Exceeding Expectations…AKA The very Definition of “Hooked up”

The Four Retirement Commandments:

  • If you have no destination in mind, you cannot be Lost
  • If there is no schedule, you cannot be Late
  • If you have no expectations, you cannot be Disappointed
  • If you have no plans, there are no Snafus

As we have disclosed many times in these pages, one of our inviolate Retirement Creedos is to NEVER have Expectations, so we are never disappointed. Usually, we pull this off, but it is pretty hard to suspend expectations about one of the world’s MOST PHOTOGRAPHED events – the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, which we have been looking forward to for almost a full year! Not to mention the promise of being “hooked up” for VIP treatment!!!

Let me set this out right up front: DESPITE unavoidable, high expectations, the Balloon Fiesta EXCEEDED them in every way. It is a stunning, spectacular celebration of a sport, a philosophy, a town, a region and a whole bunch of people. And, our “hookup” ala Shawn was among the crowning moments. Few things in all of our travels have in fact exceeded to such a degree our expectations (when we slip and have some). The Taj Majal. The Grand Canyon. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. That is the trifecta, right there.

OK, despite our creedos, in addition to occasionally having expectiations, you also sometimes need to have SOME plans… For example, the Balloon Fiesta RV Parking options sell out within MINUTES of going on sale 11.5 months ahead of the festival. Alerted to this fact by the Red River Rally Organizers, Mike and Kathy Sparkman, I lurked online at 8:59 MST Oct. 23 2018 for the 9:00 sale-start.

The MOST expensive was $250/night, which I knew would NEVER fly with the Secretary of the Treasury

At 9:00 I was able to select, and was presented with 4 options for RV WHERE YET. The MOST expensive was $250/night, which I knew would NEVER fly with the Secretary of the Treasury, leaving three lower levels. These were called “VIP, Box View and Standard, but I referred to them as Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear. I eliminated Papa Bear ($100/nite) as still too expensive, considering NONE had hookups of any kind. What kind of a parking lot was worth $100/night? Box and Standard were $50 and $40 respectively.

Having NO IDEA what the difference was, I selected Mama Bear (“Box”).

When we arrived at the Balloon Fiesta, we found them to be VERY organized. We also learned that the “Box View” parking option was probably the BEST VALUE and arguably the coolest option of all! Because we were parked immediately adjacent to a large open field that, we were to learn soon, Balloons use for landing almost every Day. Landings that require spectator assistance and allow for interaction with fascinating people flying and riding in the Balloon. More on that later.

Before the Action Begins

So, more about the festival. The “main” event every weekend day is the Mass Ascension. There are a total of 500 Balloons here, and on days of “Mass Ascension,” ALL of them launch, in waves, from the main launch area. On other days, only “some” launch – maybe 300! This spectacle is AMAZING. The balloons are laid out on the ground in rows. The “Zebras” (Officials in stripped shirts) instruct each row when to inflate, which is done with a fan blowing cold air into the envelope. Then the balloons stand up, by lighting the burners to heat the air in the semi-inflated envelope. While standing up, the balloons are chained to their chase vehicle – to prevent premature takeoff!!! When they are standing, the Zebras whistle to signal each to take off, taking care to give them space from others arising nearby. When each takes off, a cheer goes up from the thousands of spectators around that balloon. Within an hour, all 500 balloons are aloft!

HUNDREDS of Balloons getting ready to Launch
The Dawn Patrol Testing the Box

Once aloft, the balloons enter a weather phenomenon that occurs most days in Albuquerque and which is at least partly responsible for the popularity of Ballooning here. The phenomenon is called “The ALBUQUERQUE BOX.” As the balloons rise, they are swept rather swiftly southwards by winds near the surface. Rising a little more (about 500-1000 ft) the winds shift and carry the balloons back over the launch field. In fact, a balloon pilot explained to us that the winds can be from any direction, at 50’ level changes; navigation is done by changing levels. The first balloons aloft  are called the “Dawn Patrol” because they go up before dawn, patrol the “Box” to  figure out the necessary altitude for the return leg on that particular day.

