in a very rare while, the mention of Albuquerque gets a smile. Almost always, that smile is followed by a question about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Fifteen years ago I attended my first Balloon Fiesta. Years earlier I had attended a similar event in Napa Valley, and even knew a few balloonists there, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. When my Albuquerque native neighbor told me that we should leave at 4:30 in the morning, I was skeptical. Still, I followed her advice, thinking that throwing the kids in the car and letting them sleep might be easier than wrestling to wake them up at 7 am.

Despite arriving on time, I was so unprepared.

For starters, I didn’t bring a camera. The sacrilege!

I also thought that Mass Ascension had religious connotations, and was extremely skeptical of a merger between hot air ballooning and New Mexican Catholicism.

I didn’t realize an Albuquerque October morning could be quite cold before dawn. I had bundled up my children properly because I’m a bit of a neurotic mother, but I figured that jeans and a sweatshirt would be enough to keep me warm.

I didn’t reckon on seeing people eating pizza and turkey legs at the crack of dawn.

I didn’t know which breakfast burrito stand had the best burritos.

And I didn’t know that I should have brushed up on my German. I think I had three different people try to converse with me in German as I passed the Warsteiner Biergarten in the dark. WTF? Do I really look like I speak German? (Vielleicht. Ich bin eine deutsche arabisch Amerikanerin.)

So there I was, at 5:30 in the morning, making my son run around in little circles with me as I pushed his sleeping sister in a stroller – all to keep us me warm. And then I heard him shout in a gleeful little voice, “Mommy! Look! Look at the balloons!”

As we had been running around on the field, the dawn patrol had launched. (I’m sure this was probably what they were telling us on the crackling PA system, but this hard of hearing mama couldn’t decipher those sounds).

We stopped in our tracks, watched the balloons rise against the mountains, burners firing and envelopes glowing as the sun slowly made an appearance. It was magical.

And it just got better after that – zebras and weddings and champagne and pigs and cows and shoes.

We came home, the kids crashing to sleep in their car seats. Minutes after I unloaded the car, I was zonked out on our couch, having just sat down to “rest my eyes” for a bit. (That was the other part I was unprepared for – getting up at 3:30 am and chasing kiddos around Balloon Fiesta park meant a hard afternoon nap was coming up, whether I wanted one or not).

As we sunk our roots into Albuquerque, we met balloonists, participated in tether rides at local schools, helped chase crews find their way around Albuquerque streets, and when work schedules permitted, enjoyed daytime festivities like the key grab and the chainsaw carving competition. In short, we became balloonatics.

As my kids got older, they became blasé. The Balloon Fiesta was for little kids, they scorned.

Still, my son and I developed a tradition of going to see the gas balloon launch every year – the crowds were small, few small children were present, and parking was easy. We could get up close to some of the best gas balloonists in the world, wish them luck, and even snag an autograph.

The folks at the gas balloon race launch just seemed to be more hard core about ballooning than the hot air crowd. They also seemed to have a helluva lot more common sense – I never saw anyone in this crowd trying to light up a cigarette next to a gas balloon, though I saw people attempt this almost every year at the hot air balloon events.

I claimed the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race as my favorite Balloon Fiesta event.

As we all know, this year is different.

Albuquerque gas balloonists Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis are missing, having lost contact last Wednesday when their gas balloon moved into heavy thunderstorms and descended rapidly over the Adriatic Sea.

At this point, even optimists are replacing worry with sorrow.

And I cannot help but shake my head at the timing, just days before the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. This annual event that brings smiles to the dourest curmudgeons has had a pall cast over it.

I’ll be watching the gas balloon launch on Tuesday evening. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. (I have a feeling it’ll be a bit more crowded this year than usual so you might want to get an early start). When those balloons lift into the air, I’ll be clapping and waving and smiling as I do each year.

But I can’t promise that I won’t shed a tear or two as I think of Richard and Carol and hope for a miracle.

Header image courtesy of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Inc.

Views: 34

Comment by cathyray on October 4, 2010 at 7:37pm
great post, BB. very sad about Richard & Carol, many a candle will be lit.
Comment by MarkSteele on October 4, 2010 at 10:13pm
I love the religious connotations of Mass Ascension. Religion and hot air are a perfect pair. And if you're in just the right frame of mind, both can give you that warm, fuzzy feeling all over.
Comment by Edith Grove on October 4, 2010 at 10:55pm
I met a lady in the middle of the Atlantic who excitedly shared her memories of attending Balloon Fiesta. It does seem to be what a lot of people know Albuquerque for.
Comment by Edith Grove on October 4, 2010 at 11:01pm
FYI, the gas balloon race has been delayed. It won't be going Tuesday eve due to weather concerns. Could go off Wednesday or later.
Comment by carol on October 4, 2010 at 11:18pm
Dad and I attended the Sunday Mass Ascension and were just as thrilled to see it as the first time in 1999 (I found an old pin to verify the date). When I mentioned to a friend in California recently about the Albq Balloon Fiesta and the Mass Ascensions, she thought it was a religious thing too. She plans to attend the Fiesta perhaps next year. Your blog brought some very happy memories of our granddaughter in her stroller and our grandson taking it all in with his love of flying machines.
Comment by once banned twice shy on October 5, 2010 at 11:30am
Hmmm. Most people have heard of Albuquerque, if only because they have to fly here to get to Santa Fe. I'd say you should give people a little more credit.
Comment by Barelas Babe on October 5, 2010 at 12:03pm
OTBS - unfortunately, this has not been my experience abroad (in the EU and the Arab countries, at least). many of the people I've chatted with are aware of Santa Fe, but have never been to Santa Fe so they may miss the Albuquerque connection. I guess we may move in different circles, eh? Your international circles are just more geographically aware than mine.
Comment by once banned twice shy on October 6, 2010 at 10:15am
Odd. I have traveled extensively in the EU and people have definitely heard of NM--maybe not Albq., but I don't worry about that. I tell them the city I am from and tell them it is the largest city--although I have to say that most Europeans I meet couldn't care less what CITY I am from. It's less confusing than having to explain that I told them I am from a city I do not actually live in because I think they're too stupid to understand that there is more than one city in my state. I used to live half the year in a town called Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Now, I don't meet many people who have heard of that town or who know where it is, but I don't go around telling people I lived in Amsterdam just because people have heard of that. Makes no sense.
Comment by Barelas Babe on October 6, 2010 at 10:29am
OBTS - I certainly don't think they are too stupid to understand there is more than one city in my state - sorry if I seemed to imply that! I have just learned that once I give them Santa Fe as a reference point, it is easier to get to Albuquerque than if I say NM. It may be a function of my hard of hearing speech impediment, but when I say New Mexico, in almost all cases, I have to correct a misunderstanding that they thought I meant Mexico.
Comment by Rita on October 6, 2010 at 11:00pm
BB--great post! I remember the balloons taking off from the fairgrounds and drifting over our SE heights home, landing on streets throughout the neighborhood. We met balloonists from all over the world, and everyone of them adored Albuquerque. I even ran into a couple in line at FAO Schwartz in NY City proudly wearing their balloon fiesta satin jackets--they raved about our fair city. Not everyone in Europe knows about our city, but those that do immidiately connect the balloon fiesta to it.


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