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I (finally) got out to the 34th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta yesterday morning.  It was the first time I'd attended a Mass Ascension in many years; usually, I've just watched the balloons floating around in the sky over the city rather than from the launch field.  Since I'll be moving away from New Mexico next year, I figured it would be my last chance.

It had been cold and rainy for most of last week (Thursday's morning events being cancelled because of the weather — a rarity).  And today — the last day of the Fiesta — also saw all events cancelled (although the Main Street vendors remained open; admission and parking were free as a result).

So, I picked the perfect day to attend.  I did get a rather late start — leaving from my apartment just before 5a.m. (I'd planned a 4:30 departure), hitting stop-and-go traffic just past the northern turnoff for Balloon Fiesta Park.  It took almost 45 minutes to travel the remaining mile-and-a-half to the parking lot.  Still, I arrived just in time for the Dawn Patrol to launch.  It wasn't as cold as previous years when I've been on the field.  Indeed, I was a little too warm in my fleece pullover.  And downright hot whenever I got too close to a basket's burner.  Once the sun rose over the Sandias, a slight breeze picked up making it very pleasant with clear blue skies dotted with hundreds of colorful balloons.

Armed with my digital camera (7.2 megapixels), I took many more photos than I thought I would.  The last time I'd taken any balloon photos was pre-digital (and I have yet to scan any of those old pictures).  I also shot about 40 minutes of video.  (I uploaded the photos to my Webshots albums last night; you can view the specific album by clicking here.

Oddly enough, I didn't eat or drink anything out there (half the fun of going) other than a free sample (tiny) slice of Freshetta pizza.  I bypassed the piñon nut coffee and hot chocolate booths, I resisted the smell of breakfast burritos and jumbo cinammon rolls, and I avoided the New Mexican and Native American food stands (although I almost succumbed to a Navajo taco).

After all the waves of balloons had launched (lasting from 5:45 to 9:30 or so), I wandered down to Main Street and began checking out the merchandise booths.  My principal goal was to find some nice Christmas gifts.  I did succeed in purchasing something nice for my step-mom as well as a stocking stuffer for my nephew.  I did purchase a couple of CD's for myself (from the Incan musicians who always seem to be present at New Mexico events; I'd wanted to buy some of this music for quite some time).  In years past, I would have loaded up on the various balloon pins (particularly the official ones).  But I wasn't really in the mood this time —I did buy the official event pin and a Dawn Patrol patch just before leaving (they were sold out of most of the other pins and patches by that time).  I also looked at the official clothing and almost bought something for my brother-in-law; I also entertained the thought of buying the official jacket (made by Columbia Sportsware of Portland), but didn't want to spend $130 for it.

Two things I was disappointed in:  I was certain that the Albuquerque Tricentennial Store would have a booth at the Balloon Fiesta.  I've been wanting to buy some of the cool Tricentennial shirts, etc. but haven't ordered online because I'd like to compare the various designs in person.  I guess I'll have to make a trip over to New Mexico Look sometime (I think they're the only retailer selling the Tricentennial gear).

Also, I was surprised that none of the local wineries weren't represented among the many merchandise booths.  There was a Wine Of The Month Club stand, but that's not what I was interested.  I've wanted to buy Casa Rondeña's Tricentennial Serenade (can we see a theme?) but haven't driven out to the vineyards themselves.  At the information booth, I was told there had been a New Mexico wines event at the Balloon Fiesta last weekend where they were all in attendance.

After leaving the Balloon Fiesta grounds around noontime, I decided I didn't want to go straight home since it was such a beautiful day out.  So, I headed over to Rio Grande Boulevard (my favorite street in Albuquerque, it's always a joy to drive down with farms and old haciendas lining the tree-covered road).  I ended up at Casa Rondeña Vineyards which gets my vote as the most scenic of all the New Mexico wineries with buildings that look like Italian villas (except for the chile ristras flanking the main building's entrance).  It reminds me of Tuscany, actually.

I wandered around, snapping a few photos, before asking about the Tricentennial Serenade.  By terrible coincidence, they sold out just the evening before!  I did, however, get on the waiting list so they can call me as soon as they bottle more (sometime before Christmas).  It has proved their most popular wine in years.

Back home, I uploaded the over 100 photos I'd taken over the course of the day.  I even called Dad to wish him a safe trip (he and Lyn leave tomorrow for a tour of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand).

All in all, it was a very fulfilling day — didn't find the wine I was looking for but who can complain when you've got a clear blue New Mexico sky full of colorful balloons?