The Navajo word for Shiprock means "Rock With Wings." The Navajo name seems perfectly suited to this incredible geologic feature rising suddenly from the desert floor to a height of 1800 feet AGL over the Navajo Reservation. When viewed from a certain angle, one can see the "wings," seemingly emerging from a celestial being embedded in red stone.
The Shiprock Balloon Festival took place February 22 and 23, 1997. Now in its 7th year, entrance to this rally is by invitation, and is limited to 30 balloons. Because of its small size and remote location, the atmosphere is very relaxed and easygoing. The only rules are: (1) try to avoid hitting the rock, and (2) be nice to everybody.
The Festival headquarters were actually located approximately 30 miles away in the town of Farmington, New Mexico. The reason for this is that the town of Shiprock itself is quite small and did not appear to have any lodgings where pilots and crew could stay. But maybe that is one of the features of this part of the country that is so appealing - it is totally apart from the noise and bustle of city life.
Its hard not to talk about Shiprock in an almost spiritual sense. Although it can be seen from many miles away, it is only when you get up next to it that you can grasp its enormity. When the first rays of dawn hit its red surface you understand why this is a special place to the Native Americans. Of course the deserts of the Southwest have a unique effect on people: they either love 'em or hate 'em. I love the desert, and have a hard time understanding those who don't. The vast open space surrounding Shiprock would be beautiful to me even if the rock was not there. In my opinion, it is paradise for balloonists. However, another pilot from out of state indicated that the dry, dusty landscape held little attraction for him. Too bad he missed the point.
I always enjoy getting pilot packs of gifts and goodies whenever I attend ballooning events. The Shiprock Festival puts an interesting twist on this concept by featuring the "Pilot Pack in Reverse." Instead of taking something, pilots and crew can give something instead. Each balloon is asked to provide a bag of groceries, including food staples such as flour, sugar, cooking oil, etc. If the balloon lands near any Navajo people, we were instructed to give the package to them and tell them it is for their grandparents. Showing respect for elderly members of the community is a sign of good manners and enhances landowner relations to a great extent. Any leftover food is given to the Shiprock Home for Women and Children. I must admit that it felt good to do this deed, and I got more pleasure out of it than if I had been given a standard pilot pack.
The weather for the Saturday flights was fine. The breeze picked up some toward the end of our flight. But on Sunday, the forecast was very bad. The report indicated lots of rain, snow, and wind. Many of the pilots decided to skip it and just go home. But the 9 balloons that went out to the rock were surprised by very congenial flying conditions. The expected storm did hit much, much later in the day, but the morning was beautiful.
The only competition of sorts, was to fly over the rock, and to take pictures (or have your picture taken) while doing so. My crew had a lot of fun, and shot a number of rolls of film, taking time out from chasing to stop for several "Kodak Moments." I didn't make it over the rock, but I had a wonderful time.
As we were packing up the balloon on Sunday, my crew discovered that if they yelled in unison, the sound would bounce off Shiprock and echo back to them a few seconds later. We had to try this a number of times, and each time the call from the rock would make us laugh with pleasure. I once read a saying "Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods." I believe that statement is true, especially in Shiprock.