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.

[youtube=http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAzmtiEGqK8&feature=youtu.be]

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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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[youtube=http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qw2ApyITUb0&feature=youtu.be]

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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.

[youtube=http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg24rkOwNIY&feature=youtu.be]

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.

The day started out with much promise. On this road trip I have developed a love of motel waffles and a flippancy for speed limits that I’m sure will serve me well in life.

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Doing work.

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At 7:30am we drove out to Carlsbad Caverns once more. To descend into the cave you can either take the elevator (lame) or hike down the natural entrance (awesome). We obviously chose the latter. Winding 1.25 miles and descending 800 feet into the earth, the natural entrance is the perfect introduction to the cave. Dumbly enough, I didn’t expect it to be quite so cave-like. I guess I thought it would be all clean and easily traversed and well lit. Neatly maintained. But the park works hard to keep the cave atmosphere genuine. As we left the light of day and descended into the cave, the path was already steeper than was comfortable. We trudged along, our weight falling heavily onto our toes. Almost immediately the smell of the cave-swallows’ feces hit us, mixed with a sort of musty-ness of the cave. The air felt thicker, filled with moisture and dust. Luckily this effect either decreased as we continued to descend, or we just got used to it, because farther along it was unnoticeable. The temperature quickly dropped 20 degrees to a cool 55 fahrenheit, and the cave was dark. Not dim; very dark. Very hard to see. Certain formations were lit from below, but for the most part I was navigating by the gleam off our metal railing and the cool, wet feel of it in my hand .

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As we dropped steeply down, the view into the cavern was awe-inspiring. The size of it was arresting, as was the feeling of vertigo as I peered down into the enormous negative space. These pictures are misleading because I’ve lightened them so you can see the formations, but in real life it was mostly blackness, with the scattered lights on formations and reflection off pools of water dotting the path. In the quiet you could hear the drips of the cave.

Whale’s Mouth

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Pillars

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Looks like Casper to me.

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At the bottom of the natural entrance you can either continue exploring on your own or go to meet a ranger-lead tour. I had booked us a tour for the King’s Palace; it went through four chambers and descended to the lowest level of the cave open to the public, 830 feet underground. There are tours where you get to crawl through all sorts of crazy stuff and really adventure, but unfortunately those fill up so fast you have to book them way in advance. Next time I’d love to do that though.

http://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm

Our ranger told us all about the cave and its exploration, the different formations, and the history of tourism in the cave. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is an appreciation for park rangers. All I’ve met have been so kind and friendly, informative and interesting. When you go to a national park, you should always take advantage of their guided tours, you’ll learn so much! It enhances the trip infinitely. In this tour our ranger turned out all the lights so we could see what total darkness really was. Obviously it’s pitch black, but the most off-putting thing for me was the lack of difference between having my eyes closed and open. I sat there just blinking and trying to sense some difference, but really I might as well just done away with eyelids for all the difference they were making.

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Jellyfish!

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These long sheets of rock hanging down made me think of wings. These ones looked like bat wing.

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This evoked the image of standing behind an angel and looking up at his robes and wing-tips.

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The cave was beautiful, but by the end of the tour we were shivering from the cold, slightly wet from being dripped upon, and happy to take the easy elevator route up to ground-level. I liked this art they had in the lobby.

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Back in the sunshine we warmed up and planned how to revive ourselves…

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The occasion called for some southern fried okra and coconut-meringue pie.

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We attacked the pie like ravenous wolves before remembering to properly document it. Hence the half-heartedly disguised fork marks.

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After this sustenance for our soul we were back on the road. Albuquerque was calling…

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Driving from Texas to New Mexico, we nearly ran out of gas in the desert. Our trip went a little like this: I took the first leg of driving while Rachael slept. I was zooming through the hills of Texas, going faster than I think is wise to admit to, when Rachael eventually woke up and offered to switch. As we were just passing some gas stations, I said we could stop at the next one. Then EIGHTY miles passed. I was burning through gas quickly, zipping along. In two-lane highways they say left lane is only for passing, but as far as I saw it, I was passing everyone, so I was perfectly content in my own personal race course. But as the hills turned to desert, and our fuel gauge crept lower, my appreciation for the sparse beauty of the land, interrupted only by dirt roads leading nowhere and oil pumps dipping up and down like those insatiable bird toys, turned to anxiety. The middle of nowhere was no longer a hyperbole. We couldn’t get internet on our phones to search for gas. Dots that showed up on our maps as towns revealed themselves to be one broken down farmhouse in the distance. For an hour we drove on this way, my eyes nervously scanning from our ever-decreasing gas bars, to my speedometer, which I now held at a restrained pace, to the previously despised right lane, where I tried to stay in the slip stream of the truck in front of me. Visions of us walking down the side of the road, trying to hitchhike, became more vivid. I had no appetite for food, there would be time enough to picnic when we were stranded on the side of the road. We nervously laughed at our jokes that at least it wasn’t too hot outside, and that we seemed to have a good tail-wind. Finally, with no end in sight, we came to a rest-stop. We pulled over, hoping there would be a map, or someone to tell us how much farther we had left. We were down to our last bar in the fuel gauge, gas-light on. No map, but some Oklahoma-platers told us that we were only 14 miles out from gas. We could make that!

