Pilot Ed Smith’s workday starts before sunrise. He’s picking up passengers for a hot air balloon ride above Taos, New Mexico.
After collecting his passengers in an old Chevy Suburban with a bright yellow trailer attached, Ed heads north on Highway 64.
Although light shines across the plateau, the sun has yet to breach the nearby mountains.
Along with his crew, Lisa and Dave, he drives to the Arroyo Hondo area and turns onto a gravel road as Lisa gives the passengers a little Taos history.
Old Stage Coach Road
Once known as the Old Stage Coach Road, this was once a private highway belonging to local legend John Dunn, and people paid a toll to cross his bridge over the Rio Grande.
Dunn’s Bridge fell out of favor after the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge was built in 1970, the seventh highest bridge in North America.
After passing a few ranches, the road descends into a canyon.
Once across Dunn’s bridge, Ed maneuvers his large truck and trailer through switchbacks that rise out of the gorge and onto the plateau, parking in a clearing near the edge.
The area surrounding Taos is perfect for ballooning. The town sits on a plateau that is the basin of an ancient volcano.
These mountains that ring the plateau were once the volcano’s rim. The palliative effect on these mountains makes for tranquil morning air currents.
Rio Grande River
At some point in earth’s history, the plateau cracked and filled with water, creating the Rio Grande River.
Over millennia, the river carved the crack into a gorge, providing a spectacular natural feature for balloons to rise above, or for pilots like Ed, to drop into.
The passengers watch as the crew opens the trailer and pulls out a giant purple grape of a balloon.
While a large fan inflates the balloon, the crew prepares the basket and propane tanks.
The passengers huddle in the chilly morning air, some taking photos. The balloon becomes vertical as the sun clears the mountains.
With the balloon ready, the passengers use a stepladder to climb into the basket.
Ed has a diverse group today: Derrick and Elsa from Scotland, Greg, Corie and their teenage daughter Claire from Brooklyn, NY, and Midwestern mother/daughter duo Donna and Carrie.
Claire makes it no secret that she is terrified and crouches in the bottom corner of the basket. Ed hasn’t even left the ground yet – he is still heating the balloon’s air with loud blasts of flame from the propane tanks.
He gives everyone a pep talk about how much fun they are going to have before taking questions. The one thing everyone wants to know? What is his ballooning experience?
Ed has been ballooning for over 22 years, starting in Southern Alabama and then North Carolina. He also spent three years in Colorado, ballooning across the Front Range.
During this time, he had a career in the Air Force and then as a civilian computer systems engineer; however, Taos is where he settled to pilot balloons full time. Corie asks why he enjoys ballooning.
Sharing Ed’s Story
“My first balloon ride cost $150 bucks,” he answered. “My second cost me $12,000. I went and bought one.” Everyone laughs. “You laugh now, but when we’re done, you’ll want your own too.”
Ed turns on the burners for a long, loud blast of flame and the balloon lifts. Lisa and Dave push the basket to keep it from clinging to the scrub brush.
Hovering only 10 feet above the ground, the winds are not cooperating pushing the balloon west. Ed wants to go east, toward the gorge.
Using his 22 years of ballooning instincts, he heats the balloon’s air causing it to rise hoping to find an easterly current.
The vast Taos Plateau including the ring of mountains, some as far as 80 miles away, spreads out below. At 2,000 ft. above the ground, the balloon slowly drifts east.
Far below the Rio Grande Gorge cuts through the plateau like a jagged scar with the Gorge Bridge a shiny sliver in the distance.
Cars move silently on the gravel road below. The only sounds at this height are the hushed talk of the passengers and loud blasts from the propane tanks.
Claire’s parents beg her to stand. She rises slowly and looks around. Then she pulls her hoodie over her head and sinks back down.
Once over the gorge, the balloon descends, almost unperceptively. Within minutes the balloon floats above the river, surrounded by the steep and serrated walls of the gorge.
“We just went from 2,000 feet to minus 500,” says Pilot Ed.
Enjoying the Mesmerizing View
Ed points out the “eclipse” or shadow of the balloon on the gorge wall. Digital cameras click as the passengers photograph the shadow moving across the rocks.
Ed does a quick pull on the tank valves and the balloon crosses above the John Dunn Bridge and then turns drifting east above the county road, as if he is steering with an unseen keel.
Ed gives the burners a longer blast and the balloon rises above the gorge. Drifting west once again, Ed discusses where to land with the crew on his radio.
Barely moving, Ed decides to land the balloon on the nearby road and prepares his passengers. “
“Keep your knees bent and be sure to have your hands on the basket. We might bounce a bit,” he says.
The balloon scrapes the tops of scrub brush with a crunching sound, then another crunch and then…nothing. The basket is stuck to the bushes alongside the road.
“Oops!” laughs Pilot Ed as Lisa and Dave run over. They push and pull the heavy basket over the bushes filling the air with the scent of sage.
Once solidly on the road, Ed gives the passengers the okay to exit. Another photo op presents itself as the crew deflates the balloon.
Dave walks over to chat with the passengers. “Most pilots wouldn’t have gotten into the gorge today. That’s just how great a pilot he is.”
Once deflated, balloon and basket are packed into the trailer while everyone climbs into the Suburban for a short drive to the Gorge Bridge, where a delicious spread of fruits, muffins and juice awaits.
Everyone’s final task is a champagne toast celebrating another beautiful balloon ride in Taos.
Taos is located 72 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and 135 miles north of Albuquerque. Taos is a 5-hour drive from Denver, an 11-hour drive from Dallas and 8 ½ hours from Phoenix. Fly into Taos Municipal Airport.
Carrie Dow is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Islands, International Living and most recently Go World Travel.
She is the International Pet Examiner for Examiner.com, where she writes about animal-based travel and global animal welfare issues.
She also covers the adult beverage industry nationally for Drinking Made Easy and locally for Drink Denver.
She is mom to a reformed alley cat, an Australian cattledog, an English lab and a Siberian husky. Follow her on Twitter @whereisCDnow.