Saturday, October 04, 2008

New Mexico: Balloon Fiesta!

Balloons on the Dawn Patrol

Date: Saturday, October 4, 2008
Time: 5:45am
Location: I-25 Northbound

It's five forty-five in the morning and we're stuck in a major traffic jam.

When the girl at Duran Central Pharmacy said she got up at 4:30am to go to Balloon Fiesta, I figured it was because she lived a ways away. Sitting in traffic on an otherwise desolate strip of highway waiting to get on the exit with 100,000 other people forced me to realize that this Balloon Fiesta thing wasn't some small, isolated event dreamt up by a funky little town but a major event.

Not one to enjoy sitting in unwarranted traffic, I maneuvered our Xterra around the traffic to the second exit and took the open lane to get a little bit ahead of the masses welling up behind us. From there, it would take us over 45 minutes to traverse the 1 mile of roadway to get to the Fiesta. I couldn't believe it. It was insane.


The view from our upper level parking lot was impressive. In the twilight, a number of balloons were taking off for the Fiesta's "Dawn Patrol." With the sun barely peeking over the horizon to our back, the rising balloons illuminated from within by their propane burners. It's a mesmerizing sight in the high desert.

There's a chill in the air as the sun starts to rise but this place is packed. It's Day One at the Balloon Fiesta and the crowds are incredible. This festival is huge. I had always thought Artscape in Baltimore was a big festival but this one easily dwarfs Artscape. Hundreds of acres large, the take off field for the balloons is jam-packed with spectators. And the line of food vendors running the length of the Fiesta grounds are cranking it out trying to battle never-ending long lines of hungry attendees.

Darth in the morning sun.

As we wander the field, we start to pick up the rhythm of the Fiesta. The balloons line up in sequential order on the field and take off in order when the "referees" come by to give the balloons their take off orders. Slowly, one by one, the balloons take off amidst wild applause from those immediately surrounding their take off spot.

Evidently, Albuquerque didn't become balloon central by happenstance. From what I've been told, the position of the city, surrounded by mountains developed a wind pattern that could allow the successful and skilled balloon pilot to fly his balloon in essentially a circle and land at the same spot where he took off. No need for chase vehicles. No need for long drives. Just take off, fly and land. Easy peasy - and it's what made Albuquerque into Balloon Capitol of the World.

A parrot inflates.

We've all seen different kinds of balloons, but chances are you've never seen some of the balloons featured at Fiesta. Sure, there's the standard-looking balloons, but there are also one-man balloons, sport balloons, gas balloons, race balloons and all sorts of shapes. From balloon-looking balloons to pyramid shaped balloons to a Wells Fargo Wagon, twin bees, clown fish, Ronald McDonald, a parrot, and more. Even Darth Vader's helmet is a balloon, not to mention a floating cathedral. The array of balloons is amazing and impressive.

But what's an outdoor festival without food? Nada. And since we got up so early, we're hungry. While Maria goes off to find something, I jump in a line promising Hatch Green Chile Breakfast Burritos. Sounds good to me. They've also got Frito Pie - that ubiquitous and slightly obnoxious New Mexican delicacy that takes Frito-Lay Fritos corn chips and piles them with Texas chili, cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato.

That's a clown fish, but it's not Nemo.

There's a coffee vendor that looks like it has potential (at least greater potential than the Folger's they're serving at my stand), but I'm not willing to stand in another long line. The line is moving slowly and the wait after order is considerable. Some people are getting grouchy but at least they're making our food to order instead of hot holding in some hot box. I can appreciate freshly made product and can wait for it.

Finally, my number comes up and I've got the burrito in one hand and the Frito Pie in the other. I start with the pie. Years ago, when Bryan and Maria (a different Maria) told me about Frito Pie, I imagined someone going into 7-11, ripping open a bag of Fritos lengthwise and pumping both that crappy hot dog chili and nacho cheese on top. Because of this, I was expecting a sloppy, running and industrially salty kind of concoction. One that would be ideal for late night binge eating and lots of acidic Coca-Cola.

Maria looking for something to eat on the Midway.

Instead, this Frito Pie is almost refined. It's a big mount of stuff in a paper container. I'm a bit put off by the lettuce and tomato, thinking that it's just impeding my enjoyment of the good (bad) stuff. The chili is nice, it tastes real and has actual beans instead of the salty gruel that passes for chili at 7-11. It's very different than what I pictured. The cheese is shredded and their are greens. To eat, just mix and mash it all together then eat. It's good. The flavors start to come together.

Frito Pie reminds me of my favorite breakfast dish: chilaquiles. In fact they share similar traits. Corn chips smothered in a sauce, what more could one ask for? Fried egg maybe? It's a good dish and I try to pace myself. I'm thinking that I'll let Maria try some but I've lost track of her. She's somewhere around here and I've left my cell phone in the car, so much for calling.

Frito Pie.

In the end, I find her but not before I've finished the Frito Pie. I choose to omit the detail that I had a Frito Pie, just in case. Next up is the breakfast burrito, it's ubiquitous in this part of the world and while I've never lived here, it's also a popular order with movie on-set caterers and I've spent many a cold morning eating some tasty breakfast burritos before running off to set up the first shot of the day.

The breakfast burrito here, well, sucks. The tortilla is dry, the scrambled eggs are dry. It lacks flavor and/or distinction. I wish I had coffee to help wash it down. There's some sausage in there but it doesn't help. I dig through it to find the lone piece of Hatch Green Chile and it's bland. Lame. I don't even bother to finish the rest. I just dump in in the bin.

We hang out a little while longer and listen to a children's choral group from Kenya sing a few numbers. I try to check out the apparel tent to see if there are any cool embroidered jackets to buy but the place is just too packed - and I hate crowds. I pass and keep my sixty bucks. Pretty soon we're back on the road heading for our next adventure: Trinity.

The Floating Cathedral.

Balloons take off in order along a line.


Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
4401 Alameda NE
Albuquerque, NM 87113

No comments: