Insects scatter, seeking cover in the sagebrush and cacti dotting the cracked red earth as it drops away to the accompaniment of a fiery roar.
A vast mesa riddled with arroyos stretches in the early morning light to distant mountains on all sides. The arroyos funnel towards a gaping rent in the earth’s crust that splits the plateau as far as the eye can see.
It is 6 a.m., 10 miles north of Taos, New Mexico, prime flying time for Pueblo Balloon company pilot Ed Smith. He scans the sky from beneath the brim of a straw cowboy hat while working the lever on tanks that blast heat into the huge inflated bag above.
We are airborn.
Smith, who was so taken with his first balloon flight in 1990 that he immediately purchased his own balloon and decided to become a pilot, calms his nine nervous firstime balloonists with jokes and running commentary on the balloon’s operation.
“Nobody can control direction,” he says, solemnly as we ascend. “Mother Nature determines where we go.”
He pulls ropes operating the air flaps that control elevation and drops the balloon back to a few feet of the desert, searching for a breath of wind to ride into the famed Rio Grande Gorge. His machinations go mostly unnoticed by his awestruck passengers, too engrossed in the unfolding vista to be concerned about the pilot’s problems on this windless morning.
Because the balloon moves with the wind, we are in a state of zero resistance. Floating. Smith’s cowboy hat remains firmly affixed to his head as we drift toward the gorge on the slightest of air currents. Unlike canyons formed through erosion, New Mexico’s great geographic anomaly was created when shifting plates and a super volcano ripped a long crack in the earth. The Rio Grande River came later.
Smith releases another fiery blast, raising the balloon to an altitude of about 600 feet, hoping for a helping breath from Mother Nature. The desert reveals its secrets from this lofty vantage point. A few discarded long neck beer bottles, rusted tin cans, song birds fluttering, scurrying rabbits, small reptiles rustling through the scrub, a trio of deer stopping to watch the fire-breathing sky monster. Smith wryly recalls surprising a few naked humans over the years.
He confers via radio with the pilot of our companion balloon, who is also experiencing difficulty getting into the gorge on an atypically calm morning.
Balloon and basket drift, ever-so-slowly, toward the edge of the canyon’s steep wall as Smith initiates our descent. At precisely the right moment he drops us over the edge, past striated granite cliffs with trees growing out of fissures and cracks. Down. Down. To within a few feet of the burbling Rio Grande.
Rock walls disappear into the sky as the gorge’s air currents propel us along its verdant bottom, a world apart from the desert we’ve left behind.
We hang there, suspended in the coolness of the river, until he once again works the lever and ropes, using hot air and the air flaps to keep us from the cliffs as he brings us back up.
Standing in a basket filled with strangers, in a state of heightened consciousness in bright sunshine high above the New Mexican desert, is so in keeping with the Taos vibe I fear Smith is going to call for a group hug.
But our pilot is occupied with his immediate problem—where to put us down. He radios to the ground crew following our progress, estimating a set-down position. Estimating being the key-word.
On this morning, she’s not in a co-operative mood as Smith’s tries to drop the basket on a smooth dirt road.
“It’s not an official exciting landing unless the basket goes completely over,” he informs us as we drop gently toward the sagebrush and cactus-strewn earth. “Brace yourself.”
The basket one-hops against a stiff bush as we make contact, tipping to a 45 degree angle before righting itself.
“It it isn’t over yet,” Smith announces calmly.
Amusement park squeals reverberate across the high desert as we crouch and brace ourselves while the balloon drags us along.
We tip a second and a third time before finally coming to rest near a narrow arroyoo with the balloon laid out on its side like a great beast letting go its last breath.
“It doesn’t qualify as exciting,” Smith deadpans.