A working slogan for hot-air ballooning might well be summed up as "Work Hard, Fly High, and Party Hearty." Certainly, that’s how many, if not most balloonists approach their sport. And the party begins early in the day -- immediately after the balloon has been safely landed and packed. That means that alcohol rarely touches the lips of balloonists (or least those who are not designated drivers) before the hour of 9am -- a bit less shocking when you consider that by that time, most crew members have been up and about for five hours. After an impromptu toast (usually beer) to the balloon’s safe landing, the crew gathers itself into the hands of its designated drivers and returns to the launch field, where the serious partying occurs. Consequently, Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta can fairly be described as a 10-day-long tailgate party.
To their credit, balloonists take the word fiesta back to its roots and turn the world’s largest annual balloon rally into a festival of merrymaking. The tradition of fun is so high that, in addition to the official calendar of events, many balloon crews have developed their own rituals. Our crew, for example, proclaimed a series of theme days for which all and sundry were encouraged to dress to type: Celtic Day with plaids, kilts, and bagpipes; Hawaiian Day with floral-patterned shirts, sarongs, and leis; Mardi Gras Day with beads and masks; and Pirate Day with eye patches, three-cornered hats, and plastic rapiers. Coolish weather is not considered an impediment to wearing, say, a sarong. Layers of warmer clothes beneath more colorful outer garments are key to the art of the workaround, with unneeded layers being discarded as the desert sun warms the air.
The most sacred ritual for the launch field party is that of initiating "newbies" -- welcoming those who have just completed their first balloon flight. The rite begins when either the pilot or the crew chief recounts a brief history of ballooning’s origin and pops open a bottle of champagne, while the young and agile (or sometimes those who merely wish they were!) on the crew position themselves to catch the cork and thus ensure that the next landing will be soft. In the absence of an initiate, the ceremonial popping of the champagne cork will almost certainly find another focus -- someone’s birthday, a personal goal achieved, or happy news of any sort that can be shared and celebrated.
During the distribution of the champagne, the newbie is instructed to kneel on a rug, hands to the side. The new balloonist is then told to take the rim of the cup between clinched teeth and tip the head back to imbibe the bubbly -- without spilling any, of course. Meanwhile, other crew members circle behind the newbie -- the better to douse the initiate with water, more champagne, beer, or all three -- at Fiesta on a cool October morning, and this all amounts to a wet, cold baptism filled with laughter and fun. A toast to flying with fair winds follows, or rather accompanies, the dousing. Finally, the new balloonist is "pinned," a ceremony surrounded with great mystery and replete with many variations (most pilots keep a supply of pins representing their balloons -- the better for pinning, trading, advertising, and just plain giving away); thus is one welcomed ritualistically into the larger company of balloonists.
As with any good party, food, drink, and music are essential. Our adopted crew’s party provisions tended to appear on a potluck basis. Loose networking within the crew and between crews who party together also produces easy pop-up canopies for shelter against the sun, folding camp chairs for basic seating comfort, and camp tables as needed. Individual crew members also have a habit of finding special roles for themselves that they fulfill each year. Within our adopted crew, one member (our son-in-law, as it happens) selects music for each year’s festivities, two sisters coordinate to prepare Jell-O shooters for at least one day of merrymaking, the pilot stashes away several bottles of champagne (for ritual purposes only, of course), and yet another member brings a steady supply of edibles to ensure that food, as well as drink, is in ready supply.
Balloonists have found some ingenious ways to accommodate those needs they regard as most dear. A married couple within our crew provides margaritas made fresh-to-order in a gasoline-powered tailgater blender. One crew we encountered launches a flea-market search each year for a comfy sofa to include as part of their ballooning gear. The sofa is stowed in their chase van and brought out to provide a touch of class and comfort during the launch field party. Another crew with loose ties to our own brings along large pop-up canopies for substantial shelter, generators to power small refrigerators, and a literal menu of sandwiches, finger foods, and beverages -- some of which are even healthy!
Social networking between crews makes for parties that are simultaneously small and intimate, as well as large and widespread. The ballooning community itself is small, and regular participants are generally known to one another, with hospitality between crews occurring routinely. Thus, the launch field party is the perfect venue for discussing all manner of serious issues -- who’s selling a balloon or related equipment, who’s in the market to make a purchase, who may need extra hands at the next day’s launch, what practical matters need to be resolved before next month’s rally, where to get the best deal on a particular type of gear to be purchased, what major sponsor may be looking to lease another balloon, and so on and so forth.
In the past, a launch field party might continue until late afternoon or, if no evening events were scheduled, into early evening. In this day of heightened security, partygoers are expected to vacate the field by 2pm. Revelers can then remove themselves to another location, or they can go to home to practice yet another time-honored tradition, the afternoon nap -- or, as we say in the Southwest, the siesta. Thus is it that ballooning runs the gamut from fiesta tosiesta. Ritual, after all, demands its full course.