Ballooning the Rio Grande Gorge

Based on my original article for World Property Journal

Hot air balloon in Rio Grande Gorge
Courtesy Pueblo Balloon Company

As I stand at the top of the Rio Grande Gorge in the high-desert mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico, I peer down into an 800’ progressively-narrowing tunnel of sandstone with a thin string of color – the Rio Grande – at the bottom.

It’s taken millions of years for this spot to look this way. But it takes only seconds to take my breath away.

You can climb down into it, as I’ve done several times. Or you can climb up from the bottom - as I’ve also done – which you can access through a tiny bridge. But, this time, I’m not climbing into the Gorge. I’m flying into it. In a hot-air balloon.

I’m a ballooning buff. In fact, I rarely go out West (or anywhere else, for that matter) without including at least one balloon ride on my trip. It’s often the first number I dial when I get into a town. But, standing on the edge of that jagged cliff 800 feet up from the Rio Grande, I had a feeling this might be the most memorable balloon ride of my life.

After years of going up into the blue, this would actually be my first time going down into the blue. Straight down to the Rio Grande.

As we take off and begin drifting away from the set-up site near the Gorge, the crew we leave behind get smaller and smaller, until they become dots where a bright-blue sky meets a sandstone gorge. And then they’re invisible.

Our “captain” pulls one rope, gives some slack to another, studies the wind currents, and adjusts the burner that fires up into the enormous multi-colored balloon blotting 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.)

We see eagles and hawks circling around us. One instant, your face is hot because of the flame leaping up into the balloon from the burner only a foot above your head. And the next instant, the only sensation you feel is a soft wind caressing your face.

Downward we drift, as the rocky Gorge narrows on either side. We see a couple of jackrabbits on a narrow ledge. They’re strange-looking creatures, reminiscent of those gigantic rabbits in some old science-fiction movies…because they’re two or three times the size of a regular rabbit.

The once-narrow blue ribbon at the bottom of the Gorge grows larger, as we get closer to the Rio Grande. Then, suddenly, the water seems to be rushing up to meet us. And we bounce right into it. As we skim along the surface for a couple of minutes, 800 feet inside this enormous fissure in the Earth, I’m thinking it doesn’t really get much better than this.

But it does! As we begin to lift up out of the water, we notice a very interested onlooker. It’s a bobcat, studying us intently from a nearby ledge. As we glide up past him at a 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, flying around in his territory.

I love the silence as I look up into a sky that’s now becoming bigger. The hawks are still circling overhead. The bobcat is still pacing back and forth on his 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 shaped by millions of years of the forces of nature.

As we rise back over the top ledge of the Gorge, I can see beyond into the thousands of square miles of high-desert, purple mountains, and black volcanic rock that’s a 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 by walkie-talkie with the crew in a truck below about finding a suitable place to land. (Due to wind currents, where you’re aiming to land isn’t always where you actually land. One windy day in Abilene, Texas, I landed in a schoolyard in order to avoid power lines. Within a minute, hundreds of screaming kids – and their teachers – ran out of the building and surrounded the balloon.)

We radioed the crew where to meet us. After we touched down, we began deflating the balloon. And then I just had to stop. I walked to a spot about fifty yards away, and breathed in the high-desert air. And thought about the magnificence of the experience I just had.

I’ve ballooned many times. But the Rio Grande ballooning experience is one I’ll never forget.