As I stand at the top of the Rio Grande Gorge in the wild lands outside of Taos, New Mexico, I peer down into a 900-foot tunnel of sandstone-brown with a thin string of color – the Rio Grande – at the bottom. It has taken millions of years for this spot to look this way. And it takes only seconds to take my breath away.
When you realize you’re about to go down into the Gorge, it takes your breath away, as well. You can climb down into it, as some do. Or you can do as I’ve done, starting at the bottom – which you can access through a tiny bridge – and climbing up the Gorge, and then back down again. But, this time, I’m not climbing into the Gorge. I’m flying into it. In a hot-air balloon.
I’m a veteran ballooner. In fact, I rarely go out West (or anywhere else, for that matter) when I don’t include a balloon ride as part of my trip. It’s generally the first number I dial when I get into a town (or even before I get into a town). But, standing there, on the edge of that jagged cliff 900 feet up from the Rio Grande, I knew this was going to be the most special balloon ride of my life.
I was going to be riding with Ed Smith, the Chief Pilot/Owner of Pueblo Balloon Company in Taos (http://www.puebloballoon.com). Ed’s a cowboy-hatted flyboy with a close-cropped blonde beard who knows everything there is to know about the tradition of hot-air ballooning. And, even after years of going down into the Gorge, he still approaches it with the same sense of wonder and joy that his clients do.
Ed’s a fun guy, with a quick wit and a deep knowledge, not only about ballooning, but also about his adopted New Mexico. (In fact, we end up breaking bread together, and hoisting a beer or two, several times in the next few weeks.)
As we drift away from the set-up site, the crew we leave behind on the edge of the Gorge get smaller and smaller, until they become dots on a clash of horizons, bright-blue sky against sandstone-brown gorge. And then they’re invisible.
Ed pulls one rope, gives some slack to another, studies the wind currents, and adjusts the burner that fires up into the cavernous red-and-blue-and-green balloon that seems to blot out the sky above us. He makes an obligatory New Mexico joke about keeping an eye out for “jackalopes” – the supposed offspring of a union between a jackrabbit and an antelope. (Yes, he tells me, some people actually do believe him.)
Well, we don’t see any jackalopes. But we do see some eagles circling overhead, and some hawks eyeing our balloon. One instant, your face is hot because of the flame leaping up from the burner only a foot above your head, and you hear a sort of rippling noise as the heat heads into the giant nylon ball. And the next instant, the only sound you hear – and the only sensation you feel – is a soft wind caressing your face.
Downward we drift, as the Gorge narrows on either side of us. We see a couple of jackrabbits on a narrow ledge. They’re strange-looking creatures, reminiscent of those gigantic-spider or rabbit movies of the fifties…because they’re literally two or three times the size of a regular rabbit. It’s almost like you’re watching a scene from “Alice in Wonderland.”
The once-narrow blue ribbon at the bottom of the Gorge is no longer so narrow, as we get closer to the famous Rio Grande, which, of course, is the U.S.-Mexico border a few hundred miles downstream. Suddenly the water seems to be rising up to meet us. Ed advises me to hold on. And then we bounce right into it. As we skim along the surface for twenty or thirty seconds, nearly a thousand feet deep inside this enormous crack in the Earth, I’m thinking that it doesn’t really get much better than this.
But it does. As Ed lifts us up out of the water, we both notice a very interested onlooker. It’s a bobcat, perched on a nearby ledge, looking down on the goings-on a bit below. As we glide up past him, at a fairly close distance, I look directly into his fascinating eyes. And I wonder what’s going through his mind as he watches this enormous balloon with these little people in it, gliding around in his territory.
As we rise up slowly, I feel the wind rushing about my face, and I luxuriate in the silence, as I look up into a sky that’s now becoming bigger again. The hawks are still circling overhead. The bobcat is still pacing back and forth on the ledge, now below us, but still watching. As we slowly lift up with the air currents, I can see clearly the lines of sandstone and sediment and faults and rock-layers, all of which have been shaped by millions of years of the forces of nature.
And as we rise over the top ledge of the Gorge, I can see beyond into the thousands of square miles of high-desert and distant purple-haze mountains, and black volcanic rock that’s probably the most prevalent geologic feature in New Mexico. I feel almost as if I’m looking down at Earth from some distant planet.
We start drifting away from the Gorge, communicating with the crew down below by walkie-talkie, and looking for a suitable place to land. (That’s a very important consideration, by the way, because, due to the wind currents, where you’re aiming to land is not always where you end up landing. While ballooning in Abilene, Texas, last fall, I ended up landing in a schoolyard, while hundreds of screaming kids – and their teachers – ran out of the building and surrounded my balloon.)
At any rate, we saw some open scrubland, and we radioed the crew, in the van down below, that we were coming in at that spot. We began bringing the craft down, Ed playing with the ropes like a skilled musician.
After we touched down, I began helping the crew deflate the balloon, lock things up, etc. And then I had to stop. I just walked away, to a spot about fifty yards away, and breathed in the hot high-desert air. And thought about the beauty and the magnificence of the experience I just had.
I’ve ballooned many other times since that day. And each time I do it, it’s a joy. But I don’t think I’ll ever have another ride quite like the one into the Rio Grande Gorge. And I think about that ride, at some point, pretty much every day.