The first week of October, we took a long-awaited trip back to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Albuquerque is about 280 miles due north, or four and a half hours away, and it was a first visit for both of us. From the first time I saw a postcard of hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque stuck to my nana’s refrigerator as a child, I was mesmerized. Fortunately, after weather foiled several attempts to balloon in New Zealand in 2006, I got to experience hot air ballooning with V during our diplomatic assignment to Australia in 2018 – in Canberra where we lived and over New South Wales’ Hunter Valley as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.
In Albuquerque we opted not to fly this time, due to cost and the inability to socially distance from other people in a hot air balloon basket. Instead we watched the 49th annual dawn Mass Ascension spectacle from the ground as more than 600 hot air balloons launched from a 78 acre field. This also gave me a better chance to see and photograph the balloons instead of being absorbed with our experience and logistics. While in town, we also visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, stumbled into a fall festival at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, and went hiking at two of the three Petroglyph National Monument sites – Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyon.
After a few weeks at home in September focusing on work and marking our eighth wedding anniversary, we were preparing to welcome our first visitors to Juárez. My dad and stepmom would soon arrive from Washington state to see where we lived, and take a big trip with us to Playa del Carmen, Mexico where we’d honeymooned following our wedding in 2013. They had marked their 20th wedding anniversary earlier in the summer, and after a year and a half of pandemic loneliness we were all ready for some sun and sand (and cocktails!). But first V and I were taking a few days on the front end for our balloon excursion.
For a one-time only event, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History showing a film on the Los Alamos side of the Manhattan Project was right up our alley, and I’m sure planned around the large influx of balloon tourists to Albuquerque. Many people have heard of infamous places in the southwest like Area 51, but the Trinity Site carries perhaps less name recognition, particularly among younger generations. But if it isn’t ringing a bell, perhaps the below image will give you a hint.
The first successful test of the atomic bomb happened at the Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. The secret weapons laboratory in Los Alamos was one of the Manhattan Project lab sites where, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, thousands of personnel worked from late 1942 in locked-down “atomic cities” to create the first plutonium bomb.
When scientists began the test on that fateful morning in 1945, deploying the device (nicknamed “Gadget”) from 100 feet in the air, the result was an explosion equal to 21,000 tons of TNT that created a fireball 2,000 feet in diameter. The scale of the mushroom cloud that we’ve all seen grainy photos of is a little hard to grasp: 40,000 feet (or 7.5 miles) across.
It also blows my mind that with over 130,000 people ultimately involved in the Manhattan Project across the United States, it stayed a secret. Sure, it was a different time in terms of no cell phones and social media, and the privacy of many involved in the project… wasn’t what they thought it was. But most importantly, workers understood what was happening around them on a siloed, need-to-know basis. Each person did their small job towards the common goal. I don’t know what most of them thought the government was doing out there in the desert at wartime as Axis forces were intent on global domination, but my guess is precious few could have had the big picture for this to have succeeded the way it did. (Whether or not you consider the atomic bomb a success, that is, as Oppenheimer in later years arguably did not, it’s undeniable the project met its objective.)
The Trinity Test changed the direction of World War II, the nature of human conflict, and the face of modern warfare. The Trinity Test Site is open to the public two days a year – in April and October. As you can imagine, it is booked out far in advance. The closest we have been to it was when we visited Alamogordo for my birthday in October 2020, when we also visited the White Sands National Park and glimpsed the nearby missile range.
The science, technological advances, ethical conflicts, geopolitical environment, and that whole era just fascinates me. We looked at the exhibitions inside and outside of the museum, glad we’d brought our coats as the temperature kept dropping: Albuquerque is definitely not the Sun City of El Paso in fall.
We perused the food trucks parked in the big outdoor area behind the museum where the aircraft are parked and listened to live music as the sun began to set. Because the museum had placed the seats for the film event so close together, V went and grabbed our REI camp chairs from the truck and placed them farther away so I could socially distance. Quite a few people brought their own chairs too, moved the museum’s chairs farther apart, or even stood some distance away the whole time. Others were happy to draw their chairs around the heat lamps and sit inches away from strangers. But when I saw how closely packed together the museum chairs were initially, I had almost a visceral urge to get away, even though we were outside. It already looked to me like something quaint and ill-advised from an earlier age.
As I sat down in the low camp chair to eat my plant burger that really did taste like beef, I slowly recalled how hard it had been for me to sit in (and get back out of) our camp chairs only a few years back at all those Australian beaches. It certainly wasn’t as comfortable as it felt now. They were so low-slung it was almost like sitting on the ground. And sometimes to get up I’d even had to spill myself onto the sand sideways, get on all fours, then to my knees, and have V give me a hand up.
