Up, Up & Away!

October 30, 2006
Filed under Destinations

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Early in the morning, as we drove along Interstate 40, around Exit 26, near Gallup, New
Mexico, we were treated to the scene of 200 hot air balloons, in mass ascension, rising
into the morning mist. These balloons were participating in the Red Rock Balloon Rally that
is held in — and among — the red sandstone rocks, cliffs and canyons that make up Red
Rock State Park. The 2006 rally takes place December 2-4. The Red Rock Balloon Rally began
25 years ago as a friendly wager between the towns of Farmington and Gallup as to who had
the best place to fly balloons. “Twenty-five years later, our rally is 200 balloons strong,
the second-largest in the world. Farmington’s rally has about 30 balloons, so we won the
bet,” says Bill Lee, the vice president of the Red Rock Balloon Rally, the manager of Red
Rock State Park and owner of his own balloon-ride company. The first manned hot-air balloon
flight took place in France, in 1783 in a balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers. They
got the idea by watching ashes floating up a fireplace chimney and began exploring the
concept. They built a balloon and the first passengers were animals, according to Lee. When
they began flying around France and landing in fields, the peasants working those fields
would rush up and attack the balloon with their pitchforks, thinking it was some sort of
monster or dragon. To convince the peasants the aeronauts were friendly and not monsters or
mythical beasts, they carried bottles of French champagne to share with the peasants when
landing in their fields. This sharing of a champagne brunch upon landing has become a
tradition continued and celebrated by modern-day balloonists. Enjoying the Red Rock rally
is easy. There is a $5 entrance fee to the park, or a nominal $20 per night ($18 for Good
Sam Members) hook-up fee for RVs, but most everything else at the rally is free. According
to Lee, the park’s RV sites have recently been upgraded with 20-, 30- and 50-amp service
and water at each site. There are also two on-site dump stations. To become more involved
in the rally, visitors can sign up as volunteers to help out by crewing for the
balloonists. The pilots are very good about trying to fly every member of their crew, so if
you volunteer, the chances are very good you will be treated to a balloon ride. To ensure a
space on a volunteer crew, you can sign up about a month in advance at the rally’s Web
site. There is also a place to sign up when you arrive at the park. “There are always
pilots looking for crew members,” says Lee. Some of these duties include helping to unpack
the balloon and basket, running a fan for the initial cold-air inflation of the balloon
envelope, holding open the mouth of the balloon as the hot air from the LP-gas burners
fills the canopy and holding the lines to keep the balloon stable as it inflates and rising
to a vertical position. Some tasks require lifting or pulling, so it is best to let the
pilots know your limitations; they will find something for you to do so you become a
participant, not just a spectator. Everything at the rally is open and accessible to
visitors. You can walk in and around the balloons as the pilots are setting up. You will
experience, up close, what it takes to fly a balloon and learn about the pilot’s experience
and adventures. Carol and I — during our walk about — met pilot Mark Kilgore and his crew
of Tim Bell and Danny Lavato from Albuquerque. Kilgore is a fixed-wing licensed pilot who
took up ballooning about a year ago and obtained a special FAA certification for balloons.
“It is an easy sport to get into,” says Kilgore. You can buy a good used balloon for about
$6,000, although prices can go up to about $100,000 for some specially shaped ones. The
balloons range in size from 35,000 to more than 400,000 cubic feet of volume. The larger
ones can carry up to 10-12 people. After helping him unpack and inflate the balloon, Carol
and I were ready to fly. Mark, Tim and I were in the first flight over the canyons, and the
view and experience was breathtaking. With the LP-gas burners off, we floated in total
silence watching the other colorful balloons taking off beneath us, and seeing the red
rocks and canyons at close range. We were fortunate to catch a breeze that took us back to
the take-off site, and we landed about 10 feet from where we took off — a rare occurrence
in ballooning. Next it was Carol and Danny’s turn as Tim and I drove the chase truck. They
weren’t as lucky with their landing. They landed in a field in a residential area and
barely missed some homes, a chain-link fence and some barbed wire. Tim and I were able to
reach them with the truck and helped them collapse and pack the balloon. We all had a great
time. Mike and Linn Condrey, their 13-year-old daughter, Terah, and their 11-year-old son,
Drew, bring their RV from their home in Gallup to stay at the park for the three days of
the rally. They have been coming to the rally for the past three years to watch the
balloons, and to perhaps catch a ride. “We set up and stay out here all weekend long. It is
a nice event, easy to get into, and you can just pull into a site. We can let the kids walk
around by themselves. It is a nice place for families,” says Condrey. Between balloon
events, we took time to enjoy and learn more about Gallup. The area was already a booming
trading center for the Native Americans living there when the Spanish explorers found it in
1540. The city, established in the late 1800s during the building of the Atlantic and
Pacific railroad, was named after the railroad paymaster, David Gallup. Gallup continued to
grow and prosper with the construction of the famous Route 66. In the 1950s, it became a
hub for making western movies. Many well-known actors and actresses — the likes of Ronald
Reagan, Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas and Lee Remick — worked in Gallup and stayed at the El
Rancho Hotel. A tour of this classic hotel will take you back to the glamour years of the
Hollywood era. Another icon on Route 66 is Earl’s restaurant — established in 1947. In
addition to the good food, native artisans from the nearby reservations walk around the
dining room showing and selling their crafts. Visiting the many pawn shops that proliferate
in Gallup can also be an exciting adventure. The Zuni, Acoma, Hopi, Laguna and Navajo call
this area their home. The Zuni Pueblo, the largest of the 19 New Mexico pueblos, has the
greatest concentration of artists and artisans that produce their internationally acclaimed
and collectable pottery, fine jewelry and furniture. Each August, the world-renown
Inter-Tribal Ceremonial is held in Gallup, where representatives from more than 50 tribes
and pueblos come together for four days of ceremonial dancing, juried arts-and-crafts
exhibits, an American-Indian rodeo and the only all-American-Indian non-mechanized parade.
Gallup also offers many opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities to enhance your visit to
the balloon rally. Mountain-bikers can enjoy the Red Rock Park, Pyramid Rock and Church
Rock riding trails. The High Desert Trail system is both a single-track and hiking set of
trails with a variety of terrain, from easy to difficult. Rock-climbers can hone their
skills at the Mentmore Rock Climbing Area, which features more than 50 bolted-top rope
climbs and 31 sport climbs offering varying levels of difficulty. Next time we travel along
Interstate 40, we won’t overlook the rich history of the Gallup area, the diversity of
cultures, the recreation opportunities and the balloon rally. Something is always happening
in Gallup, be it the balloon festival or otherwise, and we should all slow down, turn off
the Interstate and immerse ourselves in all the area has to offer.

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