Day 64: New Mexico (10/6)
After 63 days of exploring the west it was time to head east. The original plan was to visit a number of National Parks along our route to Pennsylvania, but the federal government was still shut down. So while in Gallup, New Mexico, we visited Red Rock State Park for a quick hike. The park was pretty empty and we lost the trail several times since the ‘trail’ was mostly rock scrambling across the red sandstone.
The trail eventually leads to Church Rock, but we had to get back on the road. The goal was to cross New Mexico and stay the night in Amarillo, TX!
After 2 hours of driving some of the most visually spectacular terrain (sarcasm) we stopped at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque to use the bathroom. As we sat in the car checking our map, Nathan looked up and saw a newspaper dispenser displaying a free paper, which had a hot air balloon on the front. We knew Albuquerque has a huge balloon festival, and had even discussed wanting to visit it at some point, but thought what are the chances it’s going on the day we happen to be passing through Albuquerque? We did a quick google search and discovered that it in fact was! Not only that, there was one of the best events going on that night. As we drove through a quiet downtown, we were amazed to find not a single sign, banner or indication of the massive balloon festival just a few miles away! We finally found out where the open field was, which most likely was where the entire city’s population was hiding.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world! The first festival was held in 1972 with only 13 balloons. Over time it grew to more than 1000 balloon, but in 2013 the festival limited the balloons to 600 and has various events over 9 days. The day we visited was the launching of the helium gas balloon long distance contest and the balloon glow.
America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race – Launching
The winner of this year’s competition landed in Ontario, Canada a couple days later covering 1,430 miles!
The balloon glow is a spectacular event where the balloons stay on the ground, but light up the night sky with their brilliant colors. It was fascinating to watch the small teams unravel and inflate their balloons.
There were a mix of colors, shapes, and sometimes corporate sponsored balloons. At first it was just a few teams and as the sun started to set, we wondered where all the other teams were. The spectators gathered around the first few balloons as they fired their burners and breathed hot air into the thin fabric.
We were so fixed on this one balloon we didn’t look around to see 20 to 30 balloons being inflated all around us. What was an empty field just minutes ago was suddenly filled with trucks, teams, and balloons. It was chaos trying to capture all the different balloons while the sun was quickly setting.
Soon there were over a hundred balloons in rows. There was no way to see all of them so we picked a row and watched as the flames lit up the balloons.
Soon all the balloons were inflated slowly swaying in the night sky. We could hear a countdown over the loud speaker as we looked at each other puzzled. Suddenly the roar of hundreds of propane takes and flames broke the silence and lit up the field. It was visually stunning, but hard to capture in a photograph.
Right when you think your camera settings are right the glow would stop and you would be standing in complete darkness. Luckily we had our headlamps and could see as we walked down rows of balloons. The occasional solo balloon burn would light up the ground, keeping the balloon from deflating too much.
We could hear the count down again. We froze, adjusted our camera settings, and aimed at the balloons. This time the balloons alternated giving a flashing pattern as flames pulsed across the field. After hundreds of photos we paused and stood together in a field of balloons and just watched pointing out different ones.
There was a coordinated burn every so often for about an hour before it was over. As fast as the balloons appeared, they also disappeared. They were deflated in the dark and quickly rolled up, and soon the field was empty again. Although the backpacking and wilderness part of our trip was over, the Epic Trip continued to live up to its name. This was definitely one of our favorite coincidences of the whole trip!
Epic Trip Stats:
- Days: 64
- Miles driven: 7,903
- Photos taken: 12,426
- Miles Hiked: 239
- Hot Air Balloons: 650!