Land of Enchantment: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … pig?

HAM-LET, a balloon from DeLand, Fla., takes off during the Mass Ascension of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 14. Photo by Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs.

HAM-LET, a balloon from DeLand, Fla., takes off during the Mass Ascension of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 14. Photo by Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs.

By Mike Brantley, Fort Bliss Garrison Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Nov. 9, 2017)

Our third stop on our New Mexico vacation took us an hour south of the capital, Santa Fe, to the largest city in the Land of Enchantment: Albuquerque.

In 2004 when my wife and I were driving cross-country from Fort Stewart, Ga., to Fort Irwin, Calif., we saw billboards touting the World’s Largest Balloon Festival coming that October to Albuquerque. My wife looked at me and said, “We should go there one of these days.”

One of those days would be 13 years later, but more on that in a bit.

Our first stop took us high above the city to the Sandia Peak Tramway.

Located east of downtown, the tram is 2.7 miles up the 10,378-foot Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest. The tramway provides breathtaking views of both sides of the mountain.

Chile peppers strung up for sale in Hatch, N.M., the Chile Capital of the World.

Everyone was on the lookout for various animals when the tram worker onboard, providing color commentary, told us to look down to see parts of an airplane that crashed into the mountain in Feb. 19, 1955. TWA Flight 260 flying from Albuquerque to Santa Fe crashed into the side of the mountain after takeoff, killing all 16 people onboard. I believe I speak for most of the people on the tram when I say that we could have done without knowing that as we hung suspended over craggy granite rocks on our way up to the top of the mountain.

Sparky’s restaurant in Hatch, N.M., home of the Guajillo chile and mango shake, or as I like to refer to it, “when a mango does time in hell for dating a chile pepper, this is the result.’’ Delicious and hottt!

Nevertheless, the ride up was spectacular. Cactus gave way to pine, which gave way to scrub oak and aspens, as well as evergreens. Once at the top, you get a bird’s eye view of about 11,000 acres of views on both sides of the mountain.

As an added bonus, we witnessed a wedding on top of the mountain, filming the event on my iPhone for the happy couple who travelled from Florida for their big day.

The Sandia Peak Tramway was constructed in 1964 and the first ride up the mountain was on May 7, 1966. There are two tramcars, each capable of carrying up to 50 passengers or 10,000 pounds up the mountain. On average, the tram makes 10,500 trips per year.

Sandia Peak Ski Area is on the backside of the mountain and is operational from December through March, weather permitting. In the summer, there are more than 26 miles of trails for mountain bikers and a chairlift for riders and their bicycles. If you enjoy hiking, have at it!

There is a military and veteran discount for the tram.

Balloons fill up, stand up and lift off during the Mass Ascension of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Oct. 14. Photo by Vicky Brantley.

Having enjoyed our day on top of Albuquerque, we checked into our Airbnb to get ready for the next adventure – the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

It is estimated that people take more than 25 million still photographs during the Balloon Fiesta, earning it the title of the world’s most photographed event.

That is easy to see as my wife and I each took more than 500 photos each just from the evening balloon glow, before we came back for the Mass Ascension the following morning.

One of the best event websites I’ve ever navigated through, the site gives you more information than you can process, from the Dawn Patrol, Mass Ascension, Balloon Glows, Special Shape Rodeo and competition ballooning.

Beginning in 1972 with 13 balloons, the Balloon Fiesta is now the largest balloon event in the world. It takes place each year the first week in October and attracts almost 600 balloons and 1,000 pilots.

Our first ballooning adventure began on Friday the 13th, with the Special Shape Glowdeo, an evening balloon glow that has become one of the biggest attractions of the weeklong event.

The Balloon Fiesta launched its first Balloon Glow in 1987. Two years later, the Special Shape Rodeo began and now has become the most popular event at the annual event.

