There are many destinations and experiences ideally suited for the solo traveler. Spas and hot springs, museums and city tours, even hiking and camping ‘je suis seul’ style appeals to solos. But what about the nine-day International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico – the nine-day event recognized as the sport’s premier event, that draws more than 600 balloons from all over the world, and hundreds of thousands of spectators?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is a dozen more yesses. Traveling and experiencing the world around us ‘je suis seul’ style, French for ‘I’m on my own’, has few limitations. With the 50th annual Balloon Fiesta right around the corner, I decided to test a solo experience in perhaps the least likely place of all.
Every form of travel has its pros and cons and perhaps one of the more flavor-filled pros of solo travel is blending in and being the proverbial ‘fly on the wall.’ I expected to see hundreds of brightly colored balloons and hordes of people. This was indeed true. What I did not expect was the near immediate sense of community that emanated from nearly every subset of people who were attending, volunteering, and participating in the Fiesta.
Take Jessica Price. The Albuquerque-based middle school math teacher also happens to be a balloon pilot. According to her 11-year-old son and budding pilot, Logan, who was flying before he was born, she also happens to be one of the most talented. Make no mistake. Hot air ballooning is not a sport for those who want to sleep late. Because air quality is more stable and predictable just after sunrise, balloon pilots and their crews are generally up and ready to fly as soon as the sun hits the horizon.
Standing on a dark football field before sunrise, I was stunned to see hundreds of Logan’s classmates and his mother’s students filled with excitement and enthusiasm as they watched the balloon crew inflate and then lift Jessica’s balloon, ‘Primary Colors.’ Rather than encountering cranky, sleepy kids, I watched as they cheered and clapped as Logan lit the propane burner and Primary Colors began to stand up, preparing for boarding, and flight.
The Primary Colors crew welcomed me as if I joined them every week. I helped with simple yet important tasks as Jessica made her rounds of safety checks. As a journalist on site to write a story, I made the assumption I was welcome for that reason only. By the end of the three-day experience, I learned that the community of balloonists, tight knit and connected, may be the most welcoming group I’ve ever had the pleasure to know – my journalist label did not matter, what mattered was simply that I wanted to be there.
Albuquerque is the hot air ballooning capital of the world and a haven for balloonists due in large part to what is known as the Albuquerque Box – a unique weather effect that allows balloonists to navigate their direction almost in the shape of a box – flying south at lower elevations and north at higher elevations. This effect has resulted in the Balloon Fiesta being the most photographed event in the world. For nine days, thousands of locals take time off from work to volunteer at the renowned event – one that requires most everyone to rise by 3 a.m.
Close to one million tourists and travelers from all over the world descend on Albuquerque that, all told, has a financial impact of nearly $190 million. RV camping and glamping can be reserved on site, shuttle busses and vans bring guests staying in nearby hotels to the grounds, and acres of parking is available for those who drive.
On the first full day of Balloon Fiesta, after watching the Dawn Patrol and a drone show featuring 300 drones lighting the backdrop of a pre-dawn sky, I had begun to grasp that this experience would expand my mind far more than I anticipated. Despite the fact that the sun and its warmth had yet to arrive, thousands of people of every age were on site, security guards rode horses with lights around their hooves to prevent people from walking into them, and golf carts and busses were adorned with colorful, twinkling lights. I made my way across the grassy park, the size of 56 football fields, to find Vacation, the balloon that pilots Janet Marie Soffera and Robert Moncrief would be flying all week. The grid-style layout, despite being full of people, pilots, crews, and their balloons in the dark was relatively easy to navigate. It was not yet 6 a.m. and there was an abundance of excitement in the air which soon escalated as dawn broke and the local Chile Flight Team flew their planes over in perfect precision to the national anthem to start the day.
Over the course of the next two days, I was an active part of Vacation’s crew and a lucky recipient of an awe-inspiring flight in a sky filled with hundreds of balloons. The experience was one that had me waking up days later, wondering who was flying that day, how the flights went, and what it would be like if I was still there.
From the moment I walked onto the softness of the putting-green grass, Vacation’s pilots and crew welcomed me. I helped hold ropes and fans and watched flawless, coordinated efforts of a team working in concert. I experienced the ride back to the launch site in the bed of the pick-up truck after we landed. I tail-gated with crew members who were feeling more like friends than strangers, and even spent the night with Mike and Amy, two crew members who without hesitation welcomed me, not only into their balloon crew community, but into their home. I befriended strangers on surprisingly lively buses at 4 a.m. I got to know fellow campers who make their reservations a year in advance, talked to dozens of volunteers, and other pilots and crews.
I joined in a community of kinship based on the joy and love of ballooning and sharing the beauty of the sport with others – yet the underlying message was clear – safety first. On my third day, when the weather and winds were iffy, I watched as the Vacation pilots studied the flags fluttering in the breeze. I waited with the crew in uncertain weather conditions and then watched as the decision was made to not fly. Despite some balloons that were aloft, family and friends nearby, and a crew that convened at 4 a.m. for the sole purpose of flying, Vacation stayed grounded.
And rather than disappointed, hang-dog looks, complaints, or wishful thinking, the sense of community was if anything, stronger. The community of pilots and crew members were in complete and total support of the decision to place safety, above everyone and everything else, first.
As a solo traveler, I enjoyed being a rather active fly on the wall as an honorary member and as I drove home later that day aware that my highway travel was far riskier than a balloon flight, it was perhaps the decision to not fly that was most profound.
The International Balloon Fiesta is nothing short of a spectacle. There is no other event quite like it on Earth. Yes, there are crowds and lines. Yes, you either pay to park or pay for a shuttle and set your alarm for the middle of the night. And yes, it is an experience so full of surprises, excitement, stimulation, and beauty it ought not to be missed. And more than anything, it offers an opportunity – solo or otherwise – to be part of a global community unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Cover Photo Marlene Soffera
Haven Lindsey resides in Taos, NM. She is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience writing on topics including healthcare, addiction, public policy, education, travel, food and human interest stories. She was recognized by NPR for her solo travel series exclusive to Texas Lifestyle Magazine. Haven is working on her second book, a follow up to, ‘The Blue Dog and The White Horse Adventures on A Texas Ranch’, a children’s book about the friendship between her dog and a horse.