ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — From the back of the bus, someone makes a joke.
“If people didn’t know what was going on, they’d think we were on the biggest field trip,” she says as the seemingly endless stream of school buses snakes its way through the sleeping city.
“Or they’d wonder if all the schools were being evacuated,” her partner jokes back.
It is a little like both, though without the kid chaos, on a Park & Ride bus in the wee-est hours of the first day of the 48th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
We’ve taken a little field trip of sorts to try out the Park & Ride, revamped from last year when the service was besotted with problems from too few buses for too many passengers to bus lanes snarled with regular non-bus fiesta traffic. Had it been an actual school evacuation, many students would have been left behind.
This year, fiesta officials think they have worked out the kinks, thanks in part to a traffic study conducted by the University of New Mexico Department of Civil Engineering. Changes include requiring tickets to be purchased in advance and capped, staggering arrival times, adding more lines to load more buses at a time, placing better signage on bus routes and at stations.
We’ve chosen Coronado Mall as our remote location both because it’s the biggest of the four remote lots and because of the nostalgia factor.
Coronado, for those of you new to this balloon world of ours, was the site of the first fiesta when 13 balloons launched April 8, 1972.
It’s not even 5 a.m. when we arrive and the Coronado parking lot this dark Saturday is already as busy as Black Friday. Many of the cars parked here belong to those balloon-obsessed and sleepless souls who arrived by 4 for the first of two Park & Ride check-ins.
We are not quite as balloon-obsessed (though definitely as sleepless), so we’ve selected the 5:30 a.m. slot.
We pass through metal detectors that don’t appear to be turned on and are wanded for good measure. Workers struggle cheerfully to scan our tickets through the use of apps and slow cellphone service. From there, more cheery workers (how do they do that so early?) guide us through an efficient maze to reach our bus – this year, 23 buses are available for loading at a time, compared with just four last year.
And we’re off at 5:22 a.m. on a school bus that reminds me that I am not the same size I was when I last rode a school bus. Which is to say, it’s a bit cramped for adult knees and legs, though not much worse than flying coach.
Indeed, our jovial driver likens himself to an airline pilot and announces that beverage service has been canceled to allow us extra time to grab a nap and that when we land it’s a balmy 59 degrees at Balloon Fiesta Park.
I settle in and watch the red glow from the river of taillights ahead as we roll along in the darkness.
Until we stop rolling.
Traffic clogs on Jefferson just north of the Journal Center, a problem area for Park & Ride last year because of other vehicles slipping into the bus route.
But this time it’s not the other vehicles causing the backup – it’s all the buses.
“How far out are we?” someone shouts.
“About 80 buses,” the driver responds.
Passengers laugh, but I’m not sure that’s a joke. All told, 225 buses, including 15 articulated city buses, are a part of this daily caravan.
The clog adds about 8 minutes to the trip, but still we make it to the park at 6:02 a.m. in plenty of time before the balloons launch.
The buses drop us into the park itself, just steps from the food and the field, all for $15, which includes admission.
By comparison, those who opt to drive their own vehicles pay $15 to park, schlepp in from the lots and pay an additional $10 admission.
And so we are here. Beautiful balloons are inflating, breakfast burritos (and beer) are consumed and no complaints are heard, even when it’s announced that the mass ascension is cancelled because of a strangely stubborn swath of fog.
All told, about 14,000 fiesta-goers opted for Park & Ride this day. That includes 4,399 from Coronado alone.
“It went great,” fiesta transportation manager Dennis Christiansen says. “A lot of the work we did paid off.”
So far, fiesta executive director Paul Young says he’s received zero complaints about the Park & Ride, quite a difference from last year.
As for us, departing goes just about as smoothly as arrival, though this time my bus is filled with bowed heads and gentle snoring.
As we round the Big I heading to Coronado, those of us who are awake gleefully spot five balloons rising on the West Side into crystal blue skies. Once again, the cameras come out. So do the smiles.
Maybe we are balloon-obsessed after all.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.