Sweet, sweet salvation.

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And some comedic relief: their convenience store held this priceless post-card.

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With that lesson learned (I never ever ever let my tank far below half now), we made it the rest of the way to Carlsbad, NM, home of the Carlsbad Caverns. After checking into another Super 8 (dear God there is more on that later), we rewarded ourselves for not perishing in the desert by splitting a garden burger, onion rings, and a vanilla milkshake. Carlsbad has an unnervingly high concentration of Chinese Buffets with horrendous reviews by both Yelp and our motel receptionist, so we just went to this oddly themed, highly fried, and thankfully edible diner: Happy’s. Smiley faces and Disney cartoon figurines lined the walls, but the comfort food did make us, well, happy.

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After that we took a nap, and what I am about to relate will only horrify and disturb you 1/100th of the amount it did Rachael and I. Rachael found bed bugs. Multiple large, disgusting, orange, tick-looking, bed bugs. AHHHHH. It was so so so so… bleh uggabugga shiver shake revolting. I can’t even put up a picture here. I never want to see those things again. NEVER STAY IN A SUPER 8. I can only imagine the horror that one would feel if you realized you have crabs. I mean seeing those things in my bed I was about to burn the hotel down and and everything I was wearing. If I found such a thing in my nether regions? You’d have to sedate me and throw a flea bomb into my undies, then purchase a mind wiper out of the movie Men in Black and use it on me. I’d still probably need counseling after that. The intense kind, like out of a Clockwork Orange.

Anyway, I digress.

Clearly, we were out of there on the double and moved into a motel across the road. Probably not far enough, but we took it, after some intense initial bed inspections. I had wanted to go see the bat flight as all the bats exit the Carlsbad Cavern at night, but I was exhausted after all our near-death experiences. Still, Rachael dragged my ass out, and away we drove. About 20 minutes from that one-road town, up in the hills, we arrived in time to look out over the beautiful plains as the sun started to lower in the sky. The golden grass stretched as far as the eye could see. It’s odd; along this trip things I used to only say as er, sayings, I came to use to describe literal events in my life.

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A ranger was giving a talk about the bats, so we wound our way down to the cavern’s mouth.

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From here on out we weren’t allowed to take pictures because it could disturb the bats, but I found some on the internet that accurately portray what it was like. A good number of people sat in this amphitheatre to listen to a ranger speak. We learned about the different species of bats in the cave, their habits, hearing ability, diet, and a fatal disease effecting them: white-nose syndrome. While it was still light out, cave swallows flew counter clockwise in and out of the cave. The bats would take this same counter-clockwise path, but it wasn’t known why.

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[youtube=http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS4uvjC5ky4&feature=youtu.be]

My favorite part of the talk was when the ranger told the story of the formerly classified Project X-Ray. In WWII the government invested in developing “bat bombs”. They took a bunch of bats from Carlsbad Caverns and attached them with a small timed incendiary bomb. The idea was that because Japan used so much bamboo, paper and other highly flammable material in construction, the government could release the bats who would go roost in the eaves of these buildings and then cause multiple explosions, causing fires and chaos with fewer lives lost. As our ranger said, “That plan worked out really well. They exploded our Air Force Base down the road.” Yep, the bats got loose and roosted under the air base’s fuel tank, burning it down. Kooky.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_bomb

As soon as it started to get dark, the bats swarmed out of the cave in a rush. It was one solitary bat to lead the way, and then within seconds it was thousands. You could hear their wings beating the air as they flew over us, silhouetted against the the dimming sunset.  They flew out in seemingly endless hoards.

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We sat in silence, watching for a good long while. As it showed no sign of letting up, and we were starting to get cold, Rachael and I finally hiked back to our car.

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Watching the bat flight was unexpectedly impressive. I was tired, but as soon as we got to the caverns the view, the night air, the ranger’s talk, and finally the bats, made the entire trip worthwhile. I was so glad Rachael had forced me to throw off my exhaustion and drive out there. Our woes from the day were completely forgotten by the time we left. If you go visit the caverns to go caving, don’t miss this equal, but lesser appreciated, attraction.

http://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/bat_flight_program.htm

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