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Thousands gathered in New Mexico to watch an annual display of hot air balloons

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Hundreds of hot air balloons filled the air above Albuquerque, N.M., this weekend as part of the city's annual Balloon Fiesta. Member station KUNM's Megan Myscofski paid a visit to the balloon park Saturday and sends us this audio postcard.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: It's so early on this Saturday morning that it's still dark. Tens of thousands of people are setting up their lawn chairs and rolling out their blankets under the stars as the first balloons begin to inflate. There are many regulars who know the balloons, including college friends Ethan and Micah, who share a favorite.

ETHAN: I've always been a fan of Arabelle. She's the special-shaped cow.

MYSCOFSKI: Crews set up giant, rainbow-patterned balloons right in the crowd...

(SOUNDBITE OF INFLATING BALLOON)

MYSCOFSKI: ...And launch with spectators just feet away. And among the people are zebras, like Christina Meadows. They help coordinate the ascent from the ground, and they're easy to pick out of a crowd.

CHRISTINA MEADOWS: We're wearing black and white referee outfits so that we're visible to the pilots.

MYSCOFSKI: The first round of balloons ascend before the sunrise.

(CHEERING)

MYSCOFSKI: The rest, which include animal faces, company names and familiar cartoons, start to inflate in neat rows through the crowd. You'd probably recognize this scene from decades of ads or the photos that deck the city's airport. But in person, it's incredible to see the balloons floating like bubbles into the clear morning sky. There are volunteers to help unroll the balloons and keep people from getting too close. Ben Palmer has done just that for over 20 years.

BEN PALMER: During Fiesta, no one sleeps. Monday, I - usually if I have a guest from another country, I'll be taking them to the airport. And after that I go home and I try not to wake up till Wednesday.

MYSCOFSKI: Roxanne Tiner came from Texas to see the Fiesta and the Ring of Fire eclipse. She watches two "Star Wars"-themed balloons inflate and a few dozen people dressed as Stormtroopers, Jawas and other characters work the crowd.

ROXANNE TINER: This is going to be pretty incredible, along with Darth Vader and Yoda. This is exciting.

MYSCOFSKI: And as the sun comes up, fighter jets fly over as the national anthem plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING)

MYSCOFSKI: Then the flame from every basket on the ground lights up at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMES IGNITING)

MYSCOFSKI: The balloons are off. In just minutes, they start to drift across the city, small as toys.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Albuquerque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Myscofski