Painting the sky differently

By Ashley Schaerfl

Colorado Springs has a decent size Balloon Festival, located at Memorial Park usually every September during Labor Day.

But if you want to see something truly beautiful, travel 378 miles south to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The International Balloon Festival, or the Balloon Fiesta as New Mexicans know it, is located in there.

It started in 1972 with just 13 balloons and around 10,000 spectators. As of this year there are over 700 balloons and around 1,000 pilots. Over 10 years over 800,000 people came from all over the world. Not just as spectators, but also pilots and crews. Around 19 countries were represented as well as 43 states.

The field that I remember as a child was maybe the size of two football fields. In order to make room for the large numbers of balloons and guests, the Balloon Fiesta’s home field has grown from a parking lot to the Balloon Fiesta Park which is more than 350 acres. On the site there is a Balloon Museum that shows the growth of the festival.

Born and raised in a small town south of Albuquerque, I was able to witness the extravagant beauty of hundreds of balloons painted across the sky. I woke up at 3 a.m. once a year to take part in a family tradition of watching my dad crew the Old Lady in the Shoe balloon, while admiring other shapes and colors that were filled with hot air.

The open skies gave room for the balloons to fill as they climb altitude, and the open land gave them the perfect landing pads. Watching them glow not only from the propane but also the sun peaking over the Sandia Mountains makes for the perfect photo to capture by any and all photographers. No two photos would come out the same, nor will the amemories that people make.

When I moved to Colorado Springs in 2011, I was invited to go with some of the other army wives to the local balloon glow. I was filled with joy to see a site that was non existent in my husband’s previous duty station in Washington, D.C. However, it was like getting a quick fix and it made my heart ache for more.

This October, I was lucky enough to take my children to the main event. As I walked onto the fields for the first time in several years, I realize just how big the event has become. My son, who is only 2 years old, didn’t look down and kept pointing to the sky at the sea of balloons.

The great thing about the festival is that you don’t only get the opportunity to look at the balloons but to participate in the events and traditional foods as well.

Breakfast burritos, laced with red or green chili, fried Twinkies, and some of the best coffee in New Mexico line the sides of the fields.

This chili is not for the faint of heart. Grown in Hatch, New Mexico, the chili ranges from mild, for those who can’t take the heat, to the fire, which makes me want to drink milk just thinking about it.

They sell bacon, sausage and even vegetarian burritos for all food palates. For children there is hot chocolate, funnel cake, and fried Twinkies to get a sugar rush.

This experience is a chance to see not only the New Mexican culture, but also to see other cultures. People from Brazil, Australia, China and other countries come to participate as both crews to balloons and spectators.

Growing up we would meet the crew that helped with the “Alien” balloon, specifically the head of an extraterrestrial. They were from South America and were extremely nice. One year they helped me and a friend get a ride in a balloon for a school project.

If you only ever visit New Mexico once, I say do it for the International Balloon Fiesta. Every state has a state fair, but there are few states that can say they have a fair the magnitude of the New Mexico Balloon Fiesta.

The memories will remain vibrant and the cultural experience is invaluable to understand the passion.

Ashley Schaerfl

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