Now, just over five months post spinal-fusion surgery and 79 lbs lighter, I no longer had the extra weight, sciatic nerve impingement, and leg/foot numbness that had limited my mobility and made my life so miserable in the past. Without spilling my drink or disturbing my plate, I stood up as dusk settled around us. It was not hard to get to a standing position using balance and a combination of my core and leg muscles.
“What do you need?” V asked. “Nothing,” I replied. “I was thinking about how hard it used to be for me to get out of this low chair.” He looked at me, nodding. I contemplated my gratitude for this and how amazing the journey had been. I sat down and stood up a few times. Smooth. Easy. This is not something most people think about – whether they can stand up, whether they can put a sock and shoe on their left foot, whether if they drop something they can pick it up. But I do, and these days with new appreciation.
In the morning we got up around 3:00 a.m. so we wouldn’t miss the Mass Ascension. Unfortunately the traffic on the way to get to the Balloon Fiesta field was not the 20 minutes the clerk at our hotel had assured us, nor the hour and 15 minutes I had planned out of paranoia, but closer to two hours. Cars jamming in from every direction, road closures, clueless people directing traffic, to whom if I had listened I would have ended up back on the freeway and missing the whole thing.
But we didn’t. We arrived and parked as the first balloons were already lifting into the sky. I was almost in a state of panic because we still had to walk a fair distance and get through a massive security line. And I was most genuinely displeased when a car pulled in right on top of us, and the lady flung open her door carelessly not once but twice and put a door ding in the 4Runner. “Excuse me,” I said, coming around the back as I pulled on my gloves. “You just hit my car, twice.”
She looked at me dismissively. “Oh, did I? Sorry.” I had rarely heard the word used with more thinly veiled contempt.
“Come on!” Her husband ignored me completely, staring right at her as though I did not exist. He hustled her off as I stood there with my mouth open under my mask. Let’s just say when we returned hours later and noticed their car was still there, I *may* have been accidentally a little exuberant while putting things in the backseat, a few times, but oh geez, I don’t know – that was several weeks ago now and maybe my memory has dimmed! For the time being I had a balloon launch to see.
We got into the park and fortunately found a place fairly soon that seemed less crowded than other places. I need not have worried I would miss the launch; with more than 600 balloons needing to inflate and take off, they couldn’t possibly have all gone at once. There were plenty to see.
It was totally shocking how many balloons there were, and also just how many PEOPLE there were. We’d found a spot by the fenced-off media area, and given the configuration and a few carts parked nearby, people passed by us in a kind of hallway but not directly within six feet of me and that was the little zone I was looking for. We’d put down our chairs as an additional buffer and stood by the fence.
I’d dragged my feet too long about booking in one of the VIP sections with seating, catering, and a private bathroom, trying to figure out if I’d be able to socially distance there, until the tickets were sold out and it was no longer an option.
People were probably about 50-50 with masks too which was a little scary for me; it was definitely the biggest crowd I’ve been in since the pandemic started. Sadly I never got a postcard for that reason. Although I couldn’t get as close to some of the balloons as I wanted to see better or take more close-up pictures, the event itself was every bit as impressive as I’d expected.
Balloon after balloon inflated, slowly sat upright, and lifted aloft against a cerulean blue desert sky.
After all the balloons that were going to take off had done so at last, we needed to find a bathroom and rather than return to the hotel we made our way over to the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, where we discovered a fall festival with its attendant drinks and music was in full swing.
This place was WAY more than we bargained for. We thought we’d just look around for an hour or so, but we spent many hours enjoying it. The park is gorgeously maintained and has tons to look at.
I was suddenly glad that it hadn’t worked out for us to stop at the BioPark the day beforehand as a short stopgap before we could check into our hotel. We would’ve missed the weekend festival and we wouldn’t have had time to see hardly anything.
As it was, we never went into the adjacent aquarium because by the time we’d walked through most of the gardens, we’d been up for eight or nine hours and were very ready to have some lunch.
After our lunch, we were pretty exhausted and ready to call it a day, but the next morning before we headed back to Juárez we decided to visit the Petroglyph National Monument and do some hiking.
This boulder contains a good example of various images made by the Ancestral Pueblo people 400 to 700 years ago. They used sandstone hammerstones and chisels to remove the thin exterior layer of desert varnish which exposed the lighter color of the basalt’s interior. Some images are recognizable by us today; however, their original meanings were known only by the carver and by those who travelled and lived during that time period.U.S. National Park Service
It was a very memorable weekend, and I would recommend a visit to Albuquerque to anyone. There is so much to do, we hardly scratched the surface. Interestingly enough, on a Foreign Service note, my current boss a few years back did a Foreign Service domestic tour in Albuquerque at a university as a DIR, or Diplomat in Residence, a coveted assignment with a lot of regional travel and public speaking focused on the recruitment of the next generation of Foreign Service Officers. He has often described it as a once-in-a-lifetime job that he couldn’t turn down, and he loved living in Albuquerque too! I definitely hope to return someday and see more.