I’ve just wrapped up one of the most stressful and exciting trips in recent times. Last week we drove to Detroit, then flew to Denver to start our bucket list weekend adventure, planning to knock off two items over the next few days. 1. Rent an RV for an inter-state trek with the family. 2. Ride in a hot air balloon.
We got in to Denver around 5pm on Wednesday. Cory picked us up but had things to do so we didn’t socialize for very long. Being in Denver and not seeing anyone felt weird, even if doing so was totally legitimized by our limited window of time. Still, I called Scott because I know he usually has the kids alone at night and I was right. We met up with him and his brood for a quick dinner then headed home to get to bed early. We had a big couple of days in front of us. The first thing on the list – pick up the 40 foot tour bus that we’d rented from an RV place in Commerce City.
Now a lot of people would rightfully question this trip and whether or not it made sense for me to put three generations of my family in the back of a tour bus, with me at the wheel, to drive through weather, over mountain passes and into another state where we would eventually ‘camp’ for four days. I get that. It’s not exactly something that obviously plays to my natural skills, interests or personality. And truthfully, honestly/quietly, the first 24 hours had me thinking the trip was going to be a nightmare. The minute we walked on to the RV lot my eyes landed on this behemoth of a tour bus and I was thinking “Please don’t let it be that one…please…please…” 40 feet long. 12 feet tall. 20,000 pounds. That’s ten tons. Inside I knew it was the one. I knew that the woman on the ladder washing down the windshield was cleaning it up for the next driver. And I knew that person was me. After a short video on how many things and people I could destroy if I didn’t drive with precision, we went out to the lot for a ‘walk-through.’ It only took about 20 minutes of hearing about house versus engine batteries, generators, automatic levelers, holding tanks and propane before I pulled Rhonda aside and said “I think we need to get something smaller. How in the hell am I supposed to drive this thing? I’ve never been behind the wheel of anything this big. I even lied to the guy and told him I once drove a big moving truck. That was a total lie!” And she, of course, was happy to oblige. She didn’t want me wiping out our entire family any more than I did, I guess.
But the minute she said “Ok, let’s tell him we need something else,” I had a change of heart. See, I was thinking about a lesson that I have learned and re-learned in life. It’s some version of knowing that there are times that you just need to push yourself… knowing that, when there is a decision to be made and you’re picking one option over another out of nothing more than fear…you’re doing it wrong. You don’t make decisions out of fear. Now to be clear, a calculation about safety makes a lot of sense, especially when family is involved. But nothing good in my life has come as a result of me backing away from challenges. The feeling I was having was exactly the feeling I had a few months ago when I pulled my 1100 pound motorcycle out of my driveway for the first time, wobbly and insecure, feeling like a crash was inevitable. I knew I had to push through. Same feeling when I quit football in college. Same feeling when I moved to California. Same feeling when I got engaged to Rhonda, when I moved to Ohio, when I took any number of jobs that were too big for me at the time; simply put – I knew I had something to conquer…and that I could do it.
“Just hold on,” I told her.
All I needed was a little nudge, a little confidence booster. So after the walk-through I pulled aside the guy in charge and said “Hey…you think I can do this?” He looked me up and down then started to nod, slowly at first, then more convincingly. “Yeah…you can do this. The learning curve isn’t what you think.” That was it. No turning back for me. I mean – insert ego – part of my thinking had to do with the people I usually see driving these things on the road. Generally speaking, they are old. This will sound bad, and maybe it is, but they usually don’t strike me as Rhodes Scholars either. Rather, they more or less remind of me of Midwest senior simpletons who are just ecstatic about hauling their asses around to warm weather in a vehicle big enough to allow their matching tea cup poodles to sleep on the dash. Generally speaking.
So my point here should be obvious. In my head, if they could learn to safely drive one of those tanks…surely I could as well. No offense old, simple, poodle-owning Midwesterners.
Ok, flash forward four hours later and we are somewhere in Southern Colorado getting blown across the highway by 60 mph winds. My knuckles are white, if not cramped, and wrapped around the steering wheel at ten and two in a claw hammer grip. I’m feigning a smile to everyone who asks me how it’s going and if everything is alright. “It’s fine!” I say, without turning around. “Relax!” And they were relaxed, believe that. Ava was my co-pilot and Lily was my junior co-pilot and they would take turns riding shotgun and chatting it up with me about just whatever was on their mind. Then they’d disappear to greater things that were going on behind me. Movies, snacks, games… I knew it would be nice for my kids to make this eight hour drive without having to be strapped down in car seats. What I didn’t realize was, the trade-off was that I would be strapped down in a car seat the entire time.
