My god. It’s full of balloons…

I left Redondo Beach, California on the last weekend in September, in order to get to New Mexico in time for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, billed as the largest hot air balloon festival in the world. It’s a 9 day event that takes place down at the Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, NM. This year, I was lucky to have a relative, my dad, in Albuquerque that I could stay with for the fiesta. From what I hear, hotels are very few and far between during the festival, and are often booked quite a ways in advance.
 
I didn’t quite know what to expect out of the Fiesta, but it proved to be a spectacle that was well worth the journey, and braving the cold. My friend Sara had driven out from California to visit with me, so we both woke up very early on the weekend to drive out to the parking overflow for the event. Shuttle buses were picking people up from various points throughout Albuquerque and depositing them just outside the event gates. It was quite handy. I believe I played Weird Al’s song Albuquerque several times while Sara and I drove around downtown ABQ – you know, like ya do. The staffers are very friendly and informative, and the atmosphere on the bus is infectious. People were very friendly, and we were able to see some of the Dawn Patrol balloons off in the distance as we started our way toward our destination.
 
The event itself is enormous; the field full of hot air balloons of varying shapes, colors and sizes. Some were already inflated and bobbing gently in the cold morning air; others were laid out in preparation. It was a very delicate dance of space and manpower.
 
We made it in time for the Mass Ascension around 7am, hooking up with a friend that had driven down from Santa Fe. She’d gotten there substantially earlier, and we’d gotten a late start. Once we found each other at the fairgrounds, we started walking around. Apparently this was one of the few balloon festivals where you could actually wade in amongst the balloons as they were readying to lift off. There was a flurry of activity everywhere as we all milled around waiting for the show to start.
 
The place was packed, and at times it was slow going, trying to get from one side of the field to the other. One of the balloons that I remember standing out most prominently was this gigantic Creamland Cow Balloon, Airabelle. Watching Arabelle inflate was an exercise in controlling the giggles. The enormous fleshtoned udders billowed as the cow slowly came to a standing position; it’s ass facing us. It never did get off the ground, unfortunately. Arabella was deflated and packed away for reasons unknown. (Well, they WOULD have been known if I’d bothered to ask, but I didn’t, so there’s that.) Still, completely hilarious laughter over the udders. We are twelve year old boys. Next to that was the Wells Fargo stagecoach, an inflated red and yellow representation of the company’s early delivery method.
 
The second one that really stood out for me was the Darth Vader balloon. After about an hour of watching all the other balloons rise into the morning New Mexico sunrise – a large, grinning clock, what looked like a lego Elvis, a cupid, the POW/MIA balloon, a tourist penguin in a hawaiian shirt, an astronaut, SPIDER PIG, and an array of other wonderful spectacles, we spotted the Darth Vader balloon all the way across the field.
 
My god. I never thought I’d be looking at it in real life. I’d only seen pictures on the internet before, and there it was, a looming parachute fabric menace. I had to go get close to it. It was a moral imperative. We slowly began making our way over to it, and my jaw dropped the closer we got. It’s gorgeous – a work of art, the way it’s put together. The detail that the crafter was able to put into the design is spectacular. We took a great deal of pictures of it, but I didn’t have the social fortitude to actually push my way through the crowd to go over to talk to the person that was manning it. (PICS of the Fiesta)
 
I’d wanted to go up in a hot air balloon for years, but apparently you need to know somebody at the event, and have asked them way beforehand for a possible ride. The site of all those hot air balloons in the air at one time is quite breathtaking. It’s equally visually appealing even from a distance. In the following mornings, I could see packs of ballooners off in the distance from the back of my dad’s house.
 
If you ever get the chance, DO go. You won’t regret it. Trip of a lifetime.

A Canyon, a Vortex and a Crater

The Grand Canyon. This really isn’t a destination to do a drive by on, but since time was of the essence, and I needed to be in Albuquerque before sunday night, it was the only option. The drive through the Mojave desert from LA was both gorgeous and long, but after more than two to three hours driving, everything kind of blends in together in my head and my visual awareness for scenic vistas kinda shuts down so I can just get through the driving part. I made the drive on the first weekend of October – along I-40, hoping that temperatures would be a little less crazy throughout the region than they had been this past summer. While it was still fairly warm, I had less of a worry about my tires melting into the asphalt on this particular trip.

Being just outside of Williams, AZ, the south rim of the Grand Canyon was about a three and a half hour driving deviation from my current plans, but I’d always wanted to see it, and didn’t know when I’d be swinging back through Arizona next. I’d been through enough desert at this point that I was still on visual autopilot, just wanting to get to the visitor’s center in time for the light to still be good enough to see everything, and to get a stamp in my trusty US Parks passport. I’m getting pretty serious about collecting the stamps. It’s nice to have them to look back on – they bring back wonderful memories.

It’s quite true that the Grand Canyon is a great, bloody hole in the ground. Enormous even, as well as other varied words for big. At some point in my life, I’m going to go back and spend a week or two there so that I can make the long trek down into the canyon itself. There are varying paths that you can take, all with levels of difficulty that include sweating, a high probability of cursing and the necessity of large amounts of water and food. It’s good that I’m taking this time to get in shape, otherwise my legs would surely fall off after such an endeavour. As it is, the hike will likely still be overwhelming. I’ll just have to seriously pace myself, as well as ensuring that I bring plenty of provisions.

There are many signs around the visitor’s center that state that over 250 people are rescued from the canyon each year, as well as “There are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon!”. Hikers are repeatedly warned that it takes twice as long to get back up as it does to make your way down.

