FALITDC, Part 2
Fear and Loathing in the Duke City
An epic journey of rage, foolishness and suffering at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
by William S. Hunter
I ended up not needing to find the official press entrance, for there was none. Entry was had by means of standing in line, just like everyone else around me, and then paying what I considered way too much money for the privilege of joining the throngs in the pre-dawn chill, huddling in tight-knit groups around filthy little picnic tables, or standing in some long line for a bad cup of coffee and breakfast burrito, which I am told were invented here, decades ago. But never mind, for the Home Office would be footing the bill.
Having already missed the Pilots Briefing, what I was more interested in was finding the corporate tent, where I could breakfast in style with booze, good coffee and better food. But getting to the line of corporate tents meant walking the entire length of the pre-dawn, sixteen acres of field, wet from the night before, and already studded with pickup trucks and trailers, waiting for the go-ahead from the launch director to start their inflation.
And so off I went, heading in a somewhat direct line, as the crow might fly, for that distant row of brightly lit tents. But I had not progressed more than a few dozen yards when my sojourn was interrupted by a gruff voice emanating from one of the many pickup trucks on the field, this one with Texas plates and a set of longhorns bolted to the hood.
"'Scuse me, sir, could you give us a hand?"
"Sure," I naively replied. "No problem."
"We just got into town overnight, didn't have time to get a ground crew put together. Would you mind crewing for us, and we'll give you a ride?"
Even at this early hour, my journalistic instincts were finely enough honed to spot an opportunity for a story, even if it did involve interrupting my search for creature comforts. For these are the sacrifices one makes.
"Sure," I naively repeated. "No problem."
"Great," they said.
"Uh, but there's on little problem," I pointed out.
"Yea, I'm used to a bit of nip and tuck in the morning."
"Nip and tuck? Sorry, we're Baptists," the wife explained.
"Yea, but we're also balloonists," her old man interjected. "Here, I got a bottle behind the seat."
And with that he dove into the dim recesses of the truck, his life partner giving him the Evil Eye. I knew this was going to be a fun morning.
Nobody had actually explained to me what being a crew member for a balloon meant, but I soon found out, in a big hurry. My role was as the guy on the crown rope. He's the most important crew member, I was duly informed. Boy, were they a poor judge of character, I thought. That, or really desperate.
Soon the gondola was sitting on its side, with the mass of colored nylon fabric spread out before it and a gas-powered fan filling it with cold air. I was standing a few dozen yards away, crown rope wrapped around my waist, anticipating the thing beginning to struggle and strain against the pull of gravity, which it soon did, as soon as blasts of the propane flame began heating the interior.
I thought it would be a good moment to stop and take a quick picture, which everyone around me were already doing, and what with me being a journalist and all, it seemed like a good excuse, but was duly chastised by some of the filthiest language to depart the mouth of a Texas Baptist I'd ever encountered. I wondered if Baptists do dispensations, like the Catholics, but soon my revery was interrupted by more dire warnings that if I didn't, at this very moment, put down that goddamned camera and begin to pull on that there crown rope for all she was worth, there'd be hell to pay.
Despite my predilection of being easily distracted, the balloon was soon filled and standing upright, after which I was further chastised for continuing to pull on the crown rope when it was no longer needed, thank you very much. Sheepishly standing next to the balloon in the early morning light that was just now peeking over the mountains to the east, and holding down the gondola along with a handful of other last-minute recruits, the pilot from the Lone Star State suddenly handed me a set of keys.
"Here, you can drive the chase truck. Just keep the scanner on and listen for my call-sign, 'Daisy Duke.'"
Daisy Duke, I thought. How original. "Sure," I chirped. "No problem."
