It’s not as easy as you think.
Up before the sun and bleary-eyed, I walk through the dim parking lot at Red Rock Park near Gallup, New Mexico to meet my pilot, Bill Lee, for today’s adventure: a hot air balloon ride over desert and Navajo Indian territory. All of Lee’s flights are scheduled at sunrise for optimal weather, but before even attempting to launch the balloon, Lee assesses the elements, which must be just right: fairly calm winds at the surface and above, no rain or storm activity, and no moisture, which can ruin the balloon fabric.
He’s also checking wind direction, as the balloon travels with the wind and the chase crew must be able to secure a safe spot to retrieve passengers and the balloon upon landing. Bad weather would mean no balloon ride. My fingers are crossed that my early wake-up isn’t a waste. After wind and weather tests, Lee gives his verdict that Mother Nature is cooperating today, and we get to work setting up for launch.
It’s all hands on deck as we unload the 901-pound balloon named True-Lee New Mexico. It doesn’t look like much more than a gigantic, crumpled wad of fabric right now, but after laying down a massive tarp, we unroll the deflated balloon from all sides and I see its gorgeous design: purple, blue, and pink squares against a black background with a large, vibrant sugar skull in the center. After securing the flat balloon to the tipped-over basket, Lee’s assistants grab a big fan from the trailer, and we start the process of adding air.
First, we use the fan for cold inflation to get some air into the balloon. As I stand next to the basket helping hold back the cables attaching basket to balloon, I turn away a bit as the powerful cold air blasts through my hair. Next comes the hot inflation, when the burner that’s attached to the top of the basket blasts hot air into the balloon. Lee gives a warning of “loud and hot” as the flames from the burner roar past my arms. As I hold the cables and ties open and away from the flame, a smile spreads across my face as I see the balloon slowly rising from the ground.
Once the balloon has enough air in it, we tip the basket upright and I see the sheer size of it: 66 feet tall and 63 feet wide. The balloon is fighting to get off the ground now as I help the crew hold it down until Lee tells me to climb on board. Suddenly, I see a crew member below waving up at me, and I realize we’re airborne, slowly climbing up as Lee uses the burner to send in more hot air.
As we soar 1,500 feet above limestone and sandstone canyons, a hawk glides past us on his way to a perch. I peek below the basket at the landscape as Lee points out natural landmarks like Church Rock in the distance. In Navajo territory, a horse and her foal stride through an open pasture as we admire from above. At one point, Lee guides us 400 feet deep into Padre Canyon — named for the rocks' structure resembling a robed priest — where he gently lowers the basket onto a canyon rock, allowing us to reach out and touch it before flying away again.
After a relaxing ride, a smooth landing (thanks, Mother Nature), and a team effort to get the balloon unassembled, Lee greets me, champagne bottle in hand, for the traditional balloonist’s ceremony for first-time fliers. He tells the story of how hot air ballooning came to be, pins a brooch representing True-Lee New Mexico to my shirt, and instructs me to drink my glass of champagne without using my hands, for comedic effect. As we toast the glorious flight, I’m already wishing I were back in the sky, flying with the hawks and gazing down at the beautiful desert scene below.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta runs from Oct. 6-14, but rides are often sold out, as more than 800,000 people attend. Skip the crowds and take a private ride where you get to help set the balloon up with X-Treme-Lee Fun Balloon Adventures. For those wanting to see a balloon-filled sky, the Red Rock Balloon Rally from Nov. 30–Dec. 2 is a great alternative to the Albuquerque festival, with 200 balloons.