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Balloons over the Rio Grande
When you're in an Albuquerque hot-air balloon, the Rio Grande is popular spot to drop in on.

Destination Well-Known: Up in the Skies Over Albuquerque

When PGA.com's John Kim was looking for a truly unique Albuquerque experience, PGA Professional Derek Gutierrez told him to get airborne. After riding a high-altitude tram and a hot-air balloon, Kim is just coming back down to earth.

By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- So as I prepared my schedule for Wednesday, which would be my final full day in Albuquerque and the final day of this 42nd PGA Professional National Championship, I asked my now-good friend Derek Gutierrez -- the PGA Head Professional at the host Twin Warriors Golf Club -- for his final two recommendations on what were the “can’t miss” items of Albuquerque. He had a big grin when he replied “get airborne.”

I immediately knew what he meant. There are two ways to feel on top of the world here in the Albuquerque area, and both can be done well before lunchtime.

Albuquerque’s greatest claim to fame is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta,  thus designating this city as the hot-air balloon capital of the world. For those who don’t know, it is the annual fall gathering of hot-air balloons from around the globe and is easily the world’s largest event of its kind.

For some perspective, a dozen balloons in the air is considered a large gathering. In 2000, Albuquerque had 1,019 balloons show up. They have since limited the number of participants to 750, but it is spectacular and considered the most photographed event in the world.

After Derek’s strong recommendation, I contacted the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau to ask for some guidance for a balloon company. If I’m going to consider putting my life on the line, I want to do so with a company the city isn’t afraid to endorse. I am told that Rainbow Ryders is the industry stalwarts of the area. We arrange for a flight.

Truth be told, our flight was originally scheduled for Tuesday. But a storm system over the mountains created a wind pattern that was too chaotic for our pilot to comfortably take us up. The gathered crowd hoping to go up was collectively disappointed. It could have been easy to argue with the pilot. The sky was 90% blue and 10% storm that was miles away. We did see one other company launch a balloon. But not our group.

But our pilot, Brooke Owen, told the group “I’d rather hurt your feelings than hurt your body.” Amen, brother. I gained a lot of respect for Brooke and the Rainbow Ryders on Tuesday. They said if they could, they’d arrange for me to go the next day. If you find yourself in Albuquerque and want to try a balloon ride, contact Rainbow Ryders. They are recognized as the best for a reason.

And as it turns out, I did get a call saying there was room on Wednesday. And so arrangements were made. I even brought a date -- the lovely Gail Wronowski (and I’m not just saying nice things because she is the wife of PGA Vice President Allen Wronowski) agreed to ride the winds of New Mexico with me.

We arrive at a parking lot and launch site just outside of downtown Albuquerque at 5:45 a.m. and join a growing crowd of anxious flyers. Though it’s early and a bit cool, we are encouraged not to drink coffee -- keep in mind, there are no restrooms on the balloon and you have up to a dozen other riders up there with you. Waiver forms are passed around -- you have to sign one to fly, but I’d recommend you not read it -- too many reminders of what could go wrong. 

Baskets and balloons are brought out and various customers are asked to help set up the balloons. It’s actually fascinating to watch the process of connecting the balloons to the baskets, heating them up to inflate them and preparing them for takeoff.

Balloons are often colorful but not necessarily “balloon-shaped.” During the Fiesta, you will see any number of balloons shaped like animals, wagon coaches and even soda cans. But during most of the year if you come to take a ride, you’ll be set up in the a traditional balloon-shaped balloon. But for today’s flights, the balloons are of the traditional variety.

The baskets are actually divided into compartments where riders are grouped into three or four riders each. There is a reason, I’ll explain when we get to the landing. We climb in, we go over some ground rules (air rules?) and then balloons are ready for lift off.

So I’ve always been fascinated with flying, but going on a hot-air balloon ride was never a huge priority for me. But from the moment you lift off the ground, you realize you’re doing something pretty special. It’s a little more than you think. More what? More peaceful, more smooth, more impressive and more fun.

Flying high over the city, going down to the Rio Grande and kissing the surface of the water, brushing over the top of the trees and just taking in the incredible scenery of New Mexico made the hour-plus flight seem to -- no pun intended -- fly by.

Brooke, our aforementioned pilot, served not only as an incredible flight manger, he was a tour guide, historian, civic planner, psychologist and anything else you could hope to have from a person when you’re 1,000 feet above the ground.

The only moment of apprehension for the group was the landing. Keep in mind, there is no steering on these balloons; the pilots simply control the height of the balloon and the angle of the basket. Landing a balloon is as much art as it is science. Brooke picks an asparagus field behind a Wal-Mart store and we start to descend. He tells us that the wind is fairly brisk and that we’ll need to duck down, brace ourselves and be prepared to have the basket tip over. That’s not really want anyone wanted to hear, but we do as we’re told.

Brooke’s efforts as we land are mesmerizing. He manipulates a number of ropes, knobs and levers and uses some intense strength to keep the balloon level as we come down. And though we bounce a few times and take some nice asparagus with us, we never do tip over. We have returned to earth safely.

Since there is no steering, a crew follows the balloon and, after landing, comes and helps put everything back into the ground carrier. Brooke tells us that if we help pack the balloon, he’ll give us a ride back to our cars. We agree. Actually, helping pack the balloon is a fun tradition for those who take to the air in this manner -- as are the champagne and mimosas waiting for us when we get back to the launch site.

Do you remember the old Army commercial where the narrator says “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day?” That pops into my mind as it’s not even 10 a.m. and I’m exhausted from the adrenaline rush of the ride.

I could write another 5,000 words about our flight, but I think it would be just as effective to simply say it was one of the most unique, incredible and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. Would I recommend someone else do this? Absolutely. Would I recommend you come to Albuquerque to do it? I definitely would.

As if flying 1,000 feet above the ground weren’t enough for me, I then head over to try out Derek’s final call for my Albuquerque week: the Sandia Peak Tram.

The ram takes visitors on a 2.7 mile journey over the Cibola National Forest to the top of the Sandia Mountains. It is the longest tram ride in the world and at 10,378 feet up, it is one of the most breathtaking rides any traveler could hope to enjoy. 

The ride takes approximately 15-20 minutes and at the top, visitors have an option of visiting the shop, walking some of the nature trails or eating at the Sandiago’s Mexican Grill.

I go up, take a few pictures and head back down. My entire Sandia Peak Tram time took less than 45 minutes.  I saw others who had planned on spending most of the day at the top. This attraction is as time-consuming as you want it to be, but it’s as memorable as anything you could do anywhere in the country.

So I hurry back to my car and back to the golf course -- there is a championship to cover. The leaders are about to tee off and one PGA Professional in the field is going to realize a dream. But thanks to PGA Professional Derek Gutierrez, I have realized a few of mine.

To quote the great slogan that the Convention and Visitors Bureau came up with for this city: Albuquerque -- It’s a Trip!

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