Wednesday, October 9, 2013

10/5/13 The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Trip

When last I left you...

Marci's flight was delayed because of snow and poor visibility in Denver. I met her in the airport, we grabbed a quick bite, and then hit the road for the 440 miles to the balloon fiesta.

We stopped in Pueblo to top off and let her send some work stuff on Starbuck's wi-fi and then stopped again in Raton long enough to use the facilities, mostly because my car had taken that exit out of sheer habit because it's the turn to Dumas. From there, we made it into Santa Fe for one more fill-up.

Pretty, right? This is Santa Fe at sunset Friday night.

I made the mistake of handing Marci the camera and asking her to take a few pictures. 5000 pictures later... (no, not really. She only took 150. Of the ten minutes of sunset.)

Of course, being in Santa Fe to see the sun set meant we were still an hour from Albuquerque (which I am getting very good at typing without misspelling now) which meant we were going to be putting that tent up in the dark.

Only we weren't.

When we got there and followed the signs to the RV parking, we found the parking attendant looking for the blue permit on the dashboard that would allow us in. When he didn't see it, we pulled off and explained about the flight delay and the drive from Denver and that we still needed to check-in to get our spot.

But the check-in people had left at 7:00 (same time as that sunset above).

With the widest-blue-eyed puppy dog looks I could muster, I managed to elicit some sympathy for our plight. He kept apologizing and calling over to the supervisor's number to try and help us out. He was actually very sweet and helpful. When the older gentleman who was the supervisor made it over, about fifteen minutes later, he was also very nice, but told us there was simply no way we could set up in the dark, since it would be too dangerous for the other campers to try and find a space without any lighting. The best he could do was that we follow him into the section and park for the night and set up in the morning.

So Friday night was spent (sort of) sleeping in the car. When we followed him in, we passed the VIP sign for the more expensive RV parking areas, which explained why I couldn't spot a single tent across the street where the signs had pointed us. Turns out, the small tenting area is much, much closer than the general standard RV sites (at the same price).

We moved all the camping gear out of the back and Marci played Tetris with shoving it all in the front seats so that one of us could curl up in the back and the other take the back seat. While we were doing all of this, I could hear someone in a tent behind us playing music and gasped when I recognized "Fall at your Feet" wafting over us. I turned to Marci and said, wonderously, "that's Crowded House" and she looked at me like, yeah... so? and went back to packing the front seat.

At 9:30 I was in my back seat space off-loading the hundred+ sunset pictures to make sure the memory card was empty and good to go for the morning. Since I shoot in both Raw and very large Jpeg, I can only store about 250 images at a go and I knew the morning would be a challenge not to overshoot, even starting from empty. By 10:00 we were huddled down in our sleeping bags laughing at the pretzel shapes we were having to contort ourselves into to shift from one side to the other.

With the moon roof and the amazing views of the clouds and the stars, it was beautiful, if not terribly comfortable. I woke at 3:00 after tossing around every hour and decided I needed to hit up the port-a-potty nearby.

That's about the time I remembered how crazy my car alarm is.

Once, when I'd locked the doors and run into the grocery store, leaving Nick inside, and he'd pulled on the handle to open his door, it set off the alarm and nothing we did would make it stop. It went off, piercingly loudly, for 10 minutes, despite me unlocking the car with the fob, turning the car on, pushing on every other button imaginable, and driving back to the house. That was moritfying.

But this? This would be so.much.worse.

If I tried to exit the vehicle without pushing the right button or pulling the right handle, I would be setting off that insane noise at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of a camp ground.

Eventually, my bladder won the battle of the terrors. I pushed the key fob button and it unlocked the car without a problem. But I couldn't reach the driver's door handle, which I had talked myself into believing was the magic handle from which all blessings flow, because of all the crap we'd stowed in the front seat. After 20 seconds, the car locked itself again. Apparently if you unlock the doors but don't open one, it relocks on its own. Pretty sure there needed to be a patron saint of car alarms, I manuevered to where I could touch the handle before pushing the fob and pulling the door open in one Hail Mary move.


