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Fiesta in the sky

Balloon chasing in the Albuquerque Box


By G.D. Maxwell

Thirty years ago, on a crisp Saturday autumn morning, I was sitting on my back porch in the rural outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, sipping hot coffee, trying to clear a late night from my head and wondering what I might do to distract myself from the day?s main task, studying.

Morning?s chill was slowly burning off as the sun rose higher in a clear sky the colour of old blue jeans. Cars hissed in muted passing on the other side of the house but the sounds of the day belonged, so far, to chirping birds and the popping noises of an expanding tin roof.

Abruptly, the sun dimmed, shadows fell across the porch and a godawful noise, part hiss and part roar, like a pack of tigers falling into a pit of 10,000 agitated vipers, broke my reverie and sent me jumping off the chair, coffee flying everywhere.

A wicker basked dangling from a red, blue and gold hot air balloon threatened to collide unceremoniously with the top of a still-leafed apricot tree dropping sap on my VW beetle. With both burners screaming, the pilot just managed to miss the tree, negotiate safe passage between nearby power lines and finally tumble in a less than textbook landing in the pasture beyond.

By the time I closed the 150 or so yards to the scene of expected carnage, a gap-toothed man and two burly helpers all covered in dust and grass had bulldogged the balloon?s gondola to a stop and were in the process of deflating the seven story envelope of hot air. Two women who completed the flight crew were breaking out champagne and plastic cups. Before apologies and names were completely exchanged a comically outsized 4x4 Chevy truck carrying the chase crew, was barrelling down the levee of a nearby irrigation ditch, trailing a plume of dust half a mile behind.

There were 13 balloons that year, 1971, at a celebration more birthday party than big time balloon fiesta. It was Sid Cutter?s idea to "fill the sky" with hot air balloons for his mother, Virginia?s, birthday. Sid owned a local aviation concern and had, with his brother, flown just about everything airworthy, balloons included. He?d invited everyone he knew or had heard about who flew one to join the celebration. Their presence in the fall air above Albuquerque had caused quite a local buzz but no one had any idea this first rendezvous was destined to become the single biggest balloon celebration in the world.

To say hot air ballooning was a fringe activity in those days would be to give it way more credit than it deserved. A single balloon in the air was reason enough for cars to be parked helter-skelter alongside ? or often in the middle of ? any road offering a vantage. Jaded, seen-it-all, done-it-all people reverted instantly to childhood whenever one of the brightly-coloured, gravity-defying orbs bobbed and floated across the sky. It was an unconscious reaction.

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