So, at any given time during a mass ascension, there are dozens of balloons rising and heading south, and just above, dozens or HUNDREDS heading back north. NO WONDER the Fiesta is one of the World’s most photographed events! After passing over the field, the northbound balloons drop down a bit to again pass over heading south. This is often repeated several times before the balloons land back at the original field or nearby.

Almost Landing on our roof!

And, by “nearby” I mean DIRECTLY IN FRONT of RV WHERE YET in the “Box” (field) over which we looked directly because I had selected “Mama Bear!!!!” As balloons approach a landing, many JUST clearing the roofs parked on the north side of the “Box,” spectators run out to help.

Running for the Catch!

And by help, I mean they (WE because I was running like a kid to help – though “running” might be a bit of an exaggeration for my rate of speed with 2 metal hips…) grab the balloon as it smacks the ground and begins to be dragged by the still full envelope across the field. 

During the “Catch” the Balloon Pilot is usually yelling, “Don’t get in front of us…”  Novices like all of us spectators underestimate the impact of the craft — which in our defense is floating “weightlessly in the air — it weighs SEVERAL THOUSAND POUNDS fully inflated,  and has tremendous inertia.  If you stood in front, instead of running along side,  you’d be bowled over for sure, if not seriously injured or killed. 

Hopefully avoiding tragedy, as soon as enough spectators grab the gondola and apply their weight (“Weight On,” someone shouts!), the dragging stops and the envelope can be collapsed and laid out in the field.

NO training is required for the spectators-turned-crew. We are merely mobile BALLAST, volunteering to prevent a re-launch. And, always interested in improving myself,  I WORKED HARD at being better ballast while in Albuquerque…lots of good Mexican food here!!

Whirlawy’s Pilot and Crew

One of the balloons that landed just in front of RV WHERE YET was “Whirlaway” flown by Jim Lynch from Ocala, Florida. After helping wrestle him to a stop, protecting his collapsing envelope from a couple of stakes and fences in the field and then stuffing it into its bag, he shared a bottle of Champagne carried by his chase crew for just such an occasion. It was cold that day, so Liz made a pot of coffee for the pilot and passengers, too. After all this, Jim offered his phone number, address AND the standing offer of a 30A HOOKUP if we ever visit Ocala!

The next day, I decided to go to the Fiesta Tent, where you could volunteer to join a balloon chase crew. MANY teams don’t have enough people with them to lay out and inflate, then chase, land (most of the time away from the launch area – yards or miles…not predictable), stuff and re-store the balloon. Ballooning is like sailing – it is NOT a solitary sport, for the most part – it takes a village!!! Sounded like FUN so I went to sign up!

Liz offered to sleep in – Chase Crew needs to turn up at the field at 5:30 AM.

After checking my skills and credentials (remember, NONE required!) I was randomly assigned to a balloon – WHIRLAWAY, flown by Jim Lynch!!! You cannot make this shit up, and it cannot be a coincidence!!

There were several other treats to experience as part of Balloon Fiesta, beyond “just” the Mass Ascensions. There are “Special Shapes.” These are whimsical Balloons ranging from a Smurf to Darth Vader and Yoda; Pigs, dogs, spiders, penguins, a HUGE comical Armadillo and perhaps our favorite: BIMBO! And keeping everyone safe, Rio de Janeiro’s Jesus . One day they have a Mass Ascension of these Special Shapes – called a “Rodeo.” Including PIGS that actually DO FLY! And Jesus presiding over it all.

In the evenings, another spectacle – a “GLOW.” Balloons cannot fly at night – they could not see the ground to choose a field for landing! But at the Fiesta, they stand them up and light the burners in unison. Imagine 500 Luminaries, but making a loud “whoosh” when the burners are lit. It is indescribable. Even the video and pictures herein don’t do it justice.

There was even the requisite Food and craft booths, along with lots of musical entertainment.


Fun as the event itself was, There were other things to do and see in Albuquerque. For example, Petroglyph National Monument, Old Town Albuquerque and the National Nuclear Energy Museum.

