The sky is still inky black as I walk along the uneven, wet field. A few cars are parked in the distance, but in the dark shapes meld together. Among the row of covered carts standing in line to one side, there is one whose tarp is pinned back, revealing a spatula of light. Steam rises from the cart and lumbers heavily towards me in the chilly morning. I can’t resist the aroma that accompanies the steam, and so I head over for a better look. Round discs of tortillas are being heated and eggs sizzle on a miniature stove top. Ordering a jalapeño-charged breakfast burrito with coffee, I glance out across the field. Nothing interesting is happening yet, and I become impatient for the sky to lighten, for people to arrive, for my breakfast to be cooked.
I am in the middle of a football field waiting for the festival to begin. A smaller stream of moisture wafts thinly off into the air and joins the mist from my breath. I watch the swirls of vapor intertwine before disappearing above my head. As I finish my mobile breakfast, some twenty yards in front of me, contours move about mysteriously. Something is starting, and I step my way over the dew laden terrain towards the activity. As I approach a flash of fire appears, disappears, then reappears.
Lying before me, flat on the ground, is a gigantic swath of fabric. At one end of it, a yellow-white flame erupts again, this time burning long. In its light I watch the yards of material billow and rise slowly upright. The swoosh of the fire increases and its sound fills the air as the cloth transforms into a balloon painted with yellow and red stripes. Two men pull at ropes and an awkward object straightens to become the basket. A handful of people who were watching surge forward to enter the balloon’s hamper while I watch fascinated by the metamorphosis of a hot air balloon. A final whoosh of sound, the flame adjusts in brightness, and the balloon rises majestically to the skies. Within moments it becomes a saffron colored fleck, a paper lantern in the indigo sky. I crane my neck to watch it float serenely overhead towards the unknown horizon, wondering where it will wander and where it will come to ground. A feeling of wonder and adventure surrounds the golden speck as it follows the wayward breeze.
As the sun rises and the sky brightens to a baby blue, hundreds of hot air balloons appear upon the field. Color, shape, and size know no boundaries in this enchanted field. Not even the sights of Oz could compete with the spectacle of gigantic cats unfurling themselves upon the grass, bloated houses taking flight, and enormous cloth bees buzzing about in the air. They are all balloons, happily expanding with hot air, wiggling into all sorts of characters, soaring up handfuls at a time.
Brilliantly technicolored and harmoniously foolish, each balloon looms larger than life on earth before climbing into the heavens to create a vividly speckled sky. I came to see hot air balloons take shape, but I had no idea I would enter a world more madcap and colorful than the ones Alice and Dorothy discovered. Standing mute and firm on two feet, I cannot imagine that the view from the balloons is more spectacular than the vantage I have from an open field in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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