Balloons take flight in Monument Valley

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

MONUMENT VALLEY, March 8, 2012

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(TOP: Times photo - Glenda Rae Davis, BOTTOM: Courtesy photo - Larry Holiday)

TOP: The view of Monument Valley from a balloon, called Desert Drifter, as it ascends above the Big Thumb rock formation for the 2nd Annual Monument Valley Balloon Event.

BOTTOM: A hot air balloon drifts along Monument Valley rock formations on Feb. 24. The balloon was a part of the 2nd Annual Monument Valley Balloon Event.

P ark admission was waived this past weekend at Monument Valley Tribal Park to make way for hot air balloon enthusiasts from all over.

The 2nd Annual Monument Valley Balloon Event, run by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation, began early Friday with 20 hot air balloons launching into the morning sky near the North Window and Big Thumb rock formations.

"You can fly all over the world but there is only one Monument Valley," said an onlooker gazing at an ascending balloon.

The event grew considerably compared to last year, said the event's coordinator, Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, adding, "We only had the morning launches and night glows scheduled last year, but this year we have a lot of entertainment and activities for the community."

An estimated 5,000 people attended the event, which was established by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department for the enjoyment of local residents.

"Our biggest thing was to have an event for the Oljato Chapter and Monument Valley residents. It was the parks and rec's way to make a free community event for families nearby," Hongeva-Camarillo said.

Of the three scheduled balloon ascensions, only Friday morning's was fully successful. On Saturday, windy conditions kept 13 of the 20 balloons grounded and Sunday none of the balloons were able to take flight.

"I wish the wind had cooperated," said balloon pilot Judy Holt. "We got lucky the first day. Most of the people did not fly Saturday but the family near where we were setting up was amazing. They made coffee for us and were really helpful."

Holt, who lives in Phoenix, has been flying for 30 years.

"When you're ballooning you can't worry about anything else. It takes your mind off of everything," she said. "You're sailing the sky."

She explained that the balloon pilot is only in control of the altitude and that the wind controls direction.

"I love Monument Valley. It was a real privilege to fly in such a spectacular place," she added.

At 77,000 cubit feet in size, Holt's balloon, named Desert Drifter, is considered small by the sport's standards, she said.

"A basketball is one cubic foot, so you can fit 77,000 basketballs in my balloon" - a spectacular size for something that is considered small.

Holt had arrived a day before the event to make a presentation about hot air balloons at Monument Valley High School.

"I said all kinds of stuff about balloons, I don't know if they enjoyed it but one special ed student drew a picture of a balloon and the principal brought it over the next day," she said. "It was beautiful."

The number of balloons at the Monument Valley event is strictly limited to avoid overcrowding and possible harm to the park's fragile beauty. The lucky pilots were selected by pilot Bryan Hill, of Page, Ariz., who is part of Page's annual Hot Air Balloon Regatta.

"Bryan was our balloon (specialist) and he chose all of the pilots based on their history and his experience with them," said Hongeva-Camarillo.

She also said that the number of balloons is based on the "OK fly zone," which is determined by residents of the tribal park.

"We had to get consent from the Valley residents. So with what consent we did get, that was where pilots flew," she added.

On Friday, buses from Monument Valley, Chinle and Many Farms schools rolled into The View hotel parking lot and disgorged students eager to enjoy a day designed for them.

"Youth Day was a big success. There were a lot of activities for the kids and they seemed to be enjoying them," Hongeva-Camarillo said.

Activities took place inside a large tent set up in the parking lot, and included a scavenger hunt, fun walk, drawing booth, beading sections, face painting and wool carding.

Motivational speakers and award-winning entertainers were scheduled throughout the day, ranging from the traditional Tódí Néésh Zhéé Singers to Vice President Rex Lee Jim and hip-hop artist Yaiva.

Miss Navajo Nation Crystalyne Curley also addressed the students, talking to them about the importance of higher education and the motivational value of the balloon rally.

"The (balloon) pilots were asked a lot of questions and a lot of their answers had to do with math, reading and writing," Curley said.

The pilots emphasized the connection between getting an education and qualifying to enjoy perks like hot-air ballooning, she noted.

"They were adamant about the children continuing their education," she said.

Hongeva-Camarillo said it is rare to see free events whose lineups include renowned performers like Radmilla Cody and Joe Tohonnie Jr. and the Apache Crown Dancers, who were part of Saturday's entertainment lineup.

"Having the sponsors' support was a big part of it," she said. "Navajo Nation departments all have their budget to follow and this event wasn't a part of ours. So, I had to work extra hard since October to get this event together."

The View Hotel and Gouldings Lodge provided rooms for the 20 balloon pilots and Hampton Inn paid the entertainers' performance fees.

Hampton Inn and Burger King also provided free breakfast to everyone, and Ferrellgas chipped in with propane to fuel all the balloons.

Other sponsors were Peabody Energy, Navajo AML/UMTRA Program, Navajo Nation Museum, The Point (Antelope Point Marina), Kayenta Township and CellularOne.

The event culminated with a fashion show displaying Elouise Y. Begay's tradition-inflected designs, held at The View's museum, and a performance by the country band Latigo in the event tent.

Begay showed attire for evening, business and casual wear, with crushed velvet and Pendleton fabrics predominant.

Begay, of Blue Gap, Ariz., said her clients include former first lady Vicky Shirley, actress Kelly Ray Vallo, and singer Kansas K. Begaye.

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