When we decided to pass through Albuquerque, we didn’t know anything about the city. A quick Google revealed that it’s a big site for hot air ballooning-it has the right weather, lots of open spaces to land, and the Balloon Fiesta every October. http://www.balloonfiesta.com/

Of course we decided to seize the day and go on a hot air balloon over the Rio Grande. We used the company Rainbow Ryders (http://www.rainbowryders.com/), and it was amazing.

We woke up early to drive to their headquarters. We all met there at 5:30am, while the sky was still a deep blue. IMG_3463

After signing away our lives (I mean their liability), we climbed into a van to drive out to the launch site.

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As we drove, the sun started to rise over the Sandia Mountains.

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It wasn’t far, but the sky lightened quickly. In the distance a little segment of rainbow appeared 🙂

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There were three other balloons flying with us that morning. The crews started preparations by unloading the basket and tipping it on its side, then spreading out the envelope before it.

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Next they attached the envelope to the basket and had us help hold it open while two fans filled it with air.

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The colors were amazing, as well as the sheer size of the envelope. It’s 210,000 cubic feet.

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The next step was to tilt the baskets and balloons upright. They started using jets of flame to heat the air and make the balloon rise.

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One by one, the other balloons started to lift off.

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And then it was our turn! There were 11 people on our flight. We climbed into the basket…

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And floated away! The lift off was the first moment I even considered being scared. As we were carried up off the ground I had the sudden realisation that there really wasn’t much of a barrier between me and falling to my death. It was an odd sensation because we lifted straight up slow and gentle, as opposed to forward and up with speed, like in an airplane. I felt buoyed up, like when you swim down deep into water and then let yourself go still and out of your control rise to the surface.

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But it only took a moment to get used to the feeling and perspective. I immediately forgot to worry as I became mesmerized by the view. Sorry guys, you’re going to have to settle in for what I can only describe as hot air balloon porn, because I was super into this. The sky was a little dark still from the clouds, but from the east the sun burst through over the mountain crest. Below us, it seemed like all the dogs in the city howled at the balloon. The plains stretched out to the west an endless gold, and below us the Rio Grande snaked through shrubby green. Having the other balloons out there with us was beautiful, but also a matter of navigation. In the air, I learned that you cannot steer a hot air balloon (perhaps information I would have appreciated beforehand). The pilot can make it spin on its axis, but beyond that his control of the balloon is limited to up or down. He looks for air currents at different elevations, and watches the other balloons to see how they are travelling.

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Our pilot cheerily answered all of our questions. A balloon goes through one gallon of propane per minute, and they start out with 90 gallons. If two balloons collide they just bounce off, but it’s dangerous for a basket to scrape another balloon’s envelope, because it could tear it. The farthest he had ever flown was to Texas, when they flew through the whole night (can you imagine that?).

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Then it came time to land. You’ll remember I said the pilot can’t steer the balloon. So you can imagine the questions in my mind as we skimmed lower and lower, closer to the roofs of houses. A balloon in front of us landed in the middle of a street, and one of our fellow riders commented that once during the balloon fiesta she’d seen one put down in the highway…

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As we got closer to the ground we were all ordered to face the pilot, grab on to the hand holds, and bend our knees. First I thought we were going to land in the street, then I thought we were gonna hit the corner of that building, but we ended up setting down right behind it in the dirt. A van of the crew was driving around on the ground following us and communicating with the pilot over walkie-talkie. As we got close they ran around trying to anticipate where we’d end up, while our pilot shouted at them from above. It was a bit comical, but I was also contemplating if this would be the death of me, so I didn’t properly appreciate it. When we finally touched down it was a jolt, but not too bad, nor too scary, as the crew immediately surrounded us and grabbed onto the basket to stop its travel.

I filmed a bit of the next balloon’s landing, but from far away it’s not too dramatic. Watching the balloon deflate and fall down was very cool though. It reminded me of when you extinguish a candle and watch the last black smoke swirl in the air.

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The crew went to work packing up the envelope. One of the women in our basket had the crazy idea that we should all pretend to be helping them. This photo is funny in that it a)makes no sense and b)i don’t think anyone noticed that one rando guy jumped on at the end.

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We helped them stuff the chute into this tiny cube. It’s enormous and weighs 600 pounds, so it was actually pretty hard.IMG_3545

But we were rewarded for our efforts with mimosas! They told us a funny story for why champagne is a traditional pairing with ballooning: apparently when the first air balloons were going out in France in 1783, the pilots would fly far out into the countryside. But news of scientific advancements didn’t travel fast back then, so upon landing they were usually greeted by hoards of peasants brandishing pitchforks and flame to come kill this strange dragon/beast as they considered the balloon. The pilots learned that the best way to diffuse the tension was to come bearing bottles of champagne. They’d hold out their booze in a universal gesture of friendship, and the peasants quickly recognized not to kill them. Cheers!

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Alexander got a certificate.

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And this sweet pin.

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Hot air ballooning was a life experience. Despite my moments of worry, it really wasn’t scary. The pilot and crew were completely competent in their jobs and made me feel perfectly safe. Our company was friendly and fun, and the views were spectacular. I had never had much interest in Albuquerque, but now I really want to go to the Balloon Fiesta in October to see all the hundreds of balloons flying at once, and the specially shaped ones. For everyone else out there that never thought to do this, put it on your bucket list.

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