Red Rock Balloon Rally takes Gallup to new heights

GALLUP – The first full weekend in December in Gallup turned out to be a blast on multiple levels, especially at the highest levels — hundreds of feet above the city.
 
The 40th Red Rock Balloon Rally was given high grades by both visiting balloonists and local spectators.
Many balloonists touted both the views available on their flights and the hospitality of organizers and volunteers.
Troy Bradley of Albuquerque said Sunday that had he not been flying the RE/MAX balloon, he’d have flown one of his personal craft.
 
“The community welcomes us out here,” Bradley explained, “and it’s a fun place to fly.”

‘Best flights’

Bill Lee, CEO of the Gallup McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, said the event benefited from excellent ballooning weather.
 
“We had just the best blessing from Mother Nature that any balloon event could hope for,” Lee said. “This is the kind of year that makes this event famous.”
 
Lee said pilots have been saying that this weekend has given them “some of the best flights they’ve ever had.”
Penny Gazvoda of the Pixie Spirit team said her flight Saturday ended only about a mile from where it started, but probably traveled five miles as the wind changed direction.
 
“The most fun flying is to play in these rocks,” Gazvoda said. “I think we landed six times. 
McKenna Secrist said the red rocks make the Gallup flights special, compared to those she takes at home in the Seattle area.
 
“It’s unique being able to fly against the rocks,” she said. “We usually fly grass-to-grass in Seattle.”

Enforcing safety

Among the volunteers were launch directors like Carrie McGill. They were tasked with everything from enforcing safety rules to helping pack pilots’ bags.
 
McGill said the inspection part of the task is made easier by the high numbers of veteran balloonists who are aware of the rules and tend to follow them. She said she enjoyed serving as a launch director and that it helped her learn more about the hobby, which she finds useful as a student pilot.
 
While the consensus was that the weather was spectacular, there was some precipitation — it rained candy on Aztec Avenue during the Saturday afternoon Christmas parade.
 
The parade’s more than two dozen floats included several balloon teams, and plenty of the floats lofted candy toward the spectators that lined the road. While driveways were left clear, gaps on the sidewalks were otherwise small and rare.
 
Several spectators said the parade put them more into the holiday spirit and that they were delighted by its return after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last year’s parade.
 
Kodi Leslie of Tohatchi brought his family to the parade, which he said brought back childhood memories.
“It’s great to see people out here smiling,” Leslie said. “It’s a little break from the pandemic.” 

Balloon glow

Friday and Saturday evenings, the balloons were also on display, but on the ground, where the public could get closer and talk to the crews during “glow” events.
 
Friday’s glow at Red Rock Park also included Indian dances. Saturday, the parking lot at Rio West Mall became a forest of inflated, glowing balloons, and drew perhaps thousands of locals.
 
Steven Lowery of Gallup has long been a fan of hot air balloons. Saturday, his 11-year-old son Ethan said he wants to fly them.
 
Lowery’s girlfriend, Leann Brown, said the trio had attended Saturday morning’s “dawn patrol” launch, during which balloons ascended before the sun. 
 
Ricky Lutse participated in the parade before going to the mall Saturday evening. He said the glow was a nice family event.
 
“It’s really good to be out with everybody, all getting together to enjoy the balloons and the weather,” Lutse said.
 
The balloon teams were typically groups of friends or family members. Often, the hobby spreads across multiple generations.
 
Kevin McConnell is a pilot-in-training with Team Zia of Albuquerque. He noted that his father and grandfather have also been the Zia pilot, and said his 8-year-old son Jack has already expressed an interest in following in their footsteps.
 
Sunday concluded with an awards brunch and auction at which Lee presented longtime event supporter Dr. Tom Robinson with a bolo tie bearing the number 32 — marking the number of years Robinson flew before his recent retirement.
 
“You may not be flying, but you’re forever in our hearts and you’re welcome in any basket,” Lee told Robinson.
 
Several balloonists talked about the camaraderie among their number. They frequently meet up at various events.
“I grew up in a small town,” Pilot Dave Aley said Friday. “The ballooning community is like a small town all its own.”
 
The visitors made a nice contribution to local commerce over the weekend, Lee said, buying everything from a new set of tires to Native American jewelry.
 
“They love Gallup and the people here,” he said. “And they show that by doing a lot of shopping here.”

This article was written by Independent staff writer Rodd Cayton. It was originally published Dec. 4, 2021.