By 1998, Special Shapes were so popular they were the only balloons to launch from the field on Thursday and Friday mornings and glow from the field on the same evenings. The shapes glow has come to be called the Special Shape Glowdeo.

Watching the balloon wranglers unload their balloons and attach them to the baskets, filling them up with gas as they slowly rise was a sight to be seen. There were two frogs, a sheep, clowns, a pig, Yoda and Darth Vader and a blue chicken, among others.

This being our first balloon festival, when I purchased tickets I didn’t realize that the Glowdeo only lights up the balloons. They don’t leave the ground (except for one Senorita balloon who broke free from her ropes and floated away into the night). Have no fear. She landed safely.

Honestly though, the best part of the entire weeklong vacation from Taos to Santa Fe to Albuquerque, was the sunset the evening of the Glowdeo. The word “indescribable” comes to mind. Breathtaking doesn’t do it justice. It was truly one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Sandia Peak was glowing a bright pink during the sunset, which is appropriate because “sandia” means watermelon.

To see the balloons take off, you have to get up very early to attend the Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension, which is what we did the following day. The best way to get to the balloon park is by shuttle from one of five shuttle locations scattered around Albuquerque. It’s cheaper and easier than driving yourself. Trust me.

Arriving at the balloon park around 5 a.m., we staked out our spot to sit and wait for the Dawn Patrol to kick off what we hoped to be a great day of ballooning.

The Dawn Patrol began in 1978, with pilots taking off in the dark and flying until it is light enough to see landing sites. On mass ascension days, about a dozen Dawn Patrol balloons perform the Dawn Patrol Show, a choreographed inflation and launch set to music that has been part of the Balloon Fiesta since 1996.

As the sun started to rise, the crowd began to stake out their spots to watch the balloons.

Vans and trucks pulling trailers with the deflated balloons and baskets arrived, and one set up right in front of where we were sitting. The crew pulled out the balloon and laid it out in a long line next to us. They told us that we would probably be covered up with the balloon as it was being inflated, to which we responded in unison, “Cool!” It doesn’t take much to excite us.

As we were being covered by a yellow balloon, we noticed that it was the Balloon Fiesta main balloon, which added more of a cool-factor to the day.

After the balloon stood up, we stood up and began wandering around the 350-acre balloon park, talking with the balloon pilots and assistants, snapping tons of pictures, all with large smiles plastered to our faces.

The Mass Ascension is absolutely incredible. Imagine hundreds of balloons launching at the same time, in two waves beginning at 7 a.m. Launch directors, also known as zebras because of their black-and-white-striped outfits, serve as traffic cops, coordinating the launch so balloons leave the field in a safe and coordinated manner.

The colors were vibrant and plentiful. One of our favorites, and most photographed balloons, was a large, pink pig that had the words “When pigs fly” emblazoned on its rump.

Having waited 13 years to attend the Balloon Fiesta, it did not disappoint.

During our drive back to El Paso, our last official stop was the small town of Hatch, the Chile Capital of the World.

My wife is a lover of hot food. If her nose isn’t sweating when she eats Thai food (our favorite!), then it’s not good. We ate lunch at Sparky’s restaurant, the must-eat place in Hatch.

We started with a Guajillo chile and mango milkshake. Yes, chile powder in a milkshake. And lots of it. It was sweet and spicy, like a mango that had served time in hell for dating a chile pepper, turned into a milkshake. Thank goodness we had lots of ice water to wash down the spicy shake.

But, we would soon be downing the milkshake to take away the heat from our food. Seriously.

The green chile cheeseburger was my route and she chose a chile-infused pulled pork sandwich.

It was hot. Really hot. Like surface of the sun hot. And delicious!

After we picked up our melted faces and gathered our wits about us, we left Sparky’s for home, our New Mexico memories emblazoned in our minds, minus a couple hundred taste buds.

Would we go back to Sparky’s again? Sure, for the milkshake. I’ll order another green chile burger there “when pigs fly.”