By now the launch was going strong all around us. The throngs of people, swarming like ants, mirrored the sight of hundreds of colorful orbs filling the blue sky. The balloons were being launched in rows, starting at the north end of the field, and soon it was our turn. The launch directors, termed 'Zebras,' were dressed appropriately in giddy black-and-white striped outfits, equipped with radios and whistles. Ours soon directed us to walk the gondola out, away from the neighboring balloons, after which we waited for the Zebra to give us the thumbs up, indicating that the air directly above (which the pilot couldn't actually see) was clear of other balloons. Before I knew it, the whistle was blowing and everyone else had let go except Yours Truly, but I caught on soon enough when I felt my feet begin to leave terra firma.
"Remember our call sign, 'Daisy Duke,'" the pilot reminded me once again.
"No problem," I called up to him, but he was gone, rising fast and heading south in the early breeze.
I marched authoritatively back to the truck, crawled up into the cab and started the big diesel rig a clattering to life. Soon I was crawling slowly through the throngs of thousands, not sure where the pilots exit was but deciding to just follow the other chase vehicles. Once out of the field and headed down a narrow road into the river valley, I paused long enough to take in the whole splendor of hundreds of colorful balloons filling the sky.
It was at this moment when I suddenly realized that I had no idea which balloon I was supposed to be chasing. I knew it was colorful; but then they were all colorful. I knew it had stripes; but most of them had stripes.
Ah, the radio, I thought. I grabbed the mike and did my best CB radio trucker's voice that I could muster. "Daisy Duke, this here's Uncle Jessie," I grinned. Where the hell did that come from, I suddenly wondered. Too many late nights spent watching motel cable TV?
"Yea, Uncle Jessie, we're headed south, but we'll soon be rising higher and'll catch the Box back north. Just loiter around Alameda and 2nd 'til I call you. Daisy Duke out."
The Box, huh? Fine, I thought, no problem. I did loiter in the general vicinity, ending up at Murphy's Mule Barn, along with a bunch of other early risers, and caught a to-go box of the biggest chicken fried steak-and-eggs I'd ever laid eyes on. I found myself sitting in the crowded dirt parking lot, scanner on, carving into that hunk of breaded shoe leather with flimsy plastic-ware, crumbs and thick gravy now staining my wrinkled journalist's vest. The best damned breakfast I'd had in a long while, especially when topped off by an occasional nip from the bottle behind the seat.
"Jessie, this here's Daisy Duke," the radio blared to life, more gravy soiling my vest. "Head north on 2nd 'til you get to Tramway, then take the roundabout north to 313. Hang out at the Rail Runner station 'till I call, over."
Spewing dust and gravel, I headed out of Murphy's and north, into a mess of traffic and skyward gawkers crowding the two-lane road. Using my Official Chase Vehicle Credentials, I applied careful usage of throttle and horn to find myself out front of the pack. To the east I could see a small group of balloons further north than the rest. How they did that I couldn't, at the time, figure out, since they all should be blown by the wind in the same general direction, but life is full of little mysteries like that, isn't it?
The rest of the morning is kind of a blur, thinking back on it now from the shaded courtyard of a north valley casita, having since upgraded my lodgings from that hellbent motel out on the west side. That bastard Stapley was going to bitch and moan about the cost, but that's just the price paid for fine journalism. I'd ended up finding the parking lot, all right, but didn't get my flight, the balloon itself having a mind of its own, ending up deep into a well-tilled alfalfa field maintained by the Sandia Pueblo. I figured out how to navigate the dirt roads to get in as close as I could, after which my Texas pilot friend plied the locals with the promise of some tethered balloon rides, as an inducement to gain entry into their field; the truck was certainly going to mess up some of their crop. But they were good sports about it, probably more than used to it by now, and saw to it that we were afterwards invited to lunch.
I finished the piece in time, emailed back to Stapley along with photographs, most of which I'd 'borrowed' from someone else's memory card. Expecting a murderously bad time of it, I was more than pleased by my venture, and having little interaction with The Law proved to be an added bonus; not that I didn't try, mind you, it's more like the locals, they have bigger fish to fry than some dim-witted foreign correspondent poking his nose around. Who knows, perhaps I might find myself covering the balloons again next year, if I can ever manage to pull myself away from this little casita long enough, that is. And actually, I'm beginning to like the taste of tequila with green chile.