Above: In New Mexico, even the sky wears jewelry. Photograph by John McCauley

FROM A DISTANCE, hot-air balloons look like they’re hardly moving. But when I stood in the basket for my first ride over Albuquerque, it was the earth that froze. The pilot shot a great tongue of orange flame into the belly of the balloon, and the subsequent lift filled me with the sense of the joy a hawk must feel when it happens on a column of warm air and spreads its wings to soar.   

How could it have taken me 25 years to experience something that brings hundreds of thousands to the state every year? I don’t know, but I’m glad I rectified it. Gliding east across the Río Grande, I was thrilled by the rush of cool air against my face. I imagined myself a superhero with a cape fluttering behind me, as close as I’ll ever get to my childhood dreams of flying.  

It was also serene. Before, I associated the feeling of moving through the sky with the vibrating roar of a jet engine. But now, floating over a cottonwood canopy, close enough to identify specific streets and buildings—my own house!—all I could hear was the quacking of mallards on the acequias, and my own coos and cackles.  

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Many hot-air balloon companies offer rides during October’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, but also year-round, in Albuquerque and throughout the state. Two of the biggies are: 
World Balloon  |  505-293-6800  |  worldballoon.com 
Rainbow Ryders  |  800-725-2477  |  rainbowryders.com