In the predawn darkness of Albuquerque, New Mexico, thousands of people gathered on a high plateau, staring up at the sky. The October air was clear and cold; visibility excellent. To the west, above the Sandia Mountains, was a crescent moon and the glittering star of Venus. In the dark void, midway between the two planets -- something moved.
There was a loud roar and for a few seconds flaming light filled a hot-air balloon. Then silence, darkness. . . Then the rising balloon glowed again, eclipsing the moon, as "The Wizard," piloted by Napa's own Jay Kimball worked its magic across the sky and throughout the crowd.
Another Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta had begun. As sunlight brightened the sky, the sights were phantasmagoric: six-story nylon envelopes drifting, roaring to life, ringed by a small city -- vendors serving everything from breakfast burritos to Freixenet champagne -- and throngs of people, and chase vehicles moving amidst 500 balloons from around the world, now bunched together on Cutter Field for a mass ascension.
Out in the middle, Jay Kimball and crew readied The Wizard for another flight. His passengers were four elderly women, schoolteachers from California's San Fernando Valley, and this writer. We ascended in the second wave, surrounded by celestial ornaments, baubles in every shape and hue imaginable. Signs of the zodiac, Hopi kachinas, world globes. There were corporate sponsorships, once proclaiming: "Thank You, Paine Webber." And "character" balloons: a perfect likeness of Carmen Miranda, complete with inflated fruit headdress; a light-hearted Uncle Sam; a full-blown jack-o'-lantern paraded on every level over Albuquerque.
Kimball, one of the top ten balloon pilots in the world, sat up on the gondola's padded rail in a worn aviator jacket. He was barefoot and wore a Huck Finn grin. His eyes shone with the excitement that lay ahead, and from the way he triggered the propane burner, he knew exactly which winds would best carry us there.
We flew directly toward the Rio Grande River, the mythic waterway of the frontier West. Jay took us down closer, closer until suddenly we were standing on wood in water Others joined us -- an armada of hot air balloons temporarily sailing the Rio Grande!
We then lifted clear of the river, moving quickly toward the greenery on the bank. At the last moment, Jay sent us into a steep climb, propane blasting; the wicker gondola brushing up through the trees. The ladies reached out to pluck a few choice leaves.
"The wind needs to stratify," Jay announced as we cleared the treetops. "There's a 'box-wind' effect that exists only here in Albuquerque. At one level you can ride it out, then another altitude can bring you right back to where you started. But let's get high and see what happens!" The schoolmarms shrieked with delight.
Finding a steam of air he wanted, we leveled off and sailed silently out over the high desert, with the balloon casting its shadow across sand dotted with purple sage. Timeless land, with air so clear we could see into tomorrow.
Drifting with the wind, there was no sense of motion. It was as if we were still and the earth turned beneath us.
One woman laughed.
"What?" I asked.
"Oh, it's just that years ago I set some goals that would get me out into life. I wanted to pet a koala bear, ride a camel, and fly in a hot-air balloon. It just hit me that I've now done all three. You know -- the older I get, the more fun I'm having!"
Jay smiled and nodded -- those words his reward, his reason for flying.
I glanced at the other faces. Everyone was beaming. Being airborne in a balloon seemed to stop time and create a feeling as serene as a dream.
A voice from the ground crew spattered over the two-way radio. The chase vehicle had lost us: too many balloons and so few roads out into the desert. Jay quickly spotted the truck, decided on exactly where to set down, and described landmarks to bring the ground crew to us.
We descended slowly, barely moving, but then all at once the earth rushed up and we hit and bounced three times, crushing sage into a pungent scent before The Wizard stood firm, merging with its shadow on the desert floor.
by Michael Modzelewski, E-mail: AdventureM@aol.com
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