B29 and a replica of the Trinity Gantry

The latter was a REALLY interesting place, with sections devoted to nuclear power, nuclear accidents, nuclear weapons and medicine. I found the discussion of Reactor Accidents quite interesting – especially considering how “Green” Atomic Energy is. NO carbon footprint with Nuclear Energy (though of course a radioactive legacy). Perhaps we should be listening to proposals to make this “green” source safer?

Rattlesnake Museum

And, in the Old Town Albuquerque area, we visited the Rattlesnake Museum. You cannot make this up…actually an excellent establishment – part souvernir store and part menagerie. Plenty of Rattlesnack specimens with lots of explanation…we really enjoyed the museum.

All of this was further enhanced by the presence of several Bluebird Friends staying in one or another of the RV spots. All of us booked sort of separately, so it’s a happy accident to meet up with everyone here! Ed Badeau and Leah Dippold followed us (or we, them) from Red River, along with Dave and Leslie Lynch and several other folks who had attended that rally.

Liz, Carol and Paco

Once we got to ABQ, we met up with Rick and Rosie Archie, John Mase and Debe Entricken, Charlie and Carol Mitchell and their trio of Chihuahuas, esp. spunky Paco.

Bluebird Dinner

The latter (the Mitchells, not Paco), famous for their RV-friendly Margarita recipe which we have served all over the world since meeting them in 2017, provided some of the same. Better when they make it, even though they ostensibly provided us with the exact recipe… And a couple of collective semi-pot-luck meals. “Semi” because our contribution, Dulce de Leche, does not require a pot!

RV Friendly Dulce de Leche Recipe
Drop a can of Sweetened Condensed Milk UNOPENED (ACTUALLY IN THE CAN) into (completely submerged in) boiling water. Simmer for THREE HOURS, checking the water level occasionally. Pop it open with a Church Key and serve RIGHT FROM THE CAN on fruit, over ice cream or even straight up in a spoon. 

Be sure to make jokes about using your “best serving dish” for your “Best Friends,” and the need to inspect said friends’  pockets on the way out lest that dish disappear.  

FYI: the BEST Sweetened Condensed Milk for this purpose is Walmart’s “Great Value” House Brand.

FYI2: Beware when you open the hot-can—the Dulce will spurt out at high speed, coating you with hot deliciousness if you are standing over the can!

Hangin’ at the Gondola Club with our Host

And, I would be remiss if I did not mention Shawn Swingholm and his wife Mandy, whom we met in Red River…not as part of the rally, though they are Bluebird Owners. Shawn promised to “hook us up,” since his firm was a key vendor and corporate sponsor of the Balloon Fiesta.

A “Hookup” for us normally means a place that is willing and able to feed Electrons and H20 to RV WHERE YET…but in this case,   “Hook up” turns out to be a HUGE understatement for the royal experience we were offered in Albuquerque!

In this case, Shawn obtained tickets for us to the premium “Gondola Club” on the Launch Field at the Fiesta. This club is directly under the initial flite path of ALL the balloons launched…they fly overhead low enough for us to toss them biscuits from the fabulous breakfast buffet!  Which was right next to the Blo0dy Mary Bar and THE PERPETUAL ICE CREAM COOLER.

And, Shawn provided tickets not for just Liz and I, whom he had actually (just) met in Red River. He had 8 tickets – enuf for Bluebird Friends he did not even know!! And, later in the week, he took us to a local restaurant/institution – “El Pinto,” which was an AWESOME evening!!!

We honestly meet the absolute NICEST PEOPLE on the road!!  NO WONDER our expectations are always exceeded!!!

2 thoughts on “Exceeding Expectations…AKA The very Definition of “Hooked up”

  • New Mexico has always been on the list of places to visit but has never made it to the top of the list. Sharing your experience has certainly moved it up the list. It’s gonna happen! Thanks guys!

  • one word…….. LUCKY, wow, amazing, what an event. Wish I had been there to see this, have never even heard anything about this. WOW, good on ya for being there. Happy travels. Sharon, Klaus and Liebe

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