WHEN it comes to hot air ballooning, there are two kinds of people: those who haven't done it and those who are dying to do it again.
My wife and I now fall into the second category. In October we took off in one of the 700 balloons that launched the 2005 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, annually the largest gathering of hot air balloons in the world.
As many as a million people come to Albuquerque during the 10-day fiesta each October, but fewer than 1,000 visitors get to go aloft. Only 50 of the balloons rising on that first morning carried paying guests like us.
We gathered in the chilly predawn with the other riders and observers at the 72-acre Fiesta Park to watch the balloonists prepare. Before day dawned, at about 5:45 a.m., half a dozen radio-equipped "scout" balloons went up to check wind conditions. About 5 knots is considered ideal. Much above 15 knots and the mass ascension would be postponed.
A steady stream of hot propane blasts started to inflate our multicolored balloon, booked through an outfit called Rainbow Ryders. Once the balloon stood erect, eight of us plus the pilot crammed together in the small woven basket, barely able to turn around.
We rose silently into the skies over Albuquerque about 30 minutes after sunrise. It was breathtaking. Within minutes, hundreds of other balloons rose all around us. Most were traditional spheres, but monkeys fly in the skies here too, as did a pink elephant and a giant Pepsi can.
Within an elevation of 500 to 2,000 feet, the horizon was filled with color. Each balloon slowly drifted south if it was lower in the sky and north if it was at the upper heights. The wind conditions, known as the Albuquerque Box, mean balloonists can take off to the south, then land back at Balloon Fiesta Park an hour later if they rise to the elevation where the winds are northerly.
We drifted south over the Rio Grande Valley for about 45 minutes before the pilot found a small, empty field in which to land. He told us to brace our knees into the basket wall and prepare for a bump or two. Oh, yes, occasionally -- rarely, our pilot said -- the basket tips when landing, so we gripped the railing tightly. We made one sharp bump on the ground, then landed smoothly, upright.
Eight next-up passengers had been chasing us along Albuquerque city streets in a van. They jumped from the van to help hold down the balloon, and we exchanged spots two by two. Within minutes, they were aloft and we were earthbound, longing to do it again.
\o7The 2006 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is Oct. 6 to 15. Rainbow Ryders is the fiesta's official balloon ride operator. $295 per person. (505) 823-1111, www.rainbowryders.com.