My bladder rejoiced.

Then I felt the 40° wind on my face and got the heck out of the car and hustled to the toilet.

Marci got up at 4:00 and we started to get dressed. I realized my phone was dying (something had been running in the background all night) and thought, while we got ready, I should turn the car battery on and try to give it a little charge. But the seat had been pushed all the way to the steering wheel to fit things in behind it, so, now that I was out of the back seat, I decided to move it back enough to reach the ignition.

Big mistake.

You see, thinking about two women camping alone, I'd packed along the only mace I had on hand, which was the bear mace we'd been toting around for a few years.

As I pushed on the seat, I heard a "pssssssssss" aerosol release. I mean, as soon as I heard it, I stopped immediately, so it might have gone off for all of two seconds.

I don't know how well that stuff works on bears, but let me tell you, it works like gangbusters on people. I felt my lungs seize up and I started backing away and coughing. There wasn't a smell at all. It was just this overwhelming sensation of choking and not being able to breathe. About a second later, it hit Marci, who was a little further back at the back end of the vehicle with the hatch open.

So, the phone didn't get charged and we had to leave everything closed up and locked so we could get over to the festivities. I was not looking forward to returning and opening up the car some four hours later, but there wasn't much to be done about it at that point.

We'd read that the gates opened at 4:30, so we'd decided to be ready and head over at that time. (In hindsight, the gates open at 4:30 for the incredibly horrendous traffic for everyone who is not on the grounds. We could have waited until 5:30 and made it in plenty of time to see the first balloons begin to inflate.)

Of course, we were also still in the dark, in an unknown campground of unknown size, and only a vague sense that we should be heading in one direction to reach the fields. About that time, three guys in a golf cart came puttering by and we waved them down and asked for directions.

Instead, they had us hop on and turned the cart around to take us there. In the dark, the drive felt a lot longer than it really was, plus I think he took the long way around the fields. We got dropped off directly in front of the concessions near the picnic tables at 4:45, where there were just a few people milling about, and even the Krispy Kreme stand hadn't been opened yet.

Since I'd read you must try a green chili breakfast burrito, that's what we went after, and it was really good. The hot coffee wasn't bad either, since we were having to stamp our feet to try and keep circulation going and numbness at bay. I thought of the foot warmers I'd packed that were buried somewhere in the car at that point and then remembered they had been right next to the bear mace.

At one point I went in search of facilities and was delighted to discover a trailer of flushing toilets and running water. Score. We also struck up a conversation with two ladies also from Colorado who own an RV park. You'd think they would've been in the RV parking, but instead they'd stayed at a hotel. Hrm.

The Dawn Patrol, a select few balloons that fire up and check all of the wind speeds ahead of mass ascension was scheduled to start at 5:45 but didn't get going until after 6:00.

They were beautiful in the pre-dawn darkness, and watching the Wicked balloon take off, I felt that lump in my throat which, for me, is on par with normal people actually crying. I thought of Sam always playing the soundtrack and I heard the lyrics of Defying Gravity in my head.

I'm through accepting limits
'Cause someone says they're so.
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I'll never know.
Too long I've been afraid of
Losing love I guess I've lost.
Well if that's love,
It comes at much too high a cost
I'd sooner buy defying gravity...

I'd expected a longer delay in between the Dawn Patrol and the start of mass ascension, so we wandered off the fields and back over to concessions. The line to the Krispy Kremes was a mile long, so we got in line so Marci could get a $4 hot chocolate from another place. I stopped and snapped this picture of the quilt they were raffling this year.

And then, I realized there were balloons actually fully inflated and about to head out!

We got back in the middle of things and started ooohing and aahhing at all the balloons along with thousands of other enthusiasts. It was just great fun, and that sun coming up really felt good after being on the desert floor in the dark since 3 a.m. shivering, even under multiple layers and gloves and hats.

