Sat. Oct. 5, 2013:
Waking up at 4am was no problem, for I had gone to sleep at about 8pm the night before (ah the joys of skipping over time zones). We called a cab to take us to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta; there was no way we were driving there: we had been forewarned. We stood around outside waiting and waiting, while I shivered and shivered. Eventually I gave up and ran back inside to put on another layer for a grand total of: 2 t-shirts, a cardigan, a sweater, tights and jeans. On my way back, I noticed that Brent was still waiting, I had been so worried the cabbie would have to wait. We asked at the front desk if they could call the cab company and see what was up with our cab, giving me the perfect opportunity to sneak off and grab breakfast. The hotel was serving breakfast early for all the Balloon Fiesta go-ers; apparently it is a huge deal in Albuquerque.
As it turned out the cab company was really busy and had neglected to tell us it would take forever before the cab arrived. Frustrated, we got in the car and drove to the Park & Ride, hoping it would all work out and we would not miss the lit-up balloons that take off before the sun rises. We got there and as it turned out, the Park & Ride was included with our pre-purchased tickets (the hotel desk had failed to mention that, hence the reason we had called a cab). So much undue stress and it only turned out to be about a 5 minute wait before we were on a school bus headed to the balloon park. It was still dark out, not to mention unbelievably cold. Thankfully the bus was heated… until it got too warm.
We wandered around the park in the dark, laughing at the giant line-ups of people getting breakfast. It was surprising how many people were at the park given it was only 5am. It was dark and hard to see, the place was not lit up very well and I ended up stepping in a puddle- not good when your feet are freezing cold. Brent ended up buying me a “Navajo-print” fleece blanket which I happily wore as a shawl. Eventually we found a short line and Brent got a breakfast burrito, of which I only had a bite (way too early in the morning). It was very good and it got bonus points for being portable. It was really cool being able to wander around, up and down the rows of hot-air balloons as they were being set up. There were no barriers, you could walk right up and talk to the crew.
We saw a crowd ahead which piqued our interest; maybe a balloon was taking off? Nope, it was just a news reporter. Up ahead we saw another crowd but I was skeptical, thankfully it was not a news reporter, it actually was a crew setting up a hot-air balloon. As we watched the set-up, the sun was starting to peek out over the horizon. The tension was mounting, furthermore when they blew the top out of the balloon and had to repair it. It was scary to stand there and watch as the balloon was positioned upright only to start toppling over, threatening to land on us. As we looked around, balloons were starting to pop up, but none were actually rising yet, unlike the sun. In the end the Dawn Patrol went up after the sun had risen, the lanterns hung at the bottoms of the balloons were barely discernible against the light sky. As the balloon we had been watching finally started to rise we saw a shooting star.
There was a break in between the Dawn Patrol and the Mass Ascension (when all the balloons go up); I finally had a chance to warm up. My fingers had frozen as I photographed the Dawn Patrol and my blanket had fallen off. I was in desperate need of wrapping up in it and keeping my hands warm. I felt sorry for the mariachi band that was playing; they must have been freezing cold. We walked around trying to find the best spot to watch the Mass Ascension. We found a spot at the far end of the field, near the corporate-sponsored seating; we were guaranteed good sightlines from there.
At first just a few balloons went up, then more and more. It was the same with the crowd. By the time the Mass Ascension was in full swing, the place was packed. Pretty soon the sky was full of balloons, every direction you looked there would be a balloon or two. The festival lived up to its name: there were balloons from Germany, Canada, and Norway. After sometime the novelty balloons started flying (I assume it takes more time to get them up and off the ground) and the sky was full of hilarious balloons. There was Darth Vader, a pink pig emblazoned with When Pigs Fly, a princess, a pirate parrot. There was a cat balloon that appeared to have bumped into a bird balloon in the sky. On the ground, from where we were standing, it appeared that the sunglasses balloon was having its way with the Humpty Dumpty balloon. Some of the more novel balloons however did not end up flying; we only saw the cow and Wells Fargo carriage inflated but not flying.
By about 9am it was too late for any more balloons to take off, the winds had picked up and that was the end of it. On our way to the bus shuttle we stopped at a deep-fried stand for deep-fried Reese Cups. They were good, they hold up very well when deep-fried, but they are also unbelievably messy. From the bus we could see that we had just beaten the rush. As we rode back we could still see balloons off in the distance, floating along. We also passed some balloons that had already landed and the crew was there packing it up.
Back at the hotel we packed up and left for Route 66. Our original lunch plans had been to stop at Piggy’s on Route 66, but the internet said it had shut down. We were going to stop at the Dog House (Breaking Bad #9) for lunch but I was not in the mood for a chili dog. The section of Route 66 just outside of Albuquerque was an odd combination of cool (old motels, Grandpa’s Grill) and meh (I-40). We passed one motel that claimed to be the “purest motel on Route 66” and it sure looked the part: decrepit and abandoned. The road was decorated to remind people they were on Route 66, the road signs all had banners. We stopped at Grandpa’s Grill old location (now a New Mexican Restaurant) because it had been briefly featured in Breaking Bad (stop #10).
We tried to by-pass having to take the I-40 by taking what could have been Route 66, running parallel to the I-40… only to hit a dead end and have to turn around. At least on the way back I saw an abandoned RV out in the middle of a field (again, more Breaking Bad). It was weird to be on such a nicely paved part of Route 66, but I think that is because it was the I-40 as well. The exit we were supposed to take to go our first Route 66 stop (the Rio Puerco Bridge) just so happened to also have a Dairy Queen and I was set on trying a Blizzard in a waffle cone. Alas there was no sign warning us that our exit was coming up and we drove right past it, I could see the bridge from the highway though.
