ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We are rising with the sun between the Sandia Mountains to the east and the five volcano cones that silhouette the western horizon.
Cottonwood trees glow with the green of early morning along the banks of the Rio Grande. The Sonoran Desert below us emerges as a mosaic of earth colors and sculptured mesas laced with a pattern of trails that never seem to meet.
We are also drifting with the air currents above roadways of a city that becomes like an artist's canvas as we continue to rise above the valley.
The sounds of traffic are remote from the stillness around us, a stillness accented by the moments when the propane burner is turned to send more hot air up into the balloon.
It's all part of the poetry of ballooning in the early morning above a city of 450,000 that has become known as the hot-air balloon capital of the world.
More than 500 balloons from about 30 countries will compete in the 17th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Oct. 1-9. More than 700,000 spectators, a record, each paid a $1 admission fee during the nine days of last year's fiesta, and the number is likely to increase this year. Thousands more are expected to watch from highways, back yards, roofs, balconies, fields and city streets.
Throughout the year, on most mornings and often at sunset, the experience of ballooning is available from a host of Albuquerque companies. There are more than 200 hot-air balloons owned by certified balloonists in Albuquerque, and most of them will participate in the fiesta.
The average flight costs about $125 during the fiesta and $115 at other times. The length of flights depends on the weather. Up to one hour is standard. A flight traditionally ends with champagne and cheese.
My wife Elfriede and I made our first balloon flight in Southern California 10 years ago. Here, our balloon was piloted by Jay Mason, a professional balloonist who travels the country to fly for companies that use balloons in marketing and advertising campaigns. Mason is president of Albuquerque Balloon Expeditions.
Their balloon has been baptized King Strut. It is shining black and decorated with golden-colored Egyptian designs. By doing the designs himself, along with much of the assembly, and finding a gondola basket at a reduced price, Mason was able to acquire the balloon for about $12,000, almost half the usual cost.
When we arrived at the launching site Mason and his crew had the deflated balloon stretched out to its full length, which is comparable to a seven-story building. The mouth of the balloon was being held open and a fan was blowing cold air into it.
Then the burner was turned on to heat the air. Slowly the balloon inflated and rose skyward. The crew held the basket down until Mason signaled that he was ready for us to climb in.
After we were aboard and positioned around the inside of the basket, Mason turned on the burner again and slowly we ascended into the morning sky. The balloon was now extended to its maximum 70 by 57 feet, and inflated with about 90,000 cubic feet of hot air.
No matter how many times you've ballooned, each flight is a new experience, especially around Albuquerque in the valley of the Rio Grande River. Sandia Crest and Sandia Peak, both rising to more than 10,000 feet, seemed to be monitoring the eastern perimeter of our flight.
The instrument panel indicated that we were rising about 1,000 feet above the floor of the valley, which is 5,000 feet above sea level. This base altitude, combined with the clear air and generally prevailing sunlight, has helped create Albuquerque's ideal hot-air ballooning environment.
Slowly we began our descent, taking with us a panoramic image of the valley, mountains and city. There is no way to steer a hot-air balloon except up or down. We rode the morning air currents as Mason maneuvered to make the touchdown as close as possible to one of the rough desert roads our two chase vehicles would have to follow.
The Sonoran Desert seemed to be rising to meet us. "Face the direction we are landing," Mason instructed. "Hold tight and bend your knees to absorb the impact."
We bounced twice and then were down. But we couldn't leave the basket without sending Mason skyward again. We had to wait for the crew in the pickup truck and van, carrying the next passengers, to trace us across the desert.
When the three passengers arrived, we carefully exchanged places one by one so not to present Mason and his crew with the challenge of trying to keep a suddenly lighter balloon earthbound. Once out of the basket we were ready for our champagne and cheese, and to receive our flight certificate.
All balloon pilots, whether or not they take part in the fiesta, must be checked by the Federal Aviation Administration every two years. Balloons are inspected after every 100 hours of flight.