When the ground crew let go of the tethers, the bright yellow balloon rose into the air like a second sun, taking me up with it. I stood in the wicker basket elbow-to-elbow with my fellow passengers, took a deep breath, and held on.
Dan, our pilot, pulled the handle, feeding propane to the flames with a loud “whoosh,” a sound that would punctuate the otherwise peaceful trajectory of our flight. “I know it’s noisy,” he said, “but you’ll get used to it.”
The warmth of the flames actually felt good in the early-morning chill above Albuquerque, New Mexico. The breeze pushed us toward the Rio Grande, and we meandered along its path for a while, descending until, barely a few feet above the river’s surface, I could see the balloon’s reflection in the water—and mine as well.
As we passed by the cottonwoods lining the river, I could nearly reach out and touch the leaves. It was exhilarating and scary at the same time. Soon we were climbing higher and higher into the sapphire sky. I kept looking down, marveling that there was absolutely nothing beneath us. We were floating on air.
Ride a Balloon Up to the Heavens
Or Visit ABQ’s International Balloon Fiesta
I saw a coyote in Albuquerque, and I rode horses in the cottonwoods. I ate green chiles and met a cowboy. I learned about history and culture and people whose roots go deep into the land. I saw the landscape and marveled at its vastness. All these memories swirl around in my brain when I contemplate my recent visit to Albuquerque. But the most remarkable of all was climbing up to the heavens in a hot air balloon.
Known as a hotbed of hot air ballooning, Albuquerque has a unique combination of landmass, wind direction, and temperatures. Together these create a phenomenon called the box effect, which makes conditions ideal for ballooning. Unlike other sports, however, where speed is the goal, hot air balloonists strive for precision and accuracy, no small feat when you’re at the mercy of the winds.
Turns out you can’t steer a hot air balloon, a little detail I wasn’t aware of until we were up, up, and away. The winds carry you whichever way they’re blowing. The trick is to find the wind that takes you in the direction you want to go. You do this by ascending or descending until you find the air current you’re looking for.
“So how do you know where you’re going to land?” I asked Dan.
“You don’t,” he said. “You just float along and hope that the winds will steer you toward a soft landing. If you’re lucky, there won’t be anything in the way.”
OK, besides the fact that the ground was a thousand feet or more below us and getting further away with every “whoosh,” now I discovered that getting back down to planet earth might be touch-and-go. Well, that explains the detailed waiver form I signed in triplicate before we embarked.
Dan chuckled and said, “Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe. I’ve landed this rig hundreds of times. Just relax and enjoy the view.”
He was right. Worrying wasn’t going to help me get back down on the ground any sooner or any safer. My life was in this man’s hands. And the view was remarkable: the Sandia Mountains to the east, the verdant bosque below that carved through the city along the Rio Grande, the canyons and mesas to the west that looked primordial—as if any minute a dinosaur would lumber into view, reach up with its long neck and big mouth and grab this tasty yellow treat right out of the sky.
What? Me, worried?
Collision of Cultures in ABQ’s Historic Old Town
Don’t Miss Explora! Albuquerque’s Children’s Museum
When I arrived in Albuquerque a few days before, I’d gotten my first glimpse of this rugged region through the window of my plane. There’s something about the wide, open spaces in the Southwest that makes you feel small and humble. It’s almost as if you’re an afterthought, a small detail added to the décor after all the important furnishings are in place. The immensity of the mesas, the mountains, and the sky itself serves to put humans in our place, I think, and to help us recognize we are all just small cogs in a very big machine.
Maybe that’s why people seem to get along so well in this part of the country. Whether you’re from south of the border or north, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or were here waiting on the shore, whether you’re a cowboy or an IT expert, people respect one another in the Southwest. They seem to recognize how rich life can be when myriad cultures share their heritage and history. It’s a happy cosmic collision, and Albuquerque, New Mexico embodies it on all levels.
The city promotes its cultural heritage with hearty abandon. Albuquerque’s historic Old Town with its Spanish architectural influences is perfect for exploring on foot and features a warren of shops and galleries trading in unique Southwest treasures.
Dozens of museums are found in the area, including a few devoted to offbeat collections, such as the American International Rattlesnake Museum and my favorite, Tinkertown, founded by folk artist Ross Ward, who amassed an amazing collection of odds and ends, including an impressive miniature village he created.
Ever since Ross Ward died in 2002, his wife Carla has run this roadside attraction, which is located on one of New Mexico’s scenic byways and definitely worth a visit. “I did all this while you were watching TV,” Ross once said. “If you can dream it, you can build it, and Tinkertown is my proof.”
Other museums include Explora! in Old Town, a colorful children’s museum with oodles of hands-on fun. Even though I didn’t have my kids with me, judging from the smiles I saw on the faces of kids exploring Explora!, my son would have wanted to spend hours in this museum. Even the parents appeared to be having a blast playing with the interactive exhibits.
Also in Old Town is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science featuring the world’s longest dinosaur—his bones, I mean. Housed in the same venue is a world-class planetarium, where you can also take a virtual voyage in space in the motion-simulation theater.
Cultural attractions include the National Hispanic Cultural Center, just south of Downtown Albuquerque, which showcases visual and performing arts. The center also welcomes visitors to its excellent café called La Fonda Del Bosque serving traditional New Mexican cuisine as well as specialty Latino dishes.
Just north of Downtown is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, billed as the gateway to New Mexico’s pueblos. Here visitors can watch traditional Indian dances and art demonstrations, as well as tour the permanent collection of art and historic artifacts. On the day I visited, Tewa Sun Dancers from the Santa Clara Pueblo and Red Turtle Dancers from the Pojoaque Pueblo performed magical dances to the rhythmic beat of a drum.
