Friday, January 20, 2012

Hot Air

Earlier this week Jana asked me to drive her to St. Christopher’s. She had left her vehicle at the mission while participating in a Martin Luther King Day celebration, which involved marching two miles from the church to the Bluff Community Center. Driving east towards the mission we encountered a large flock of goats and a smaller grouping of sheep wandering the narrow roadway. As always, the animals appeared completely at ease, oblivious to the speeding traffic and seemingly without a care in the world.

“Just as it would not be Chinle without horses grazing at the intersection, it would not be Bluff without herds of sheep and goats meandering the mission road”, Jana said, shaking her head in wonder. To be sure, there are certain things that define our small town, and wooly livestock that bleat and bawl is one of them. Another is the Bluff International Balloon Festival.

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday was the 14th annual event, and, as always, it was memorable. On Friday and Saturday the pilots, 25 in all, flying balloons with names like Basketcase, Skywalker, Breezy Rider and Levity, launched in Bluff. On Sunday, the balloons lifted off from Valley of the Gods.

As the brightly colored, hot air fueled inflatables meandered through our red rock landscape on slow currents of chilly air, I was reminded of our first festival. At that celebration we had but one balloon. The pilot, who had been invited to come test the waters, elected to put up in Valley of the Gods. A half dozen Bluff residents, hopeful the flyer would enjoy our town enough to return with his friends, tagged along. As the balloon probed the spires of the valley, hopping from one to another, the Bluff citizenry stood by. In their faces the excitement and anticipation shown brightly. Each was anxious to hear what the balloonist would say when he landed. “Fantastic, beautiful, extraordinary,” he exclaimed as he put down, echoing the emotions we all held for this rugged land. It was then we knew we might have a winner.

The following January more balloons arrived and the festival began to grow. That year as I stood next to a basket awaiting directions to climb in for my maiden voyage, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a fast moving object.

It turned out to be Fran, one of our friends from Bluff, who had decided she could wait no longer to go up. Having made that decision, she threw caution to the wind. Seeing her heading directly for me with head down and arms waiving, I sidestepped just in time to miss being bowled over as she tumbled headfirst into the basket. As she tumbled in, she shouted, “Outta’ the way, I have always wanted to go up in one of these things.”

Once my surprise subsided, I had to admit to being thoroughly impressed with the agility and determination of this sixty-something woman. Everyone agreed Fran would not and should not be dislodged, so the pilot put gas to burner and up they shot; his passenger smiling so broadly she resembled the Cheshire Cat.

Although I had to wait until the following year for my inaugural flight, I have now flown on several occasions, with a variety of pilots. Each time I marvel at the peaceful feeling that washes over me as we sail slowly over these ancient sandstone reefs with the magnificent people who fly those magnificently awkward contraptions.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and The Team

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