It was a long drive before the next exit so we could turn around. We passed by a tanker train with round black cars and made jokes about Breaking Bad, wondering where the train scene had been filmed. The exit we took to turn around just so happened to be to To’hajillee, as in where Walt buries his money in Breaking Bad. It was kismet! We passed by a really tacky Route 66 casino on our way back. We stopped at the DQ first. It was poorly constructed, the road was very confusing and it was hard to get to the parking lot. More confusion ensued when I ordered a Blizzard in a waffle cone and was given a Blizzard and a waffle cone with ice cream. I stared blankly and was going to walk away but Brent argued for me, getting me my waffle cone Blizzard and my money back for the cone. The idea of a waffle cone Blizzard is good, but in reality it fails, it is too messy to eat and the cone falls apart. It was also a bit confusing as to how to get to the Rio Puerco Bridge, there was construction and no clear signs. It was all very anti-climactic in the end as the bridge had been replaced in 1999 and thus was not the original. I ended up being more interested in the road itself, which in the usual Route 66 fashion dead-ended. It was full of cracks through which plants were growing. As we were driving back towards the highway we saw a sign for Route 66, followed it only to realize it was going the opposite direction: back to the following the Google Maps directions.
Soon enough we were back on Route 66, and I found myself behind the wheel (this portion was nicely paved and had no traffic). I lasted less than a minute and had to pull over to the shoulder. I ran back with my camera, desperate to photograph what I had missed: Route 66 emblazoned on the road itself and on a giant boulder by the side of the road. There was a memorial to a dead German biker in the side of the boulder. It was clear that I was not meant to drive, and good thing we had switched back, the road became curvy and full of switchbacks- not my cup of tea.
This section of Route 66 featured a lot of run-down and crappy shacks; one house was built halfway below ground-level. An old bar had been turned into a liquor store. It was really easy to see why Route 66 had died as we drove along, parallel to the I-40 albeit with a slower speed limit. We passed by some hitchhikers, alas they put their thumbs up too late; we were already passing them- amateurs. As was coming to be expected, Route 66 ended abruptly and we found ourselves on the interstate yet again. It was hard to follow the Google Maps directions back onto Route 66 as not all the streets had signs, some streets had two names, it took forever to figure out where we were. Bowlin’s Old Crater Trading Post was nowhere to be seen, I did see a groundhog, but it’s just not the same as a Route 66 landmark. A really long train passed by, once again reminding me of Cruis’n USA. Once more Route 66 dead-ended and we took the I-40 the rest of the way to our destination: Route 66, in Gallup, New Mexico. We stopped at Blake’s (another Breaking Bad reference) on Route 66 for lunch.
The green chile cheeseburger was delicious and it cemented my love affair with green chiles. Some girls came up and tried to sell us earrings while we ate, it was really quite awkward. As we got into the car a woman came up to us muttering something about having just gotten out of jail. We drove past a place called F U King Smoke Shop; it amused me to no end. We were staying at the El Rancho Hotel ON Route 66 (there are a bunch of hearts drawn in my notebook with that statement). The lobby was terribly tacky with giant rugs and mounted deer heads and a giant chandelier. Our room was a sauna, the last people had left the heat on full blast and the windows closed. The room itself was in keeping with the tacky Western (movie stars stayed there during the heyday of Western films set nearby): the headboard was half a wagon wheel. The bathroom taps were wonky: either way you turned them you got water.
Wi-fi was only available in the lobby so we set up camp to plan our upcoming days (changes had to be made thanks to the government shutdown). Unfortunately there was an annoying guy listening to mariachi music really loud, I gave up and went to read my book while Brent stayed behind and tried to fight fire with fire by blasting Chopin music via the iPad. I was having none of it. I started falling asleep as I read, tried to play on the iPad and ended up having a nap (despite the rumbling train noises in the distance). Brent gently tapped my arm ever so gently, resulting in me waking in a terrified state of panic and near heart attack. The 49er lounge was open, we could go get drinks. I wanted to see all the dollar bills tacked to the wall. Alas, I forgot to bring a Sharpie, even a pen, so I could add my own dollar bill to the collection. Out of laziness I ended up drinking Smirnoff Ice and staring at the baseball game. It was nice to sit and relax after a long day… of sitting in the car.
As soon as I stepped outside, I ran back in to get another sweater, it was so cold outside! We walked to the grocery store to get snacks for the next day’s hike. Somehow I ended up with garlic bread Lay’s chips and coconut fudge-covered Oreos and Mexican Pepsi as well. I contemplated getting a personal sized pizza from Pizza Hut. Brent had to pee; therefore I ended up with pizza. It was a very cold walk back, the sun was setting and it was not even 7pm yet!
The door jambs in the hotel were weirdly small; I could not smack the top off the Pepsi bottle. I went down to the lobby, in my socks, past the fancy-pants formal kids (for the 3rd time now) and asked the guy at the front desk for a bottle opener. He handed it to me and watched me struggle to open the bottle. He had to open it for me, but I saved myself by joking that I am more of a wine girl myself.
Junk food and watching Cupcake Wars is the epitome of a vacation. The shower was eerily creepy, the curtain was heavy and let no light in, and there was no overhead lamp. I had watched Psycho way too many times to be ok with a situation like that. As I left the bathroom I noticed on the wall by the doorframe what appeared to be a corkscrew that popped out. I photographed it for confirmation later. The night ended with me, belly full of junk food, writing out postcards. I was asleep by 9pm.