Special Shapes

Saturday’s ride in a hot air balloon was special, but Thursday of Balloon Fiesta Week is Special Shapes Rodeo and that is also a not-to-be-missed event. The weather doesn’t always cooperate so we closely watched the forecast for the day and planned accordingly. Mass ascension is set for 7:00am. We were riding our bikes and it’s a 30-minute ride to Balloon Fiesta Park so that meant getting on the bike path while it was still dark. Even with bike lights, riding in the dark makes me nervous. I was relieved when the last couple of miles daylight started to creep over the mountains to the east and we could see without our lights.

I Love Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta!

Balloons were already going up when we got on the field, but most of the Special Shapes were still being inflated. It’s like being a kid in a candy store running up and down the aisles, not sure where we should stand to get the best views of our favorite balloons. The clouds didn’t clear until most of the balloons had launched. Photos aren’t quite as colorful without the light of the sun and the bright blue background of the sky. But weather conditions were great for keeping the aloft balloons from moving up and away too quickly. And the “box effect” brought many of them back over the field again in the opposite direction of where they had headed out. All in all, another memorable day at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Up, Up and Away

Until last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, I would not have said that riding in a hot air balloon was an item on my bucket list. Since moving to Albuquerque, Lee and I have enjoyed watching the balloons, both during the fiesta and throughout the year as they frequently fly close to our apartment. But last year as I stood on the field and thrilled once again at the sight of all the balloons going up, I had a sudden revelation of how special it would be if I were a passenger in one of those balloons. I made up my mind that this would be the year I would experience Balloon Fiesta in the air, instead of on the ground.

Deciding that you are going to be part of a morning launch is no guarantee that you will actually get to go up. Ballooning is totally dependent on the cooperation of the weather and we have experienced a number of disappointing mornings at Balloon Fiesta Park when the balloons were not able to launch. I scheduled my ride for the first day of the Fiesta, knowing that chances were better of getting rescheduled later in the week if opening day was a no-go.

But the weather this morning could not have been more perfect. I had to be at the check-in location at 5:00 am. The traffic into the park was already building up as Lee drove me to a spot within walking distance, but not too close so he could get back out. He was going to come back down to the park later to watch the launch, which gets underway at 7:00 am. We managed to find each other in the mass of people and walked down the field with our group.

It was just starting to get light as the balloonists worked on inflating their balloons. Our pilot was personable and knowledgeable, sharing with us facts about ballooning, as well as funny stories about things he has encountered over the years as a balloon pilot. He promised us a good time, and fulfilled his promise, keeping us in the air for a full hour.

The winds carried us north of the city, most of the time on a path that followed the Rio Grande River. At our highest point, the pilot said we were over 2000 feet above the ground. Partway through the ride he brought the balloon back down so that we skimmed over the treetops along the river. As our landing spot, he picked out a vacant lot in a Rio Rancho subdivision. Before the ride he had given us instructions on what to do if it was a rough landing but there was hardly a bump as the basket touched the ground. The chase crew was ready and waiting and we were packed up and on our way in no time at all.

What a glorious, wonderful experience for my first balloon ride. The photos can’t do it justice, but here they are:
Balloon ride photos.

Anniversary Bonus

A last-minute plan to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary with a two-day hiking excursion in the Sacramento Mountains turned out to have an added bonus.  We had an unexpected opportunity to once again intercept our favorite Celadon driver, this time on a Laredo to LA load he was hauling.

We were already on the road Tuesday, headed to Alamogordo, when Mike messaged the news that he would be coming through New Mexico. As usual, it was uncertain what his schedule would be–when he’d be passing through and how much time he could spare for a stop. But we told him to keep us posted and we would see if we could arrange a meet up.

As originally planned, we stayed overnight in Alamogordo and Wednesday morning headed up into the mountains to enjoy the beautiful spring day.

Anniversary selfie. Tunnel Vista stop on road to Cloudcroft.

After getting some maps and information at the ranger station in Cloudcroft, we decided to do an out-and-back hike on part of the Rim Trail. All of the years I lived in Alamogordo I don’t think I was even aware that there was such a trail. I think in those days I had too many other things to deal with.

