The sky was clear as we stood on the field at Balloon Fiesta Park just after 6:30 a.m., an hour I haven’t experienced in a long time.
I am not a morning person, but I had to admit the light coming over the mountains was beautiful, and the air felt clean and fresh.
Around me, clutching warm Starbucks cups, were a couple of TV news teams, chatting and laughing, hanging together by station and trading friendly gibes.
“We’ll shoot this better than you,” one said to the competition, drawing playful outrage.
Then there was me, the lone print media representative, a quiet writer hanging at the back with my photographer, Greg Sorber. Watching the TV folks, I was reminded that I am not perky, particularly at dawn. I envied their energy.
Several reporters came over to introduce themselves to me, the new kid on the block.
A native of Utah, with later stops in Texas and Arizona, I had arrived in the Land of Enchantment about a month before our Sept. 13 ride to become the Journal’s education reporter.
Albuquerque still felt unfamiliar – it was a victory to arrive anywhere without Google Maps, and I was still figuring out this red-versus-green chile thing.
Now I was getting ready for another first: a balloon ride arranged for media in the lead-up to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
“I’m here!” I thought as our crew began unloading the colorful envelope.
Three years before, I had planned to attend the opening weekend of the fiesta with my then-fiancé, an aviation enthusiast who loved hot-air balloons, along with helicopters, seaplanes, gliders and jets, all of which he could fly.
Long story short, we broke up days before the event, and I never went on that balloon ride.
Finally, I had made it, albeit a little late.
Our crew got to work, hauling out the burners to inflate the balloon envelope. The flash of fire was startling and impressive, reminding me of dragon’s breath in movies.
Taking the lead was Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Co. President and CEO Scott Appelman, who started the business in 1984, building it into one of the largest in the country. Today, Rainbow Ryders has 20 balloons launching more than 1,950 flights a year from Albuquerque, Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz.
Appelman, an affable and steady guy, joked that he has been at it so long his body clock is set to sunrise.
“I can’t sleep in anymore, even on my days off,” he said.
When the balloon was fully inflated, everyone wandered inside the envelope, which lay on its side like a giant castoff toy.
Almost in unison, we all pulled out our cellphones to take selfies, because how many people can say they’ve stood in a hot-air balloon?
Eventually, everything was right-side-up, and we piled into the 12-person basket, stacked tight with our cameras, recorders and notepads.
As we floated into the bright sun, I pondered the strange turns life can take, sometimes getting you where you want to be through a route you never expected.
And this was exactly where I wanted to be – way above everything, looking down at the roads and fields and black cows running from our shadow. It was as spectacular as I could have hoped.
“Quick, someone propose to someone; it would be great TV,” one of the cameramen said with a laugh.
A reporter started singing the “Aladdin” theme song, “A Whole New World.”
Over the bosque, we slowly descended past the cottonwoods and dipped into the Rio Grande. A little water came up through the bottom of the basket and dampened my shoes, christening me a New Mexican.
Appelman gave the burner a blast, and we were back up.
I waved at people walking dogs a thousand feet below. Everyone waved back.
“OK, we are going to land, so everyone bend your knees,” Appelman said as we drifted over a subdivision.
A short time later, the balloon plopped down in the middle of a street in Del Webb’s Alegria, a Bernalillo retirement community.
Elderly residents came outside and took pictures of the spectacle as we climbed out of the basket.
One woman brought us cold bottled water.
“If we had known you were coming, we could have gotten doughnuts,” she said.
Appelman took it all in stride, radioing the chase crew to come help pack up the balloon, while the media chatted with the excited spectators.
Unexpected landings are common for balloonists, Appelman said, inspiring the tradition of carrying champagne in the basket to make peace with startled farmers.
It’s a great attitude for life in general: Sometimes the wind cuts out and you end up in a strange place, but do it with aplomb and a bottle of bubbly on hand.