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On the Road with Nancy Brown: Up in the Air in Albuquerque

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown takes flight in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Colorful balloons like the Jester prepare for launch at the 2010 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Photos: Nancy D. Brown.

Early October, I spent a few magical days in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The smell of roasted green chiles hung in the air while hundreds of hot air balloons filled the desert sky like fireworks being set off in slow motion.

One completely unexpected highlight of the trip was a chance to go up in a hot air balloon with Lafayette pilot Gary Michalek at the International Balloon Fiesta. On the second day of my travels, I arrived early in the morning to Fiesta Park, where crews were working swiftly to prepare their balloons for flight. Michalek’s team unfurled a large canvas of fabric on the grass, while a giant wicker basket waited in the morning darkness. Cold air and propane fired into the balloon’s envelope, bringing the massive balloon to life. Pilot Michalek was onboard filling the envelope as he discussed last minute details with our chase crew who would follow our flight from the ground. I climbed into the basket, and, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was soon floating high in the air—in my case, above the Rio Grande Valley.

Pilot Gary Michalek of Lafayette, California in his balloon "Asses Aloft."“Gary,” I asked my pilot. “How does a guy from Lafayette, California end up with a hot air balloon?”

“It’s a long story,” laughed the strong, quiet man dressed in Levis and a white t-shirt, layered under a grey shirt and a suede leather vest. “My first time in a balloon, I was having a lesson in the balloon I’d just bought.”

Twenty-three years later, Michalek has turned his hobby into a business, taking passengers up in his hot air balloon fondly named, “Asses Aloft.” One of his chase crew members noted that “Assets Aloft” would be a more fitting name since ballooning is an expensive hobby and business.

My flight was exciting, to say the least. We lifted off to the cheers of the crowd below and then floated along the valley, over the Rio Grande River, and eventually landed in a construction site, complete with moving bulldozers. Keep in mind that these balloons do not come with steering wheels; they are aerostats that move with the wind. Like the hundreds of balloons that launched before and after us, each pilot must decide where he or she is going to attempt to land. As we began our decent, we watched other balloons land along the river and in open fields. In some instances, hot air balloons made contact with the treetops, as well as the occasional parked vehicle—not an ideal landing, but what goes up must come down.

Other highlights from my trip included visiting Petroglyph National Monument, seeing a fresco unveiled at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, watching Native American dancers at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and, of course, sampling the local cuisine.

Celebrating Native Culture in Albuquerque

Fabian Fontenelle of New Mexico's Zuni Omaha tribe sits in Old Town Albuquerque.Have you ever seen a petroglyph? Minutes from downtown Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument in Boca Negra Canyon is home to an estimated 24,000 carved images. Mobility-impaired visitors as well as young children can see petroglyphs from the parking lot, while adventurers may wander the trails of Boca Negra, Piedras Marcades, or Rinconada Canyons.

Hoping to trace your Hispanic heritage or simply want to be inspired by Frederico Vigil’s 4,000-square-foot mural? Titled Torreón Fresco, the artwork was recently unveiled to the public for the first time. To see it, head to The National Hispanic Cultural Center which offers art, dance, and music to all visitors as well as authentic cuisine at La Fonda del Bosque Restaurant.

Also save time to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where you can learn about the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, watch Native American dancers, and taste native-fusion cuisine at the Pueblo Harvest Café.

Dining in Albuquerque

The official state question in New Mexico is ‘red or green?’ Unlike California’s question of red or white, referencing the type of wine you prefer, locals in Albuquerque want to know which chile you’re craving, as chili is the star ingredient on most New Mexican menus. El Pinto’s Jim Garcia notes that New Mexican cuisine features Anaheim chilis, and I also learned that chili, spelled with an “i,” refers to a food dish made with chiles, while “chile” is the actual vegetable.

You may know your chiles, but what do you know about tequila? “At El Pinto, we want to animate the senses,” Garcia says. What better way to taste the cuisine than to pair the food with good quality tequila? Similar to wine tastings, tequila has many layers of flavor and is meant to be sipped and savored. El Pinto offers a wide array of high-end tequilas, including El Tesoro de Don Felipe Platinum 100% Blue Agave Tequila.

For legendary barbeque, set to local country music, The County Line specializes in ribs and brisket, but it was the homemade bread and mashed potatoes that had me crooning. Perhaps you prefer Italian cuisine? Local boy Steve Paternoster refers to himself as the head Italian at his northern Italian grill Scalo, located in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area. Pasta lovers will not be disappointed with Chef Fred Gallegos’ Bianchi e Neri al Capesanta or the house-made lobster ravioli at Scalo.The 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri Church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Getting There

I drove to the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport and used their park and fly package during my overnight stay. I flew Southwest Airlines from San Francisco International Airport to Las Vegas and then onto Albuquerque.

Sky-high Opportunity

Don’t miss your chance to fly with Lafayette balloon pilot Gary Michalek, who possesses a commercial pilot license and looks forward to taking Diablo readers for a ride in his balloon. To set up a flight, email him at Garym32@gmail.com. Check out the video of my flight with Michalek to get you motivated.

A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at www.writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Nancydbrown.