Cowboys & Sunsets at Tamaya Resort and Spa
Don’t Miss Sky City Cultural Center
For a true taste of Native American culture, you’ll want to visit a pueblo, a word that refers both to an individual Native American community (i.e., the Sandia Pueblo) as well as the actual land they inhabit. I visited Sky City in the Acoma Pueblo, located about an hour west of Albuquerque.
Perched atop a 370-foot mesa that juts up from the desert floor, Sky City has served as the physical and spiritual home to the Acoma People for nearly two thousand years. In fact, this astonishing, picturesque location holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America.
Sky City, which is open for tours most of the year, has over 300 structures made from adobe and white sandstone. Acoma Pueblo females own the homes in this ancient village, passing them on to their youngest daughters. Recently completed, the Sky City Cultural Center, a 40,000-square-foot facility that serves as the entrance to Sky City, showcases the history, art, and culture of the Acoma People.
As we toured Sky City, our guide, a member of the Acoma community, told tales of the hardships his people faced throughout history. “During storytelling everything comes to a halt to signify when the Europeans arrived,” he said. Four thousand Acoma were killed, he explained, and many who remained were forced into labor to build San Estaban del Ray Mission, a hauntingly beautiful adobe church that’s the spiritual center of Sky City.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow when I entered the mission—as if it carried the sadness of its tragic past. Efforts are underway to raise money to restore the building, which is among the World Monuments Fund’s hundred endangered sites
Besides the assorted cultural opportunities in Albuquerque, you’ll also find plenty of options to enjoy the outdoors. Rio Grande Nature Center Park offers three miles of nature trails that thread through the bosque. In winter the park is home to geese, cranes, ducks, and other waterfowl. During my visit I saw a hummingbird flitting through the trees and a golden coyote trotting through the cottonwoods. Later a roadrunner crossed the road (!) in front of me. While he didn’t say, “Beep, beep,” he did look like a small version of the Looney Tunes roadrunner we all know and love.
Another activity I enjoyed in Albuquerque was a horseback ride through picturesque canyons and cottonwoods north of the city. After enjoying a chuck wagon breakfast at Tamaya Resort and Spa, a gorgeous Hyatt Regency property owned by the Santa Ana Pueblo, we saddled up at the stables at Tamaya and wound our way through the backcountry.
While we rode, one of our guides, a handsome cowboy named Ernesto Lopez. whose white teeth gleamed from his tanned face, told a story that went something like this.
“You know,” he said, “I never cared a whole lot for sunsets. When my wife and I lived in California and she’d see a purty sunset, she’d call out, ‘Honey, look at the sunset.’ I’d glance up and say, ‘Yeah, that’s real nice,’ but I never really saw much point to it.”
Ernesto shifted in his saddle and continued. “Then we moved out here to New Mexico,” he said, “and finally I got what sunsets are all about. They’re so purty out here. The whole sky changes colors. Now I tell my wife to come look at the sky.”
“But you know cowboys and sunsets don’t exactly go together. I went back to California for a visit, and I was hanging around some of my old rodeo buddies. One of ‘em said, ‘Hey, Ernesto, how d’ya like living out there in Albuquerque?’ ‘It’s great,’ I answered, and before I could stop myself, I said, ‘You’ve never seen such purty sunsets.’
“My friends all stopped what they were doing and looked at me real funny. ‘Nice sunsets, huh?’ Then they joked me, saying I’d changed. Took me awhile but I convinced ‘em I was the same as before. Since that happened, I don’t talk about sunsets with other cowboys anymore.”
I love Ernesto’s story because it symbolizes the happy incongruity that seems to be synonymous with today’s modern west.
Landing at a Starbucks Parking Lot
Perfect Ending of Our Hot Air Balloon Flight
The balloon began to descend from the heavens. During our voyage, we’d climbed to frightening heights and seen houses and cars on earth shrink to the size of toys. Mountain ranges in the distance that rose thousands of feet into the air looked like bumps on the horizon. Your whole perspective changes when you’re in a little balloon that carries you hither and yon across the expanse of the sky. You realize what a wonderful thing it is to have both feet on the ground.
The rooftops drew nearer. I could see people’s backyards and hear dogs barking. Our pilot searched calmly for a flat place to land, where signs and utility lines wouldn’t get in the way. “Up ahead,” Dan said, pointing to a shopping center. “That’s where we’ll land. He radioed his ground crew and told them where we were headed.
“Bend your knees slightly,” Dan said, “so when we land, you won’t feel the jolt.” Moments later, the basket touched down with a gentle bump and came to a stop right in front of Starbucks. Everyone cheered. Our balloon adventure had begun at daybreak, and we were all hankering for a cup of coffee.
After rolling up the balloon and stowing the basket in the trailer, we gratefully gulped tasty coffee and thanked our pilot for landing the balloon in such a serendipitous location.
Albuquerque is a destination where unexpected pleasures abound. Once you go, something about this city gets into your soul. Maybe it’s the ancient wisdom of the people who call this land home, a wisdom that’s carried in the wind.
Or perhaps its wide-open spaces remind us how lucky we are to live in a free country, where the pursuit of happiness is a basic right. Maybe it’s the call of the coyote that strikes a wild chord within. For me, Albuquerque is all these things—and one day I know I’ll go back.
For more information about Albuquerque, visit www.visitalbuquerque.org or call 800-284-2282.
This story was previously published in Tidewater Women.