At the time of my brief walkabout along the railings of the memorial, there were a great many tourists – although less than I thought there would be. There were actually gaps in the crowds gathered along the railing where one could gaze upon the majesty of the aftereffects of water against stone for millions of years. A segment of the visiting area was apparently blocked off this weekend for the Arizona Mountaineering Club’s annual Grand Canyon Clean-up.

A sizeable group of climbers in colorful vests were gearing up to start rappelling down into the canyon to retrieve trash and various tourist trinkets that hands, both little and big, found so difficult to keep ahold of whilst looking into the gaping maw of earth. Apparently it’s a bit more than a jaw dropping experience. (PICS)

It’s fantastic that there are groups of earnest climbers willing to take on the heady chore of cleaning up after the hoardes of unwashed masses that visit the site year after year. It was apparently AMC’s 21st year of providing the clean up service. Thanks guys! Your hard work and dedication is truly appreciated!

To learn more about the Arizona Mountaineering Club, go here.

I spent a couple hours walking around, snapping pictures and getting a feel for the place, before finally getting back on the road, heading towards Flagstaff. Once outside Flagstaff, I took another detour.

Sedona.

I’d heard so many stories of the various vortexes around Sedona proper, and wanted to experience at least one of them for myself. Sedona itself is the oddest little visual oasis. The towering stacks of red sandstone rocks that rise out of the carpet of green treetops are brilliant in the setting or rising sun when set against a vivid blue sky. The sun went down much quicker than I’d expected, so I found an RV park about fifteen minutes outside city limits and bunked for the night there.

The park itself was lovely, and I was pleased to get a site with power hookup for a very reasonable price. I got a quick shower, then stayed up late into the night doing various dances with healing intent for the state and the people of Arizona.

With the full moon waning, there was plenty of light to see where I was going. I rarely use flashlights when running from the van to the bathroom at night – they wreck my night vision. I do, however, try to jingle my keys a little to keep bears and other carnivorous critters in the area from stalking out of the woods to say hi. I stayed up with the moon, grateful for the night sounds and the warm breezes.

In the morning, I sought out the Airport Mesa Vortex.

To get to the vortex, at the “Y” intersection of Hwy 89A and Hwy 179, turn left onto 89A. Drive west on 89A and take the first left onto Airport Road. The vortex is located about half way up Airport Road. There is a parking area on the left. You can walk up the trail directly ahead of you between the two hills.

The many folks I’d spoken to before I started this trip had mentioned that ‘When the Juniper trees start looking twisted, like the spiral of a tornado – that’s where the vortex is strongest.’ I wandered around the place for an hour or two and ended up bumping into this really sweet Japanese girl that wanted to get a picture with me because of the rainbow hair. I happily obliged her, and we shared a little bit of what we could about our travels – she spoke very little English, and I spoke considerably less Japanese, but the shared moment was an experience that still makes me smile.

The vista blew me away. It’s apparently one of the best views in Sedona, and I don’t doubt it. As with other vortexes around the country that I’d visited, there were little piles of rocks here and there, and I found a particularly large, twisty Juniper tree to settle by as I took a deep breath and cleared my mind as I took in the view and the feel of the place. I found myself dearly wishing I’d had a week to spend here, to run around to look at everything, but sadly had to get back on the road.

If you decide to drive, I highly recommend route 89A into Sedona. The view as you head down the twisting switchbacks down into the valley is well worth it. You’ll also pass several state parks and picnic areas that your eyes will definitely thank you for. The way back up is just as gorgeous. (PICS)

The next stop was Winslow, Arizona – to check out Meteor Crater, ‘the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site’.

According to the website:

“Meteor Crater is the breath-taking result of a collision between a piece of an asteroid traveling at 26,000 miles per hour and planet Earth approximately 50,000 years ago.

“Today, Meteor Crater is nearly one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep. It is an international tourist venue with outdoor observation trails, air conditioned indoor viewing, wide screen movie theater, interactive discovery center, unique gift and rock shop, and Astronaut Memorial Park at the modern Visitor Center located on the crater rim.”

It’s a substantial crater, and although it did have that hokey, tourist-trap feel to it, was still pretty impressive to check out. Sadly, they don’t allow people down into the crater; you can only check it out from the vantage points around the visitor’s center. (PICS)

After that, it was straight to Albuquerque, to stay with my dad for the International Balloon Festival the following weekend.

But that’s a story for another post. 🙂

I know that it’s sometimes taking me longer to process and put into cogent through notes from my trips. I don’t always have the correct headspace or energy to get it down in a way that I’m satisfied with enough to share with the world.

Thanks for being patient, and continuing to follow my adventures!

The UFO Watchtower – Hooper, CO

On my way from Albuquerque, NM to Monte Vista, CO to visit with my Aunt a couple of weeks ago, I ran across a place out in the middle of nowhere called the UFO Watchtower, located at “the heart of the San Luis valley” out in Hooper, CO. Constructed by Cattle rancher Judy Messoline, the UFO Watchtower is essentially a metal observation platform above a beige domed gift shop. It’s quite a zany spectacle, surrounded by a garden of sorts with these odd little artistic memorials full of plastic toys, alien figures, shiny baubles, bones and other collected strange items. Apparently, it’s where a couple of ley lines intersect, so people leave an assortment of items behind in order to feel connected with the ‘space energy’ of the place.

Some of the displays are quite nice, and I have to admit that I’d really like to visit the location in summer/spring at some point to actually try to witness some of the UFO phenomenon that people say occurs so frequently in this area.

In any event, although the gift shop was closed on the day I chose to visit, it was still a great deal of fun to walk around and check everything out. (PICS)

Address: 2502 County Rd 61, Hooper, CO
Directions: On the west side of Hwy 17, about 2.5 miles north of Hooper and Hwy 112. Look for the
billboards.
Admission: $2 person or $5 car.