ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Against a backdrop of clouds, hundreds of hot air balloons rose into the sky, hovered for a while, then slowly floated to the northwest during Saturday’s mass ascension, and the final weekend of the 47th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
With barely a breeze all morning, the famed Albuquerque “box” flight pattern was a no-show, and the balloons seemed to cluster together in the sky, collectively, colorfully and silently, before edging away from the launch field.
Unlike last Saturday’s gnarly traffic that left many people bumper-to-bumper and standing at park-and-ride lots with tickets in hand and not a bus in sight long after the mass ascension began, this Saturday’s traffic flow toward Balloon Fiesta Park was running much smoother.
Eric Keeler knows a thing or two about running. He ran into the Balloon Fiesta – literally and figuratively.
“I accidentally picked the best weekend to come,” he said. “The weather is perfect, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never even been close to a hot air balloon before. They’re massive. When you see photos of them, you don’t realize how big they really are – and seeing so many of them at the same time is kind of bizarre and amazing, but also beautiful.”
The Sheffield, England, resident is running across America to raise awareness and money for Spinal Research, a London-based charity that awards funding to promising spinal research being done around the world. (Follow him and donate at www.c2c.run.)
“I started on April 29 in the tiny town of Lubec, Maine, which is right on the Canadian border, and the eastern-most town in the United States,” he said.
Pushing a three-wheeled baby stroller containing his tent, camping gear, food, clothing and other essentials, Keeler was running through Colorado when he began checking sources to find out what activities he could do in Albuquerque – the next stop on his run. That’s when he found out about Balloon Fiesta.
The 30-year-old, who works as a chef when he’s not wearing out five pairs of running shoes, said another surprise has been that “Americans are a lot friendlier than I expected,” except for the times that people saw the scraggly bearded man running down a highway pushing a baby stroller and called the police.
For Dave and Denise Christensen of Sioux Falls, S.D., and their daughter Anne Christensen of Chisago City, Minn. – all of them pilots – the “X Marks the Spot” campaign, in which local residents put a large white X on the ground to signify that balloonists are welcome to land, has come in handy during the fiesta, and helped them make some new friends.
Like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, neighbors on the ground helped the balloonists land and pack away the balloon. Then, residents Ron and Leslie Perino invited the Christensens and their chase crew into their home for champagne and warm apple crisp “made from apples picked in their yard,” said Dave. “They even sent us away with one tray of apple crisp to share with our friends.”
Getting in and out of Balloon Fiesta Park was easier Saturday for both balloonists and spectators after officials made a few changes, though not everyone could be accommodated.
Tristan and Jennifer Botcher arrived at the Coronado mall park-and-ride lot at 4:45 a.m., bought their tickets on-site and were almost immediately able to board a bus for a 30-minute trip to the fiesta.
“It got a little congested around Jefferson and Paseo del Norte, which was expected, but it wasn’t long and drawn out,” said Tristan. “I’ve been coming to the Balloon Fiesta for the last 10 years, and this is the fastest I ever got here.”
However, Jennifer said she received a text with a “sad” emoji from some friends who were in a car and got stuck in traffic.
By 7 a.m., just as the mass ascension began, officials had to turn cars away, because all the parking lots around Balloon Fiesta Park – about 10,000 spaces – were filled.
Park-and-ride time also passed quickly for Everette Brown of Alamogordo and Jodie Jaramillo of Albuquerque. The two met on the Plenty-Of-Fish dating website and decided to rendezvous at the Coronado park-and-ride site.
“We’re on a blind date,” said Brown, a former Marine, who is now a civilian information technology employee of the Air Force.
“I’ve lived in New Mexico for 11 years and always wanted to see the Balloon Fiesta, and this just gave me another reason,” he said, smiling nervously as propane burners roared around him.
Jaramillo, a victim’s advocate working with local law enforcement, seemed amused at Brown’s discomfort.
“I thought this would be a great first date,” she said. “So far, it’s going amazingly well, so I know at least it will be memorable.”
But balloons weren’t the only thing in the air on Saturday. So was love.
Ke Xu, 28, his girlfriend, Jessie Zhang, 26, both engineers, and five of their friends came from Indiana to experience their first Balloon Fiesta as well as their first balloon ride. During the flight, Xu proposed to Zhang, his girlfriend of four years, who was the only one not in on the plan.
“I definitely was not expecting a marriage proposal,” she joked. Of course, she said yes, avoiding what could have been a deflating moment.
Known around the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta also attracts celebrities. On Saturday, two of them, Nathan Parsons and Jeanine Mason came to see what all the hubbub was about. They weren’t disappointed.
The co-stars of “Roswell, New Mexico,” now in production in Santa Fe, and expected to air on The CW early next year, said the series is a re-adaptation of the space-aliens-living-among-us genre, and is based on the books, “Roswell High” by Melinda Metz.
“We first heard about this back in March while shooting our pilot here, and I didn’t realize I had to wait until October for it,” said Parsons, 30, who grew up in Austin and previously appeared in the vampire series “True Blood.”
“I’m so glad we’re back here for it. It’s just amazing. I’ve seen hot air balloons before, but nothing on this scale. I just want to ride in one.”
Mason, 27, from Miami, who previously appeared in the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy,” said that, even though she and Parsons were filming until 2:30 a.m., nothing was going to stop them from coming to the fiesta.
“I’m wide awake right now. You wouldn’t think that I didn’t sleep last night because I was working,” she said. “This is next level stuff. Just stunning. Beautiful. We’re ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ like children.”