LAND OF ENCHANTMENT
At first there was silence; then, a hissing sound. Then, the roar of fire as waves of heat and expanding air rolled out around us. Huge fans bellowed, towers of flame rose up, and slumbering giants gradually stirred and awoke all around us. They pulled mightily against their tethers and fought the strength and force of their handlers, dichotomous forces battling against conflicting desires. They wanted to be free, to fly and shoot tongues of fire. They wanted to float over the Land of Enchantment, and lure all who saw them to succumb to their spell.
This dragons’ lair is actually a huge field in central New Mexico, home of the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, the world’s premiere ballooning event. This year, 600 balloons were registered, from all over the globe. As we walked amongst the sounds and struggles, surrounded by light-as-air behemoths, we felt magic as we watched the metamorphoses of these gorgeous inflatables being readied for a special evening event known as “Balloon Glow.” As the balloons expanded, we saw many in the traditional Brussels sprout-shape, festooned in beautiful patterns, colors, and flags. Others were fanciful special shapes that included a scuba diver, a trio of bees, a white cow, a pink pig, an astronaut, and a huge Wells Fargo stagecoach.
Our night was crystal clear. Venus was shining brilliantly as the darkening sky gradually filled with stars. The barest sliver of a moon rose over the 5,000-foot-high desert horizon, dangling like a precious pendant. I couldn’t decide if the heavens were the perfect backdrop for the balloons, or if the balloons were the perfect foreground for the sky. Of course, it didn’t matter. New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment—a place made to enjoy the magic.
As the balloons won their identities and the crews subdued their desire to take flight, the master of ceremonies began the countdown over the loudspeakers. Soon the eager crowd joined in, like a premature New Year’s Eve celebration, shouting “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1: ALL BURN!” The dark outlines of shifting shapes suddenly transformed into a riot of color, noise, and novelty, as the pilots simultaneously engaged their burners and filled the translucent forms with light and magic, over and over and over again. We were enchanted.
When I was 11 years old, I saw David Niven play Phineas Fogg in the star-studded film, Around the World in 80 Days. I have been fascinated by hot air balloons ever since, and attending this fiesta is the fulfillment of a bucket-list dream. In addition to the “Glow,” we also attended a sunrise Mass Ascension, with hundreds of balloons from many nations lifting off in orchestrated waves. They filled the dark, chill morning air like bubbles from some Brobdingnagian soap machine.
As the sun rose over the craggy crest of the Sandia Mountains to the east, its rays pierced directly through the ropes of an elegant balloon emblazoned with the legend, “Defy Gravity.” It was a mystical moment. Was it a reminder not to let things weigh us down? Or perhaps a prod to find our fire and rise up? As more and more balloons filled the sky, I decided maybe they weren’t bubbles after all, but rather ascending prayers. New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment. This Balloon Festival is just one of its magical spells. I am in its thrall.