Albuquerque Dawn

“Remember: all the things really worth doing in life are pretty awful, but the converse isn’t true. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference.”   -The Unfinished Book of Parental Wisdom
Imagine a dew-covered field at dawn, air still fresh with the scent of cut grass. Around you is the bustle of crews, the smell of wicker, the sound and sudden heat of gas flares. Acres, towering acres of bright nylon canopies transforming themselves from lifeless shells on the ground, blossoming into enormous, magnificent floating shapes above your head to join the hundreds that literally blot out sky. Imagine the moment, as the sun crests Sandia Mountain in the east, when they launch, wave after wave, pouring out into the sky of Albuquerque in a visual cascade of color.
That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.  Imagining, that is. We’re imaging from our position in an unending and unmoving sea of brake lights, halfway to the Tramway Ave exit ramp on I-25, where we’ve been idling since some time before 6 a.m.  Brent, Linda and the girls are a few cars ahead of us, and we’ve been exchanging updates by phone every few minutes. We got the kids out of bed at 4:45 this morning – that’s 3:45 back home – to witness this spectacle, and they’re coping as well as one could expect under the circumstances. Jem’s tucked over his iPad, plugged into an audiobook, and Miranda is staring out the window, simmering in that existential ennui that will serve as a foundation for teenage recollections of Those Things I’m Never Going to Make My Kids Do When I’m a Grown-Up. (M, reading over my shoulder: “NEVER!”)
The line of cars really hasn’t moved in 20 minutes. Off to the side, on the surface streets, we see the slow pulse of headlights and brakelights, crawling through a rectangular maze in the dark, corners punctuated by the flashing blue of parked police cars, occupants ostensibly trying, with little success, to direct the flow to the Balloon Fiesta grounds a mile away. I’m reminded of those films in biology class, microscopic close-ups of capillaries: the channels branching out ever finer, until the red blood cells jostling through the artery line up to pass one by one.
Devon and I have been doing the math. There’s no way we’re going to make it in time. Best case, we’re going to get to see the balloons rise from the car, rolling down windows and leaning out to point and ooh and ahh. Worst case? I try to focus on the best case.
Finally, at 6:40, Linda calls. Her mother’s been watching the morning news, and they’ve decided there’s too much wind to try the mass ascension today. It’s been cancelled. I take one look at the river of lights ahead of us, unmoving in its descent into the gridlock below. To our left lie three lanes of empty Interstate. Time to bail.
Ten minutes later, after we’ve followed I-25 north to the next exit and swung back around south, we blur past the still-unmoving rivers. I glance down at the capillary surface streets, clogged in cars now with nowhere to go. I suppose there’s still stuff to do at the Fiesta grounds – if and when they ever make it there. Popcorn, funnel cake vendors and the usual fair activities, but what everyone really was in line for was the mass ascension. It’s what everyone talks about in those glowing, almost spiritual terms. That gridlock, those cars are filled with tired parents and the cranky kids they’d woken at some godawful hour that morning with promises of the aerial spectacle.
At highway speed, it takes us about three minutes to traverse the mess, during which we’ve set course for an IHOP at the edge of town. It’ll take us five more minutes, max, to get there. Brent and Linda are in our wake, heading home with the girls; Devon, the kids and I have another adventure already in the queue.
I think about the timing – if we’d all been another hundred or so yards further forward, committed irretrievably to that off ramp, we’d still be locked in that maze long after we were wiping our chins from a Saturday morning serving of chocolate milk, and strawberry pancakes drenched in “Real Old Fashioned!” maple “flavored” syrup. I imagine, again, for a moment, the balloons overhead, and weigh it against the gridlock I know we’ve escaped. A perfect morning? No, not at all, but an entirely survivable one. I can imagine worse.

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