Best Balloons Ever & New Mexico Pueblos

October 7, 2012 — Sunday

My original itinerary had us leaving Albuquerque Sunday morning, but after the amazing Glow Night at the Annual Balloon Fiesta last night, we decided we’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity to see the first mass ascension.  And boy are we glad we did.

Saturday night we did park and ride on school buses to the balloon site.  Sunday morning we had just missed the last bus and were dithering about driving when The Gabby Cabby pulled up and offered us a lift through the driving/parking mess straight to the front gate thanks to a special cab entrance.  Another good decision and worth the price.  Our cabby Tracy had been in ABQ for six years and was as excited as we were to see the sky starting to fill.  Tracy and many other locals said their favorite balloon thing is the Shapes ascension and glow night when uniquely shaped balloons fire up and lift off.  A handful of shape balloons were at those two opening events we saw, and they were terrific.  A real local favorite was Spider Pig, a red pig with a black spider.  We were told Spider Pig caught fire earlier this year at a Phoenix Balloon Festival and its pilot expertly steered it away from the crowd to prevent tragedy.  Spider Pig was making its second appearance in Albuquerque this year, surrounded by crowds on the ground and roars of applause when it lifted off. 

As cabby Tracy pulled into the site, we saw the first balloons in the sky.  We hit the first festival ascension at prime time, as balloons were inflating one by one and 200+ balloons soared above us.  It was great fun to watch odd colors and shapes come to life as gas was fired into the balloon, the balloon rise slowly at a slant, and just when it went totally upright, the pilot or pilots jumped into the basket.  When any balloon lifted off, the pilot waved to the crowd and the crowd cheered and clapped.   A few balloons, alas, never got off the ground and some came down quickly, but most of that 200 flew up and off in “the box”.  ABQ has a unique air current above the city that allows balloons to fly in a rectangle instead of being tossed around like a ball.  If people weren’t taking photos, they were watching the balloons inflate or looking up.  Everyone was smiling like kids at the candy store, no matter their age.  The word “awesome” is over-used today, but the Balloon Fiesta is truly awesome.  I was surprised that they only stay up 1-2 hours, and it was interesting to watch them being flattened, folded, rolled and packed  into regular size vans.  Thrilled to have seen it. 

One last Rt. 66 stop in downtown ABQ, La Posada Hotel,  a former Hilton where magnate Conrad Hilton married Zsa Zsa Gabor.  This 1030’s hotel hosted luminaries and VIPs, and today is Hotel Andaluz, which has retained much of Posada’s Southwestern beauty, but has added contemporary art touches and boasts that it’s the only American hotel with full LEEDS green certification.

Margaret and I left Rt. 66 for a side trip south and some pueblo hopping.  We hit Isleta Pueblo just as Sunday worshippers were coming out of its lovely mission church.  The church sits at one end of a large plaza, and the crowd gathered at the other end to watch dancers at a special ceremony.  The dancing started about noon and would go to nearly midnight.  What we saw:  two groups of four men, their bodies painted in circular stripes of brown and black, faces whitened.  They appeared on the roof of an adobe house.  Four of them held birch branches for purifying, while the other four stood in front to lead the singing and quiet one-two dance steps.  At first it looked like they were warming up in unison, with a slight forward arm movement and a bit of right foot forward, but gradually their movements were more pronounced and the chanting grew louder.  I don’t what the ceremony was or what it meant, but it was a privilege to witness.

Next we stopped at Santo Domingo Pueblo, its mission church on a steep hill through a maze of narrow dirt roads.  In 1986 I visited this pueblo and watched a mother and daughter threading turquoise beads in the plaza.  When I said it looked like it would be a beautiful strand, the mother asked if I were interested in buying it.  We agreed on a length and price (quite reasonable), and I watched them hand-string and finish a really nice strand of graduated turquoise, a style of hand-cut flat beads called heishi (hee-she).  Santo Domingo is known for its excellent heishi strands, and over the years, my strung-in-front-of-me turquoise necklace has been one of my favorite pieces of  jewelry.  A part of me hoped for a similar experience today, but nary a soul in sight.   

I was really looking forward to seeing Acoma, the Sky City Pueblo, and sharing that with Margaret, who has an anthropology degree and was seeing her first American pueblos in person.  We drove another 17 miles south, only to see ‘pueblo closed’ signs.  I hoped Margaret could at least see the tall mesa which looks as though it pushed through the earth in one thrust and is the only high thing for miles.  We drove within a few miles of  the base of the pueblo, but Acoma tribal police cars stopped us and made us turn around, close but still too far to see it–a very religious ceremony was in progress.  Acoma is one of the most fascinating pueblos in New Mexico.  It looks like a mile straight up to the top of its Mesa.  On my first visit in 1983, I was able to drive part of the way, then walk to the top where a beautiful church anchors one end of its plaza and tables sit in front of adobe houses with Acoma pottery.  The women potters come out as you look at their wares, another of my favorites.  A lot of their pottery is white on white, incised, or white with fine, thin black geometric designs and native symbols.  By the late 80’s, visitors had to take a shuttle bus to the top of the mesa or walk all the way.  In the 90’s a small group of vendor stands were at the base where visitors waited for the shuttle.  So my update visit for the 2000’s will have to be another time.  I can say this:  once on top of the mesa and in the pueblo village, time seems to slip back a few hundred years and the 360-degree view is breathtaking.  I will return another time… 

Goodbye pueblos and back to Rt. 66.  We crossed the Continental Divide and headed to Gallup for the night.

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