Alone in my car, I drove south through the barren desert of New Mexico. It was a beautiful afternoon in early October. The sun was crawling slowly across the open blue sky towards the western horizon. It cast its golden glow upon the large brown plateaus and miniature mountains sparsely scattered throughout this open desert. Their lengthening shadows began reaching across the earth as the afternoon deepened.
Far off in the distance, still hours beyond the horizon, I could hear the city of Albuquerque calling out to me. This was the week of their annual Balloon Fiesta. Every year at the start of October, hot air balloon enthusiasts from all corners of the globe assemble together in the high deserts of New Mexico to celebrate their collective passion for balloon aviation. I had spent many years dreaming of attending this event. Now the stars were finally aligned and I was on my way!
Finding a last minute place to stay in Albuquerque had been nearly impossible. I had greatly underestimated the popularity of the Balloon Fiesta. Every motel and AirBnB had been booked. The few hotels that were still open were going for over $300 a night! I had almost given up my search completely when Adam, a couchsurfer and balloon fiesta enthusiast, graciously offered up his couches to me and a couple Denver-based couch surfers for this event.
“I think the balloon fiesta is something everybody should see once in their lifetime,” he had told me over the phone. “You will be very glad you came to see it!”
So I said goodbye to Colorado, jumped in my car, and began the long and beautiful drive down south towards the city of Albuquerque. The last rays of sunlight disappeared over the desert horizon just as I was arriving at the outskirts of the city and it was nighttime when I finally finished navigating through the city to Adam’s condo. I had spent most of the day alone on the road, and I was exhausted by the time I arrived. Adam had dinner waiting for me as soon as I arrived! What a great guy! He was an older guy, a sort of a hippie, interested in yoga and spirituality. Walking into his place felt like walking into a yoga studio, and I immediately got a very good vibe. We had dinner and spent some time talking about our various interests and perspectives on life.
I told him how thankful I was that he was letting me stay. I had spent several years dreaming of going to this balloon fiesta, and I was very excited to finally have the chance to see it in person. Adam mentioned to me that he was going to help a friend crew a balloon tomorrow morning, and asked me if that was something I would be interested in.
“Hell yes! I would love to help balloon crew at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta!” I exclaimed.
We discussed many of the options on getting there tomorrow morning. Walking, biking, and taking the shuttle. He was planning to bike there in the morning, and had an extra bike I could borrow. Walking was too far, his bike was too big for me, and the shuttle stops weren’t very close by. In the end I decided it would be easiest to try to beat the traffic and just drive there myself.
Hot air balloons usually take off at dawn when the winds are calmest. This meant that I had to wake up at 4AM the next morning. It was still dark outside and I was cursing myself for choosing an activity that required me to wake up at 4 AM. Adam was already up and getting ready. He had warned me that the event would become very crowded and jammed with traffic. If I was going to drive myself there, I needed to get a very early start to beat the traffic. Fortunately it didn’t take long for my excitement to kick in. By 4:20 AM I was in my car and driving the dark highway to the fiesta. Even though the roads were already very busy at 4:30 AM, I could sense that this traffic was only a sliver of how crowded it would become in the next couple of hours. By 5AM I was parked inside the event, eager to set out and finally explore the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.
Finally! I was here!
There was a strange energy in the air as I began to explore the fiesta that morning. New Mexico felt so different from home in Illinois. I felt so far away, yet the energy swirled around me and I sensed that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
First I walked past a long tent with lines of people who were signed up for Balloon Rides. It would be so incredible to get a balloon ride during the balloon fiesta, but I also knew those slots all got booked early on. I continued on to a main long road. Bright tents and booths lined either side of the road. They were selling trinkets, clothing, food, hot chocolate and coffee for this very cold morning in the desert.
There were a lot of families walking around. The bright tents and booths, the crowds of people, the colorful festival lights everywhere made me feel like I was walking in a carnival. It was so crowded that I had to remind myself it wasn’t evening, but actually 5:30 in the morning.
Beyond the street was an enormous black field full of trucks, trailers, and big groups people. In the darkness of night, it was impossible to know how far this vast field stretched out, or how many people filled it. But there was enough noise coming from it that I could imagine how huge the launch field was. This was the field where everyone would be setting up their hot air balloons! I spent a while exploring this large dark field. It was organized in rows with letters and numbers. There was supposed to be a “morning glow” event but I didn’t see any balloons up yet.
I went to the site that Adam told me he would be at to crew the balloon. There were a lot of people at that site, but I didn’t see Adam there. Nobody in this giant field was even setting up their balloons yet, everyone was just waiting around, so I continued to explore.
Slowly, the sky began to lighten as the sun started to peak up from over the mountains in the distance. It was a really beautiful dawn, and seeing the mountains made me feel truly happy and blessed to get to watch this sunrise in New Mexico. The midwest seemed lifetimes away.
