The sky is still inky black as I walk along the uneven, wet field.
A few cars are parked in the distance, but in the dark shapes meld together. Among the row of covered carts standing in line to one side, there is one whose tarp is pinned back, revealing a spatula of light. Steam rises from the cart and lumbers heavily towards me in the chilly morning.
I can’t resist the aroma that accompanies the steam, and so I head over for a better look. Round discs of tortillas are being heated and eggs sizzle on a miniature stove top. Ordering a jalapeño-charged breakfast burrito with coffee, I glance out across the field. Nothing interesting is happening yet, and I become impatient for the sky to lighten, for people to arrive, for my breakfast to be cooked.
I had imagined my cross country journey from New York to California would be like a trip through the Emerald City of Oz, filled with the endless wonder of big adventures.
This was my chance for self-discovery, Kerouac style.
Instead, my days consisted of mind-numbing hours behind the wheel and countless roadside greasy spots. Though I passed vintage towns and drove through fruitful plains no life lessons had confronted me. My excursion has been diligently free of symbolism and romance. At every local landmark I waited for the mystery to appear, in vain.
Where was the freedom and the wildness of the open road I had read about? So far, there has been no great obstacle to overcome, no thrilling exploits, and no derring-do to perform on my monotonous travel. In the darkness, I feverishly hope that I will find my crossroads here.
I am in the middle of a football field waiting for the festival to begin. A smaller stream of moisture wafts thinly off into the air and joins the mist from my breath. I watch the swirls of vapor intertwine before disappearing above my head.
As I finish my mobile breakfast, some 20 yards in front of me, contours move about mysteriously. Something is starting, and I step my way over the dew laden terrain toward the activity. As I approach a flash of fire appears, disappears, then reappears.
Lying before me, flat on the ground, is a gigantic swath of fabric. At one end of it, a yellow-white flame erupts again, this time burning long. In its light I watch the yards of material billow and rise slowly upright. The swoosh of the fire increases and its sound fills the air as the cloth transforms into a balloon painted with yellow and red stripes.
Two men pull at ropes and an awkward object straightens to become the basket. A handful of people who are watching surge forward to enter the balloon’s hamper while I watch fascinated by the metamorphosis of a hot air balloon. A final whoosh of sound, the flame adjusts in brightness, and the balloon rises majestically to the skies.
Within moments it becomes a saffron-colored fleck, a paper lantern in the indigo sky.
I crane my neck to watch it float serenely overhead towards the unknown horizon, pondering where it will wander and where it will come to ground. A feeling of wonder and adventure surrounds the golden speck as it follows the wayward breeze.
As the sun rises and the sky brightens to a baby blue, hundreds of hot air balloons appear upon the field. Color, shape and size know no boundaries in this enchanted field. Not even the sights of Oz could compete with the spectacle of gigantic cats unfurling themselves upon the grass, bloated houses taking flight, and enormous cloth bees buzzing about in the air.
They are all balloons, happily expanding with hot air, wiggling into all sorts of characters, soaring up handfuls at a time.
Brilliantly technicolored and harmoniously foolish, each balloon looms larger than life on earth before climbing into the heavens to create a vividly speckled sky. I came to see hot air balloons take shape, but I had no idea I would enter a world more madcap and colorful than the ones Alice and Dorothy discovered.
Standing mute and firm on two feet, I cannot imagine that the view from the balloons is more spectacular than the vantage I have from an open field in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As I watch the balloons, I realize I have learned my first life lesson on the road: it is not what life brings to me, but what I bring to life that makes it an adventure.
I expected events to happen to me on this journey and became impatient when excitement did not seek me out. I assumed self-discovery was a grand process that would stun me with cataclysmic force and transform my core immediately.
I understand now that change is an ongoing development, as slow and unnoticeable as the air filling inside a swath of fabric until, almost magically, the shapeless mass alters into a balloon that is able to float away.
This festival, like my road trip, is not an adrenaline rush. The unseen hurdle standing in my way was my expectant attitude.
Now that I have stopped waiting for thrills to find me, and opened my eyes to my colorful surroundings, I have discovered the freedom of the open road.
Atreyee Gupta translates her love of nature and culture into writing and publishing stories that challenge travelers to cultivate relationships with travel destinations. As co-founder and managing editor of Bespoke Traveler, she seeks to inspire others to embrace an immersive travel experience through interactive digital products. Read more of Atreyee’s writing at bespoketraveler.com.
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Asst. Ed: Amy Cushing/Ed: Bryonie Wise