When we finally got to Albuquerque and, more specifically, to the campground I was absolutely fried. My calves and forearms were cramped. My eyes felt like they had sand in them. There was a ringing in my ears that I couldn’t shake. I was glad to be off the road. That feeling lasted all of about three minutes until I realized that I was going to have to maneuver our bus into a campground and eventually between other RV’s. But as I found out, I would have an entire night to obsess over my next feat because the campground was closed. That meant we would call it a night in a long, double line of other RV’s waiting to check-in as well.
There we were. Exhausted. Boxed in on every side by gigantic campers and busses. Rhonda and I still had to get to the airport and pick up the Nissan Xterra we had rented. That meant going out into the freezing cold and catching a $40 cab ride. About the only thing that made me feel any better was heading to the Frontier and ordering about $50 worth of New Mexican food to take back to the bus. Two hours later there is me in the back bedroom of our bus, staring at the ceiling, exhausted, needing to rest. But I can’t stop thinking about how impossible it’s going to be for me to maneuver our vehicle in the morning. We are blocked in, I thought. Then it started to rain.
I won’t belabor the driving part anymore. The next morning we woke up, checked in and, with the help of an expert spotter, were able to back into a spot and set up camp. We had a rental car and I wouldn’t have to worry about driving that big beast again for another four days. Perfect. What wasn’t perfect was the rain. The balloons had to be canceled so we pretty much had nothing to do. No matter. I like New Mexico and if all we could do was hang out in a luxury bus and go eat at restaurants, I’d be fine with that. We did a quick spin through the balloon grounds and decided that we’d take the tram to the top of Sandia Peak to kill some time.
Jesus…one debacle after another. Apparently the rain had more than just us looking for things to do. When we got to the base of the mountain, there was a line that extended out of the tram building, down at least seven flights of steps and into the parking lot. Ugh. I hate lines. But…what else were we going to do? I knew the girls would like going to the top of the mountain so we decided to wait. And wait. And wait. Two hours later, we finally were allowed to pack ourselves into a tiny tram with 50 other impatient people and be slowly hauled to the top of the mountain. Where it was freezing. 25 degrees. And snowing. No lie. A full on blizzard.
Could it get any worse? No balloons. Shitty weather. Ha. But for some reason I wasn’t feeling bad about any of it. I have this internal monitor that constantly assesses whether or not I have any influence over what I am experiencing. If I do, believe me I turn into an anxious maniac trying to make things right. But if I don’t, like with the weather, I can totally go with the flow. I mean, what are you going to do, right? When we got back down the mountain it was pouring again so we decided to go get dinner at Gardunos. It’s not the best restaurant in Albuquerque but it’s not the worst either. I’ve been there plenty of times and the atmosphere is pretty festive so I figured the kids would enjoy it. After that we went ‘home’ and watched a movie. I think. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the intro credits were done.
Because it was raining so hard when we fell asleep, we just assumed the balloons would be canceled on Saturday as well. We even met a member of one of the balloon crews at Sandia who told us as much. But about 5am there were helicopters circling. They send them up to test the winds and see whether or not the weather is amenable to balloon flights. Then at 5:15 Rhonda got an update from the balloon folks – they were going to fly. We jumped out of bed and woke everyone up. The balloons launch at dawn and we had to get the kids dressed, get to the launch field, etc.
It was absolutely frigid out. Not only that, but the ground was soaked from all the rain. At some point, Rhonda figured out how to put the girls mittens on their feet (?) and that seemed to help them out some. My mom didn’t bring any socks with her, so I think she got the worst of it. And listen, I didn’t do a stellar job of packing either. Who expected it to be so cold? Not me. In fact, I didn’t even bring one warm hat so I had to use a bandana to cover up my ears and stop them from getting frostbitten. Totally gangsta…
But eventually the sun showed itself over the top of the mountains and things warmed up rapidly. We had a great time checking out all the shapes. It was just generally awesome to hear the flames and feels so small while these enormous balloons towered and swayed above us. For four hours we laughed and watched them launch. The kids ran from basket to basket collecting cards from the pilots, which is apparently what you do. We grabbed some breakfast burritos from a vendor for fuel and then headed back for a rest sometime around 11.
