Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Tour: a Reflection
by Scott Pearse
Despite there being much to distract us at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, Conor and I find ourselves walking up and down an aisle of food-related kitchen tents, in various states of preparedness, on a frigid New Mexico pre-dawn. Conor manages to find a coffee, which he informs me, in a Scottish accent (which is either how he is repeating my Australian accent back to me or is how he usually addresses people named Scott), is “Ver-r-r-y nice.” We find Adam and PJ huddled together for warmth in a large tent selling Balloon Fiesta t-shirts, sweaters, puzzles, bottle openers, unrelated candy, and hats. We wait patiently for the sun to rise and bring with it soothing warmth. Adam is wearing sandals, his skin exposed to the morning dew. He mentions that he can’t feel his toes. We walk in a small group to find toilets. PJ asks if he can buy donuts; we tell him it’s his money and he can do with it whatever he wants. He decides against the purchase. Conor makes comment on the morning’s briskness, “Gosh, ver-r-r-y cold this mor-r-r-ning.” We wait outside the toilets for PJ. The sun now peeking from behind Sandia Mountain to the east of the balloon fields. Somehow the first evidence of sun has done nothing but suck whatever heat there was in the air all the way out of it. Adam’s toes are officially blue.
PJ emerges from the Porta Potty unreasonably proud of the photo he has taken of its unmentionable contents. The first balloons of the day, the test balloons -- as in, if these ones float off uncontrollably into the distance the other 150-odd balloons will stay grounded -- are near ready to launch.
Especially given how commonplace aviation is these days, hot air ballooning occupies the same brain space as steam trains: an outdated form of getting around, once impressive, now a novelty. Watching the test launch from a distance in the near-dawn light, six balloons firing their engines in a choreographed pattern, I was smitten. I couldn’t nail down what exactly was so beautiful: perhaps it was the quiet majesty of an inflated balloon, or maybe that my whole body was near frozen. Conor said, “Aye, look. That’s the first one in the air.” We stood amongst a field of dozens of balloons each taking off in sequence to avoid collision until they were swarming the clear blue sky. From the ground it was difficult to believe they’d stay aloft.
You spend a lot of time worrying about other people when you’re pseudo-in-charge and responsible, which is a great distraction when you have an upcoming balloon flight and a fear of heights that is rarely tested. I climbed into the basket. David said, “This is great. What do you think, Scott? This is great, right?” The engine fired and it was warm. I suppose I was quiet. Robbie was smiling. Zane seemed unfazed. These images come to me like a slideshow. I wanted to remain positive to instill a sense in the band members that there was nothing to fear. “Here we go,” I think I said. The balloon left the ground without anyone noticing, its flight so smooth we may as well have been in an elevator. I concentrate my attention on Zane, who caught me looking at him and turned away from my eye contact. We were now far enough away from the launch area that the people yelling bon voyage were difficult to hear. At this stage we had moved laterally and were not more than 20 feet in the air. David said, “Yeah, this is great.” Robbie radiated the positivity I had hoped for myself. I looked over the edge: we were now silently sailing through the tops of some trees growing on a floodplain of the Rio Grande River. Our pilot started talking, telling us of his intention to ‘kiss the river.’ Good, I thought, exactly 0 feet in the air, mentally agreeing with David, this is great. We slowly dropped from the treetops down to the river. As the pilot had hoped, we gently grazed the water’s surface. I felt really good about where we were. In what seemed like the same moment, we were suddenly 150 feet in the air and climbing. There is an up draught on the bank of the Rio Grande that pilots use to climb. At the exact moment I realized how high we were Andrea pulled her camera out and recorded an Australian Accent News Report that featured me as mono-syllabic interviewee. PJ said, “I need to go to the bathroom.” I expertly said, “It’s just your nerves.” “Yeah,” he said, “I don’t want to have an accident.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
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Scott Pearse is a writer, web developer, and community organizer living in his native Australia. For his ode, he designed a Facebook app called The #EverybodyIn App. The app imprinted uploaded Facebook photos with the hashtag #EverybodyIn and The Wayfaring Band logo. Then the app would post the photo to the user’s feed with a message about practicing radical inclusivity. Scott also wrote a short article reflecting on his experience.