Up and Away to Albuquerque
Photos & text by Helen K. Furguson  1997  

In the autumn of 1997, Helen K. Ferguson packed her minivan, (equipped with a lift and an electric scooter) and drove solo from Florida to Albuquerque, New Mexico. After arriving, she reconnected with an old friend, and marveled at the "Land of Enchantment's"famous Balloon Festival.

For many years, my friend, Jinny Van Sickler, had been inviting me to visit Albuquerque and see their famous  Balloon Festival. This year I accepted, even though it meant driving over 1600 miles alone to get there.

As a young woman, I did not hesitate to go wherever I wanted to go. It is different now. I am dependent on a leg brace, crutches, a cane and an electric scooter -  too much stuff to take on a plane - not to mention needing transportation after I arrival. But I had hung around the house long enough. It was time for a change of scenery.

I packed my aids in the van and set out one Friday morning, telling my family that I might be back that afternoon if my courage failed me. Five days later I pulled into my friend's parking lot and we had a joyous reunion. We didn't go to bed until late that night.

A little after five the next morning, I was awakened and told that we had to get going if we wanted to get good seats at the Festival. We bundled up in layers of clothing and set out for the field. As we came down the winding mountain road, the lights of Albuquerque sparkled before us.

Although there was much traffic, lanes were clearly marked and the police and volunteers quickly directed us to parking areas. Special parking for vehicles with disabled decals was located next to the main gate.

That was the first year that that particular flying field has been used for the festival. It will be developed in the future, but at that time it was dirt, potholes and rocks. About a mile of concession stands ran down one side of the field. A wild variety of things were available: coffee, hot chocolate, breakfast burritos, T-shirts and Festival pins, to name a few.

There were a few wooden tables with attached benches available and they were available on a  first come, first served. That was one reason for an early arrival. Some people showed up with their folding chairs; they must have been there before. We were lucky to find a place and sat close together, tucking our noses into our outer coverings and shivering as we waited for the sun to come up.

By the time that happened, thousands of people were there, waiting expectantly. The first light of the sun creased the sky and before we knew it, the day had begun. Everyone eagerly awaited the announcement from the balloon master about whether the winds would allow flying. Of the five days that I was there, the balloons flew only once.

Although it was disappointing to miss seeing the balloons the other days, the one day that they did fly was well worth it. That was the Special Shapes day. We were allowed to get very close to the balloons as they were stretched out on the ground and then inflated. Picture taking was encouraged.

A Balloon Master coordinates the ascent of the balloons in order to cut down on the chance of accidents. Often, a balloon was ready to go before the preceding balloon had gone high enough and the crew had to hold it down until the signal was given. As they rose into the air, it was a sight to behold!

Look! There goes Winnie the Pooh, and a truck, and Tony the Tiger, and Shamu, and an oriental pagoda and on and on. It was almost too much to believe.

There are some air currents that are referred to as "the box". When that is right, air currents near the ground flow in one direction, and currents higher up flow the other way. This means that the balloons can go in one direction then rise to a higher level and go back the way they came. This pleases the crowd because they get to see the balloons more than once.

The balloonists also have contests apart from the flying for spectators. A key to a car was set up on a high pole and balloonists tried to fly just right in order to get the key and win a car. In another contest, balloonists tried to drop something down a "chimney" that was set up on the field. The first one who succeeded won a house.

When the winds are right, the balloons are inflated one night but do not go aloft. The lights from the burners have led to calling this performance Balloon Glow. It was a spectacular sight.

All in all, I found the Balloon Festival to be accessible, in a rough way. One had to watch carefully in order to avoid the larger rocks and the deeper holes, but it was doable. There were several port-a-potties but none were accessible.

The City of Albuquerque will send a pamphlet entitled The Art of Accessibility upon request. They can be reached at P.O. Box 26866, Albuquerque, N.M. 87125-6888, or by phoning 1-800-733-9918. Unfortunately, accessibility means different things to different people, and I found that this guide was not always helpful.

For example, the guide and the people at the Sandia Mountain Tramway assured us that the tram was accessible. To them, this means that there is an outside lift which barely holds one person in a wheelchair and a companion. It is outside, which means that you take your chances with the weather and it is necessary to ring a bell and wait for someone to be free to come and operate the lift for you. There is another problem in getting on and off the tram. It is not always level with the boarding platform; sometimes there is a distance of several inches between these two surfaces and help is required to manage entrance and exit.

There is a restaurant at the top of the mountain. It has a spectacular view but maneuverability is limited. There is hardly any turning space, but one can enter at one door, go completely through the room and exit through another door.

For travel in other parts of the State, you can request a copy of Access New Mexico from The Governor's Committee on Concerns of the Handicapped, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail Room 117, Santa Fe, NM, .87501, or by phone at 505-827-6465, TTY: 505-827-6329, or by e mail at 103203.400@compuserve.com

In spite of the problems that I encountered, I feel that this trip was well worth it. I would recommend it to anyone who has a traveling companion, or to anyone who feels up to working around things that are not always as one would wish. The scenery is breathtaking and there is much to enjoy.

Happy traveling!

Additional Albuquerque information is available at the Mining Co. web site.

Mining Co. Albuquerque

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