This October, Albuquerque, N.M., will host the largest outdoor birthday party in the world, with a guest list numbering more than a million people. Held under the Duke City's cloudless cobalt skies, the event will commemorate the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta's 20th anniversary.
You might have flown in hot-air balloons before and experienced a graceful ascent, lovely vistas that stretch forever and the euphoric sensation that overwhelmes you as you float above the treetops. But nothing can compare to flying amid hundreds of airborne pastel bubbles in a mass ascension.
It proves the adage if a little is good, a lot is better. One hot-air balloon drifting lazily overhead is an inspiring sight, but a Wedgwood-blue sky dotted with 650 luminescent teardrops of every conceivable color and shape is nothing short of spectacular.
Lifting off in a crowd, you feel as if you are in the center of an undulating gum ball machine. Swirling all around is a kaleidoscope of vibrant color and wild patterns.
Several pilots fly close enough to wave and greet each other in the stillness high above the city, and closer still to touch gently (called "kissing" in balloon lingo).
As you rise higher and spread out across the vast horizon, the scene is transformed into a stunning montage -- specks of color everywhere in the distance, the lazy Rio Grande shining in the sun like a silver ribbon winding its way through fertile fields, and a backdrop of the verdant hillsides of Albuquerque framed in a canopy of blue.
Each fall, balloon enthusiasts gather in Albuquerque to celebrate the 208-year-old sport (held this year Oct. 5-13). Debuting in 1972 with a meager 14 balloons, the fiesta now is the world's largest, with 650 entrants from 25 countries and more than a million visitors.
This year's fiesta will feature a special tribute to ballooning. The 650 entrants are to mass-ascend from a variety of parks, schoolyards, shopping malls and street corners around the city. According to Jody Baugh, marketing director of the AIBF, balloons will launch simultaneously from "uptown, downtown, and even Old Town" in a flamboyant toast to the fiesta's 16 original pilots -- 13 of whom will be present for the festivities and most of whom still fly regularly.
During the nine-day period there are mass ascensions Saturday and Sunday mornings at 7, plus weekday activities featuring displays of unusually shaped balloons and assorted competitive events. Spectators can book their balloon rides for about $150.
One event that takes place around sunset on the first Sunday evening (this year, Oct. 6) is the spectacular Balloon Glow. For this, the balloons are tethered to the ground and inflated. Flames are shot into the balloons with propane burners, lighting them from within. Since the balloons go dark between blasts, the 77-acre site is transposed into a field of giant twinkling incandescent light bulbs glowing against a fading sky.
Ten years ago, there were only 250 hot-air balloons in existence. Today, 4,000 are scattered around the world, not all of which look like the traditional teardrop-shaped balloon that David Niven and Cantinflas took aloft in the 1956 film "Around the World in Eighty Days." The latest trend is specially shaped balloons.
A regular balloon can cost upward of $15,000, but custom-designed models can go as high as $50,000. Even at such a high cost, 45 special-design balloons will be shown at the Albuquerque festival on the afternoons of Oct. 10 and 11.
Balloonists have a different perspective from the rest of us, which is obvious looking at these whimsical creations. Topping the list for popularity are a massive dinosaur, Donald Duck, a giant burger, Carmen Miranda complete with fruit, a jetliner breaking through the clouds and a stork giving its newborn the ride of a lifetime. Even Santa makes an early appearance.
Yes, these oddities can really fly. Then again, at these prices they'd better.
For those eager to try hot-air ballooning but who have a fear of flying, there is good news. Many crew members have confided that they, too, will not fly in airplanes. But in this sport there is no sensation of movement because balloons travel at the same rate as the wind propelling them. It is akin to our Earth hurling through space at incredible speeds, with the velocity unfelt by us because we take our atmosphere with us.
Therefore, if you closed your eyes (which you'd be crazy to do because the view is incomparable), you would swear you still were on the ground.
Experiencing a mass ascension, even from the ground, is about as close as you will get to stepping inside a Technicolor dream. It begins before 6 a.m. when thousands of people are already gathered at the dark, chilly launch site sipping coffee, eating breakfast burritos and watching liftoff preparations.
At this point, the balloons look like ordinary -- albeit enormous -- sheets of polyester or nylon spread over the ground.