I used to live in Albuquerque…Santa Fe too, so I have some friends out there. Getting together wasn’t going to be easy but I knew there were a couple of people I couldn’t afford to miss. One of them was Danny. Danny and I actually met in ABQ 13 years ago even though he lived in San Diego and I lived in LA at the time. Over the years we have worked together on some campaigns and become good friends. He’s always been my computer tech support in the sky as well. (He even helped me unfuck one of my web sites this week). Danny and I don’t get to see each other in real life that often, so Rhonda and I made it a priority to meet up with him and have a little food and a few beers during the girl’s afternoon rest time.
We went back to the launch field for the ‘night glow’. That’s when they inflate all the balloons and use the propane torches to make them ‘glow’. It’s really amazing and fun to be a part of. It’s hard for me to believe that a fair amount of the balloons had already left due to the bad weather because there were literally hundreds of them still there, still inflating and firing up their torches. Aside from the flames, there wasn’t much light out there and we really had a hard time seeing. Once, for only about three seconds, we couldn’t find Lily. I spun around in a circle, Rhonda too and we both called her name frantically. There she was, blocked by a person but also realizing that she wasn’t right next to us. Terror in her eyes. Terror in mine too. “See how scary that is?” Nods. Head into my shoulder.
Sunday morning was the big day; Rhonda and I were going up in a hot air balloon. This was her deal. Not that I was against it; I thought it was a great idea. Two things made it pause-worthy. One – it was super expensive. I mean…really. The second thing was far more significant – my wife is deathly afraid of heights. I can’t even get her on a roller coaster. So when she said she wanted to go up in a balloon…I just said “Ok, I’m in. But you have to do everything.” I really needed her to be committed, see.
The ride was nothing like either of us expected. We arrived at 6am bundled up and ready to go. I thought I’d be a little scared at least. I knew she’d be terrified. And neither was the case. They gave us some simple instructions and we were good to go. Some balloons only have enough room for a couple people. In fact, it seemed like most of them were like that. But ours held 10 people besides the pilot. The basket was divided into quadrants so Rhonda and I had our own little ‘room’ so to speak. The flight was very serene and peaceful. Our pilot even dropped the balloon down onto the Rio Grande river, allowing us to touch the water and then heading back up into the sky. Nothing scary about any of it, crazy as that sounds.
What was surprising was how the balloons just landed wherever they wanted…streets, people’s back yards, etc. I guess you really don’t have much control over that kind of thing. I mean, you go up in the air and then the wind takes you where it takes you. In fact, from our basket we could see our campground and there were balloons landing all around our bus. Later we found out that the girls had been outside watching them all, taking pictures and trying to figure out which one we were in.
I will say this – whereas the ride was peaceful and serene, we sure had a couple of clowns in our basket. Nothing irritates me more than people who make gratuitous jokes about everything and follow everything they say with a fake laugh. Seriously, these guys were making jokes that an 8th grader would find childish. Sometimes they were even attempting to help the pilot fly and the “Hey shut the F up” look on his face couldn’t have been more obvious.
And that was that. That was our weekend at the Balloon Fiesta. Once we were done, we headed back to our campsite, packed up, took the rental car back and hit the road. I got the bus out of our spot and the RV campground without issue and even followed Rhonda to the airport to drop off the rental car. (Of course it was too big to actually follow her in to drop off the car, so I just waited on the road). The drive home was easy and made me realize how horrible the wind had been on the way down.
We stopped in Santa Fe to see Eli’s parents. I was a little apprehensive about doing that but knew deep down that Eli would love it. Especially concerning to me was how I would drive that big ass bus and park it in a suburban neighborhood. But no matter…I had some confidence at that point. Beyond that, Eli’s folks have always been very good to me. They’re good people and Eli would have wanted us to stay in contact. As I knew she would, his mom cooked up some delicious New Mexican food the way only a mom can. I wasn’t even hungry but I tore it up anyway and even left with some extras for the road. We spent about two and a half hours with them mostly talking about Eli and hearing stories about their family. I could tell they don’t get a ton of visitors and that made me feel good. When I get home I am going to send them some pictures of Eli that I know they don’t have.
Good week. Quality time with the kids and my mom. Inter-state family trip in a luxury tour bus that Dad drove. Hot air balloon ride. Check those items off the list. Insert weekend into kid’s memory bank. Hey, good food in New Mexico too. Let’s not forget about that. I am certain that I’ll be paying for this trip for several days. It’s impossible for me to come to New Mexico and not eat every ounce of food that I can’t get my hands on anywhere else. Oh well. There are worse things…