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.
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. 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.
“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.
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