WHEN BONNIE JELINEK attended last year’s 50th anniversary Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, it was a huge check off her bucket list. So imagine the Plano, Texas, resident’s joy when her sister, Nancy Patterson, booked a surprise balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Co. for her 70th birthday. “The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is one of those spectacular events,” she says. “Going to the moon is a spectacular event, but you can’t afford that. Albuquerque is doable.”

WE TOOK OFF AT DAWN. It’s dark. Then when the sun does break through, it makes the colors of the balloons extra intense. They just mesmerized me.

We often think of the balloon with the stripes like a beach ball, but there are so many different, vibrant colors, patterns, and shapes. To be up among them felt like you could reach out and touch them. You could see them right next to you in the air. It was incredible.

Pilot Steve Mitchell (center) gave Sherri Garrettson (left) and Bonnie Jelinek their bucket-list ride. Photograph by Bonnie Jelinek.

You get a sense of the vastness of the earth. You see the horizon curve. You see balloons that seem to disappear beyond the curve, and you know that they’re not that far away because they’re riding the same currents you are. It gives you a sense of the majesty of the Earth.

I kept trying to take pictures of the jack-o’-lantern balloon because I’m fond of jack-o’-lanterns. I took pictures all the way along. My sister, who didn’t want to go for the ride, waved from the ground and watched us. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s excited. It’s majestic. It’s uplifting.

Read more: Steve Arndt, who got stuck on pins as a Balloon Fiesta volunteer, shares some of his favorite high-flying collectibles.