First National Forest trail in NM to be a National Recreation Trail and I had never been on it!
Some aspen, but too early for leaves.
Douglas Fir are the big trees here, not the Ponderosa Pine we are used to.
View from Rim Trail of Sierra Blanca to the north.
View from Rim Trail looking east to Alamogordo and White Sands.

After the hike we drove further up the road to the Sunspot Solar Observatory. I do remember having gone there several times in the past. But now I was saddened to see how the place is virtually abandoned, its functions taken over by newer technologies. At least it is still possible to take a self-guided tour through the complex, reading information signs in front of the various buildings and telescopes. We finished our day with a stroll through the cute little mountain town of Cloudcroft. It seems to have gotten a few more tourist attractions from what I remembered, even an ice cream shop where we rewarded ourselves with a couple of scoops.

Shortly after getting back to Alamogordo we heard from Mike that he had made good progress that day driving across Texas. He would be able to meet us Thursday morning for breakfast in Las Cruces. So instead of spending a second night in Alamogordo, as we’d originally planned, we drove to Las Cruces and got a motel room off the interstate close to the truck stop he directed us to.

The sun hadn’t yet made it over the Organ Mountains this morning when he pulled off the interstate but I was there on the sidewalk waving and jumping up and down as the Celadon truck approached the intersection. We had almost an hour to visit over breakfast before he had to get back on the road.

Until we meet again!

Our original plan for today had been to do another hike in the Alamogordo area. But we did some replanning since we would be now be driving up I-25.  We decided to check out Elephant Butte Lake, a place we’ve never stopped at before in our travels. A Google query turned up a map for West Lakeshore Trail, which appears to be a fairly new development.  We couldn’t do the whole trail but picked a section that would give us a good view of the lake.  I was interested to read on the sign that this stretch of trail is part of the work-in-progress Rio Grande Trail that eventually will cross the length of New Mexico.

I was glad to be on this trail in March and not during the summer. Even though it’s a lakeside trail it really is desert hiking.

Des Moines, New Mexico

Until Mike’s phone call around midnight last night, I didn’t even know there was a place called Des Moines, NM. Yesterday afternoon we had made the 200-mile trip from Albuquerque to Raton, NM, with a plan to meet up with Mike as he was hauling a load from Dallas to Denver. After cutting northwest from Amarillo on Highway 64/87, his route would bring him through Raton. He hoped his schedule would allow him to spend some time in Raton, and, since we didn’t have anything scheduled for Monday, the meetup looked doable.

As the day progressed I kept in touch with Mike to see how things looked for him. It’s easy for us to plan a drive from Albuquerque to Raton with a reasonable estimate of our arrival time. It’s not that easy for a truck driver to figure out what time he will be in a particular place. Mike’s 14-hour clock started ticking yesterday in Dallas when he drove to the customer site at the scheduled time for getting his trailer loaded. If there were significant delays in that process he wouldn’t have enough time on his clock to make the 575 miles to Raton before having to shut down for the night.

The loading process went smoothly, but somewhere on the stretch from Wichita Falls to Amarillo a highway accident required a detour, slowing Mike down. We were already settled in our motel room in Raton by that time. Mike said he would still try to make Raton before he had to shut down, which would be sometime around midnight. I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep so I told him to call when he shut down, regardless of the time.

When my phone buzzed a little after midnight I wasn’t asleep and quickly opened the Map app on the phone to see how far he had gotten. And that’s where I saw Des Moines, the nearest named spot to the rest area where he was parked. It was less than 40 miles from Raton, which was good news for keeping to today’s plan of spending time with Mike.

When we met up with him at the rest area this morning he said he could hang out with us until 2 this afternoon, at which time he needed to be back at the truck to grab a couple of hours of sleep before making the drive to Denver. He’s scheduled for unloading at midnight tonight, another one of those crazy scheduling things that prevent truckers from having a normal life.

Anyway, we had a wonderful time touring Capulin Volcano National Monument. I’m currently taking a Geology class at our local community college and we just finished a chapter on volcanoes. There’s nothing like being in the field to help with the learning process.

Of course, the best part was spending time with Mike. I think of all the years he lived in Iowa and the special place in my heart for Des Moines, Iowa, because of the many summers doing the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Who could have imagined that one day Mike would be a long haul truck driver and we would be eating lunch at a restaurant in Des Moines, NM.

