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Lasting memories of lovely Balloon Fiesta

The Dawn Patrol floats overhead as pilots, including Jeff Hooten of Albuquerque, left, and Bruce Wood of Carbondale, Colo., center, listen during a pilots briefing at this year's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (Greg Sorber/Journal)
The Dawn Patrol floats overhead as pilots, including Jeff Hooten of Albuquerque, left, and Bruce Wood of Carbondale, Colo., center, listen during a pilots briefing at this year's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. (Greg Sorber/Journal)
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At 4:30 in the morning, 42 tourists clutching hotel coffee followed our bus driver onto the chartered bus. We were from 10 states and Canada and this was our first Balloon Fiesta.

The bus was quiet as we rode through the darkness. Then the tail lights of many cars and buses came into view. It was surprising to see so many people up at that hour.

All was hushed as we walked onto the Fiesta grounds. “What time did you get up?” I asked a woman directing us through the darkness. “3 a.m.” she told me. “Are you a volunteer?” “Yes, I am.”

We had been told the morning would be cold and to dress in layers. I pulled on my gloves. My sister and I began to walk across the grassy field toward dim shapes of trucks in the distance. Every now and then we saw a flash of light, and my brother-in-law explained the balloon launchers were testing their propane.

A truck pulled up behind us and began to pull out equipment. We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the passenger basket and three or four men laying out a balloon almost at our feet. “Look! They’re getting a balloon ready!” It was surprising to see how long the balloon was.

Working quickly in the darkness, the experienced folks had the cables connected from the balloon to the basket in no time. A fan started to fill the balloon with air. We were thrilled to see it up close.

In front of us, other shadowy trucks were in various stages of readiness. Mumbled voices gave instructions as they moved swiftly about their tasks. We realized this was the “Dawn Patrol.”

When the balloons were upright, they were all different, and so close they bobbed gently against each other like nylon soap bubbles. One by one, the balloons began to rise, to cheers from the onlookers. Their riders would have a perfect view of sunrise.

By now, the grounds had filled with eager spectators of all ages: grandmas, grandchildren, people in wheelchairs, a small dog being carried and families with children in strollers.

We marveled at the way trucks and spectators mingled together. There was no impatience, just an occasional soft “beep” to clear the way.

After “Dawn Patrol,” we pinched ourselves that we had been lucky enough to get a close-up view. Now we realized there was not a bad seat in the house.

Balloons were being laid out for the next event: The Mass Ascension. We saw balloons of all types being pulled out of suitcase-sized carriers. My brother-in-law commented, “That’s the hard part, folding up the balloon when you’re done and getting it back in that suitcase!”

We saw a jester balloon, a stagecoach, an alarm clock, a bear, an elephant, the Angry Birds character, as well as Elvis and too many others to name. The Darth Vader balloon was a huge crowd pleaser, dwarfing its basket and excited riders.

The balloons launched like popcorn. Our eyes didn’t know whether to look in front, to the side, or behind as one after another rose into the air, to whistles and applause from owners and onlookers.

This was the 42nd year for the Balloon Fiesta, and everything went like clockwork. Too soon it was over, and our group was back on the bus at 11:30, asking each other “Did you see the elephant balloon?” or exclaiming, “I saw a penguin!”

As we rode back to our hotel, we scanned the skies outside the windows, listening to cries of “There’s one!” or “There’s Elvis!”

We arrived back at our hotel knowing that we had witnessed something charming and just plain fun – worth every groan when the alarm clock went off at 4 a.m.

Thank you, Albuquerque. Thank you, volunteers.

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