Marci and her $4 hot chocolate. I brought along the heavy coat for her, since she was flying in for our weekend and then flying out again to Chicago for business and wouldn't have room in her luggage.

There were no clouds at all, which meant there wasn't a lot of contrast after the dawn colors disappeared, but no matter. The crowds were thick, but we didn't have any problem maneuvering around, and even tall people can't block shots of giant balloons too badly.

The pictures really don't do it justice. This is but a handful of the hundreds I shot. There are more in the youtube video I uploaded yesterday.  (And there's that irritating spot on my mirror I can't get rid of without Photoshop.)

It was almost 9:00 when the last of the balloons were floating away, except for a handful of balloons, and some very large shapes that did not launch, including Spider Pig, three gigantic bumblebees, and Elvis.


We started the walk back towards the camping area and were delighted to find it wasn't far all at. Once you exit the end of the fields, it wasn't 200 yards to the check-in tent. We got our paperwork to keep on the dashboard that would allow us entrance into the area and the nice man said he'd show us which spots were open for the taking. We asked if we could ride with him in the golfcart, thinking there was still a long road to go, but when we turned from the registration tent, there was my car, parked almost right behind it.

The tent area is spectacularly close to the fields, so much so, I told Marci that Sunday morning we should forego entering the fields and just watch from our tent and make up on some sleep.

They've painted/chalked out white lines in the tenting area for you to set up a tent or tiny camper and park your car. We are right up against the field where the balloon launch crews park their cars. Marci asked the couple who was packing up their truck beside us how last night was and the woman replied that the parking area was loud by 4:00 and then she glanced over two spaces, at the tiny trailer and van parked on the other side of our place, and said, "And good luck with those people."

Ooooh. Don't like the sound of that.

They finished packing up and drove away, leaving us to set up the tent and cots, etc, which didn't even take half an hour. During that time, "those people" showed up from the morning events. I couldn't quite figure out the dynamic, but when I compared notes with Marci later, she assured me there was indeed one husband, two wives (based on the way they both interacted with him), and about six kids. One mom came in and then out of the trailer with a baby in her arms and climbed into the van, ostensibly to breastfeed him and put him down for a nap. At some point, a kid who appeared to be about 8 opened the van door and there went that baby, toppling out onto the ground. I'm still not sure how that happened, but much screaming and shouting ensued, including at the husband who really just seemed to want to avoid the whole scene. Marci and I just kept right on setting up.

Their whole crew departed in the white van shortly after. We finished setting up and decided to find El Pinto, a Mexican food place Mom and Dad had suggested and the home to the salsa we regularly buy at the store. Marci grabbed the address off of Yelp, which turned out to be completely wrong, and once we found the place, it was perhaps all of two miles from our campsite. Lunch was superb, if pricey, and the skinny margarita helped immensely with the sore back from the night of the car sleep.

We stopped by the garden place we'd noticed to look at the fresh ristras, but there didn't appear to be a soul working and we gave up on trying to find out the price. We pulled back into our spot and realized the Big Love crew had packed up and hauled off, trailer in tow, leaving us totally alone in our area, save new neighbors that took the "good luck with those people" couples' spot.

I will say, the ground in this area was covered in stickerburrs, which made it a little dicey to try and move around the tent without shoes on, but you couldn't beat the location. There might have been a dozen tents total -- most of them lined up along the fence line behind where our spot was. They don't advertise this at all. The only time I even saw mention of tent camping was when I had checked back and saw the "tent spaces sold out" marked next to the standard RV listed prices. It sure wasn't sold out on this weekend.

