Put 'em up

Mix hot air with high winds in Albuquerque and you'll soon find that the sky's the limit, says Christopher Hirst

Shortly after dusk, in a large showground outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I encountered a spectacle that for once fully justified that overused word "surreal". Two four-storey snowmen gently fondled each other as if engaged in an act of foreplay. A gigantic cow billowed, its legs flapping in the air. A Russian doll, a Halloween pumpkin, a light bulb and a bottle of Vincent Van Gogh vodka, all of building-sized dimensions, delicately jostled against each other. A 20ft Jesus offered benediction from a mountain range of fabric clouds.

Shortly after dusk, in a large showground outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I encountered a spectacle that for once fully justified that overused word "surreal". Two four-storey snowmen gently fondled each other as if engaged in an act of foreplay. A gigantic cow billowed, its legs flapping in the air. A Russian doll, a Halloween pumpkin, a light bulb and a bottle of Vincent Van Gogh vodka, all of building-sized dimensions, delicately jostled against each other. A 20ft Jesus offered benediction from a mountain range of fabric clouds.

I was witnessing the Special Shapes "Glowdeo", a highlight of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held every October. Each of the 60 or so bizarre balloons would briefly illuminate as its pilot flared his propane burner. The knack was to burn enough gas to keep the balloon inflated, but not enough to propel it into the air. In some cases, the task of achieving this tricky equilibrium was all but impossible. A 40ft can of air freshener achieved its full height for only a couple of seconds before sagging in instant detumescence. Walking among the crowds surrounding these leviathans was thrilling, scary, outstandingly weird.

Astonishing though the experience was, an even greater thrill was to come. Early the following morning, I was due to take a flight in one of the 850 hot-air balloons gathered for the "largest ballooning event in the world". I should have gone aloft a few hours after I arrived in Albuquerque, but my flight had been cancelled at 5am due to a rare day of rain. "Don't worry," a local assured me. "The sun shines here 312 days a year." Sure enough, by mid-morning the clouds had dispersed from this sprawling desert city, but it was too warm for the balloons to rise.

Though most visitors to New Mexico head hell-for-leather for the picturesque tourist magnets of Santa Fe and Taos, there are sufficient distractions in Albuquerque to merit a stopover. Founded by Spanish colonists in 1706 and named after the Duke of Alburquerque (the first "r" got lost over the centuries), the city boasts an ancient church straight out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. It faces a small, verdant plaza surrounded by an old town of several dozen single-storey adobe structures dating from colonial times. Most of them are tourist shops selling identical tourist tat, but there are a sprinkling of restaurants serving the fine local cuisine. Along with a state flower (yucca) and state bird (roadrunner), New Mexico has an unofficial state question: "Red or green?" This is a reference to the ubiquitous and usually excellent salsa sauces made from red or green chilli peppers.

The adobe style has influenced much of Albuquerque's modern architecture, including the freeway barriers and the enormous Watermelon Casino on the native Indian reservation on the outskirts of the city. It almost comes as a relief to see art deco diners and hotels decked in Fifties neon. With a population of around half a million (almost 10 times that of Santa Fe), the city's voracious suburbia is curbed to the east by the Sandia mountain range. Not all of the peaks around the city are quite what they appear. Manzano Mountain is totally enclosed by a huge airforce base and hence off the tourist trail.

Devotees of weapons of mass destruction need not feel deprived. Alongside Albuquerque's admirable Museum of Art and History, the National Atomic Museum must be one of the world's strangest and most chilling repositories. From its shop "Up'n'Atom Store" that sells postcards of Albert Einstein to replica MK27 missiles, as rode by Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove, the museum offers an experience that contrives to be both upbeat and nightmarish. The atomic story is covered from early theoretical days to current nuclear "devices". Exhibits include trinitite, the glass-like substance produced when atomic tests held in southern New Mexico fused the desert floor, and four dented nuclear bombs recovered from Palomares, Spain, where they were accidentally jettisoned by a US bomber in 1966.

"A little bit of high-level radiation is good for you," enthused Charlie Schmidt, a retired US Navy nuclear weapons production officer who is now a volunteer guide at the museum. "We been there. Didn't do us any harm." Mr Schmidt proved to be an unreconstructed enthusiast for the nuclear option. He remarked admiringly on exhibits including the Trident missile, "Yep, you can hit a football field in Moscow with that", the B83 modern strategic bomb "One'll take out London and the surrounding country" and the parachute-retarded B61 nuclear weapon "Intended to take out any bomb disposal people", before summing up his advocacy of atomic weapons in one pithy phrase: "That's why they won't fuck with us."

Other attractions in Albuquerque are less disturbing. They range from Explora, a children's science centre that is surely among the most imaginative of its kind in the world (its laminar flow fountain that makes jets of water behave in cartoon-like fashion would be the perfect millionaire's toy), to the world's longest aerial tramway, which transports passengers for almost three miles over gasp-provoking chasms to the 10,500ft peak of the Sandia mountain range. But the greatest lure to "Duke City" must be the flamboyant annual balloon fiesta.

The first of these celebrations of Montgolfier-style aeronautics was held in 1973, when just 13 balloons participated. But numbers rapidly grew. The fiesta's unequalled popularity as an international ballooning event is due largely to a meteorological phenomenon known as the "Albuquerque Box". The Sandia range produces a circulatory wind system that shoots balloons eastwards across the desert, then a higher air stream conveniently whizzes them westwards back to the take-off spot. At least, that's the way it should work in principle.

Contrary to the name of his balloon "High Hopes", my allocated pilot Alan Sanderson, of Campbell, California, stared dubiously into the gusty air at 6am. "It's a mite windy," he tutted. From the far end of the fiesta showground, the first gaily-coloured globes rose in the air, their propane roar growing louder as they approached. A "Special Shape" balloon in the form of a giant Wells Fargo stagecoach officially opened proceedings by unfurling a star-spangled banner, while the eponymous anthem tootled from loudspeakers on the ground. Within minutes, there were 20 or 30 balloons in the air.

Mr Sanderson remained unconvinced, even as a Humpty Dumpty, legs waggling in the air, scudded by. "The wind gives a false lift," he said, shaking his head. "You can come down just as rapidly when the wind drops. You know what they say: it's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground." Lots of balloonists felt differently, however. Soon, upwards of 60 balloons were overhead, including a strawberry, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Noah's Ark complete with animals. Balloonists participating in the "prize grab" were dipping low over the ground to snatch at banknotes and car keys attached to long poles. Their propane burners puffed and sighed like a squadron of dragons.

The balloonists who chose to stay on the ground muttered among themselves about the ill-judgment of those who had gone aloft. "I'm amazed at the number of balloons flying," said one.

"Lemmings!"

"Not many local balloons. Well, there's one over there, but he's an idiot."

"The pumpkin's only been up for five minutes and it's coming back down."

"Not worth it."

Though the sky was filled with rainbow-coloured globes, Mr Sanderson's fears were justified as several craft made rough landings, scraping along the ground, or plummeted from the sky, having vented their hot air because they were rising too fast. "Ugly, ugly," he said, as a basket dragged across the grass. "That's a bad rip-out landing."

As the basket and folded balloon of High Hopes was loaded on to a trailer, one of Mr Sanderson's ground crew came over to commiserate with me. "You know the old saying: it's better to be on the ground..." I wasn't too disappointed. Even viewed from the ground, the fiesta was a remarkable spectacle, though I wouldn't mind seeing it from the air one day.

The 2005 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place 30 September - 9 October (001 888 422 7277 ext 303; www.balloonfiesta.com; tickets $6/£3.35)

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