Capulin Volcano is the type of volcano known as a cinder cone.
Sierra Grande in the distance is a shield volcano.


The traditional way to mark the end of the ride across Iowa is to dip your bike tire into the Mississippi River at the ending town.  Today I joined the crowd of bicyclists pushing their bikes towards the dip site in Clinton, Iowa, just so Lee could take a picture showing I was actually there.  All the hard work of the week pedaling from Sioux Center on the Missouri River to Clinton on the Mississippi River was finally done so it didn’t seem that important whether I actually got the bike tire in the water or not.

As always, I had a wonderful time on the ride.  This marks the tenth year I’ve done RAGBRAI and I think it was the best year ever.  I may have complained about the heat and headwinds and hills but that’s all part of the experience.  When you’ve made it to the end town you tend to forget how discouraged you felt during those long stretches of pedaling when it felt like you were never going to make it to the end of the day.

We are now back in Iowa City, staying at Mike’s house for the weekend.  We have to take the car to a mechanic Monday for some minor repairs.  By Tuesday or Wednesday we plan to be on our way to Ohio to begin another round of visiting friends and family and exploring new and old places.

Such an Easy Ride

It was such an easy ride today that I took some extra time in Vinton to try my hand at dairy production the old-fashioned way.  Sande would be proud of me.  For those of you who remember my June 8 post about the extraordinary job that my sister, Sande, does on her Wyoming ranch you would understand why I couldn’t pass up this photo op.

We had lots of wind again but 90% of the time it was either a tailwind or blowing sideways.  It was so wonderful that I didn’t mind the fact that there quite a few hills.  Most of the hills were the roller coaster kind that aren’t that long and that are fun to descend.  Also, that kind of terrain in Iowa means the ride is scenic with views of valleys and ridges blanketed with beautiful farmland.

I didn’t hear any statistics on amount of rainfall last night in Marshalltown, but it definitely wasn’t enough to break the drought.  It did thunder and lightning and a severe storm warning was issued.  We were already in our tent, but talked to some riders today who said people who had gone downtown on the shuttle were told the shuttles wouldn’t take them back to camp until the storm threat passed.  A group in our campground this afternoon was making repairs to their tent and drying out their clothes in the sun.  They said when the shuttle finally got them back to camp they discovered the wind had blown over their tent.

Even if the nights camping on RAGBRAI don’t have storms there are other hazards to watch out for.  Have you ever experienced the frustration of leaving your car in a parking lot while you shop and then when you come out of the store you can’t figure out where you left it?  That frustration can’t compare to what a fellow camper experienced last night.  At 3:30 in the morning Lee heard me getting out of the tent to go to the bathroom and asked if he could walk with me since he’d forgotten his flashlight.  When we exited the tent a panic-stricken woman saw our light and told us her sad story.  She had gone to the restroom but then had gotten disoriented in the dark and couldn’t find her tent.  We stumbled around with her awhile with no success and finally left her back at the restroom where she started so she could try to retrace her steps.  It’s awful what an unorganized, huge jumble of tents fills a RAGBRAI campground.  When the restrooms are far away like they were last night I always dread those middle of the night restroom visits.  I could end up wandering around until daylight lost and unable to find my tent.

Here in Cedar Rapids we have a much nicer camping spot.  The restrooms are close and the skies are clear.  It should be a hazard-free night.  I’ll need a good night’s sleep.  Tomorrow is the day with the most hills on this year’s ride.

Into the Wind

Yesterday's east wind that someone said would bring in rain and cooler temmperatures appeared this morning to have brought only more wind.  The wind today was from the south and, of course, a lot of the route had us heading into the south.  So once again the afternoon part of the ride really stretched the lungs and leg muscles to push against the wind and some uphills, too, that greeted us on the way into Marshalltown.  The temperatures were triple digits, as well.

But now we can rest knowing another day has been conquered.  And what is that sound as darkness falls and we are here in our tent?  Wow, it's actually raining.  And what a wonderful cool breeze the rain has brought.  The forecast is that it won't be a significant amount of rain but it will bring much cooler air for tomorrow's ride.

Before this week had started I had been dreading tomorrow's ride.  It's the longest of the week and 84.8 sounded like an awful lot of miles.  But after strengthening my leg muscles battling the winds yesterday and today I feel more than ready for the challenge.