We laid out on our cots and dozed off. I'd been a little worried about the warmth, but a breeze picked up and kept us quite comfortable. I woke to hear an Australian accent chatting with someone. He and his girlfriend had come over a month ago, landed in LA, bought a motorcycle, and just been tooling around west, into Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and down into New Mexico where they just happened to see the signs and decided to stay the night and check out the balloons. They were in their mid-20s and very friendly. We liked them at once. Since we knew we weren't going to be using the last two of our ticket pack, we shared.

That evening, the schedule had said the balloon twinkle was at 5:45, which didn't make any sense since sundown was around 7:00 but we walked over just in case. Sure enough, no balloons showed up before 7:00. We did lay out on the super soft carpet-like grass (no bugs or thin spots anywhere) to listen to the live music and people watch. I bought a pin for my bag and went for the Indian Fry Bread burger.

The Balloon Twinkle was fun, but nothing compared to the morning. Only about 30 balloons showed up, and since it was a Twinkle, not a Glow, their lighting was individual and sporadic.

We walked back to the tent and watched the fireworks from there before turning in.

I woke up at 4:00 having to go to the bathroom, per usual, and wondered if I'd be able to get back to sleep, since the crews were now showing up and the attendant at their parking area was apparently charged with hollering "S!" (the parking lot passes they had on each car were marked with an S) and then, for some reason, the make of the car. For an hour, every minute or so, "S! Toyota!"   "S! GMC!" S! Ford!" and on and on. Miraculously, I somehow fell back asleep, tucked entirely inside my awesome Slumberjack sleeping bag to keep warm. (Marci's head wasn't visible either.)

When I woke, it was 6:45 and the Dawn Patrol had already passed over. Marci had gotten up and saw them pass by. We set up our camp chairs and covered up under the sleeping bag and watched the balloons inflate and take off right over our heads.

balloons among the RVs

here's the rest of the tent area behind us

I love the peek-a-boo moments as the balloons inflate into sight.

Didn't quite get my bird in focus, but he was watching the balloons with us.

Here's our Aussie neighbors packing and watching with us.

my favorite shot 

the crew parking lot on the other side of the flags behind our tent. S! Honda!

Pascal, who was gifted to me by Marci for my birthday, has become our official road trip mascot.

the very last balloon shot, as the bees take flight at last

We started packing up camp around 8:30 and bid adieu to our Aussie couple who were about to finish packing up their own gear and heading for San Antonio. Then we discovered just how awful the traffic around the area really is. You get very spoiled just crawling out of bed and into a chair without having to drive and park!

We made it to Santa Fe by 10:30, found a parking spot one street off the square, confusingly marked with a green curb and Loading Zone, Permit Parking only 10 Minute limit, Monday through Saturday. To me, that said Sunday's were free and clear. The parking metered spots had a different sign, but also ended with Monday-Saturday and the meters were all reading dashes instead of times. Marci was reading it differently, but we decided to chance it.

The Plaza Cafe had reopened last year after a two year hiatus following the fire that wiped out a good part of the kitchen. It was the first time I'd been back since 2007 and the Huevos Rancheros with blue corn tortillas, sunny side up eggs, and homemade chili sauce was as good as ever. I'd asked for Christmas on the sauce (red and green) but ended up only getting the red, so he brought me a side of green. Then, a bit later, someone from the kitchen came out and brought some more. By then, I'd cleaned my plate, but he boxed it up to go, because you can't just leave that homemade green roasted chili goodness behind.

When we got back to the car, no ticket, perfect weather, and the open road ahead of us for another 370 miles. We pulled into Trinidad needing to fill up and use the facilities and, on a whim, I decided to check the candy aisle for my ever-elusive Bit-O-Honey, which you just can't find many places anymore. It's my road trip candy. And, to my excitement, there was a box, on the very bottom shelf, with three bars inside.

We discussed making more of these trips happen in the coming years. Maybe Route 66 and back through Santa Fe. On the docket that would require plane tickets: Cozumel, California wine country, & NYC. Maybe Marci logging a million bonus flight miles in a year isn't such a terrible thing after all.


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