Now that the light was driving out the nighttime darkness, I could see the huge launch field more clearly. There were tons of people, cars, trailers, pickup trucks. But everyone seemed to mostly just be hanging out. Nobody in this enormous field was setting up their balloons. I wasn’t sure why. The skies seemed alright. It didn’t seem very windy. It wasn’t very cloudy. Then I heard a girl talking on the phone saying the balloons might be cancelled for the day.
WHAT??? Oh no!
I must have misheard her.
When she hung up, I immediately asked her if she knew when the balloons were going up.
She pointed across the busy field to a tall flagpole at the entrance of the event. I could see a yellow flag hanging from the top of if, blowing in the slight breeze.
“Green means that the balloons are going up.” she explained to me. “Red means there wont be any balloons flying for the day. Right now it’s yellow, which means maybe. But I’d say it’s less than 50% chance. They probably won’t go up today, it’s too windy.”
And just like that, my heart sank. I had spent YEARS wanting to see this event. I had spent hours trying every single option I could find to spend the night here in Albuquerque. I drove an entire day south down Colorado and through New Mexico to get here. I had eagerly hustled out of bed at 4AM to beat the swarms of traffic and watch these balloons take off. And now, they weren’t going up? The weather tomorrow morning guaranteed rain, so this was my only real chance. I felt foolish. I had driven all the way across the country for nothing.
The sky began to streak with pink as the sun slowly climbed higher above the mountains. They yellow flag remained up. It was an amazing dawn in Albuquerque, and I was frustrated with myself for not enjoying it. I was so disappointed about not seeing these balloons go up. The balloon fiesta was a full day event, and I had planned to spend the whole day here. Would the rest of the events get cancelled too? There were supposed to be concerts, wood carving contests, fireworks. I wrestled with my emotions for a while while I watched the sun slowly rise. There was no reason to feel so bad. I was extremely blessed to be here. Even if I didn’t see balloons take off, watching the sun rise over the mountains in Albuquerque was an incredible experience and I was lucky to be seeing it. It was great to be so far away from home, to be somewhere new and different. And the crowd and energy here was awesome. I loved crowds, and even if the balloons didn’t take off, I could still have fun exploring and people watching.
But, it was hard to truly enjoy what I did have when I kept focusing on what was missing. I was really disappointed that the balloons weren’t going up. Eventually I decided to stop feeling guilty about my disappointment. I accepted that it was okay to be disappointed that the balloons didn’t go up, but that didn’t mean I still couldn’t have a good time enjoying this gorgeous day in Albuquerque. Once I came to this compromise, I felt a lot better.
So I decided to enjoy the day the best I could. I kept wandering around. I explored the fields. I watched all the different types of people who came to fly their balloons. I walked the main street of the event, which was now so packed with people that I could barely move through it. I perused all the different stores and booths. The sun was up and the morning was upon us. Balloons or no balloons, I was enjoying this beautiful day. And then I heard a lot of commotion. Were people clapping? Cheering??
I looked over and gasped as I saw a huge line of balloons inflating on the far side of the field. I looked over to the front entrance and saw that the flag hanging from the pole was now green.
IT WAS HAPPENING!
I ran over to Adam’s balloon site to see if I could help him and his friend set up and crew the balloon. It was really crowded at the site and everyone there was suddenly shuffling around to get things ready. But there was no sign of Adam there. I gave up quickly on the balloon crew and decided to go take in the magic of the event. I later found out that Adam had biked back home when he thought the Balloon launch was cancelled.
Suddenly there was a loud applause. I looked up and saw the first hot air balloon begin to slowly lift up and over a cheering crowd. It looked so magical! Watching a hot air balloon defying gravity and drifting slowly into the skies recaptured the true essence and magic of human flight. I ran towards the far end of the field, where the line of balloons were inflating. It was amazing! These things were HUGE. I’ve seen hot air balloons in person before and was always amazed at how much bigger they were in person. But there was nothing quite like walking up to a giant colorful wall of hot air balloons that stretched out across the huge field.
And one by one, they began lifting upward into the the sky. The crowds were roaring with excitement. I looked behind me and saw tons of balloons inflating all over the field. They were everywhere! The event was so magical! The balloons were so brightly colored. I marveled at the creativity of the designs on the balloons. Some were classic. Some had company logos. Some had colorful patterns and intricate designs. Some had amazing shapes. There was a Mufasa Lion King balloon. There was a Darth Vadar balloon. There was a Yoda balloon. There were hot air balloons shaped like Penguins, and one shaped like a wagon!
I couldn’t get enough pictures. And none of them were really even capturing the magical essence of the experience. There were hundreds of balloons lifting up into the sky. I was consumed by a sense of child like wonder as I watched the colorful globes of fabric floating into the New Mexico skies above me. It had been a long journey to get to this point, and now that I was here, it was absolutely worth every moment of the trip.
For once, I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be.