Monument Valley in the majestic Navajo Nation is a sacred place for its Diné people and apparently American balloonists as well. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourist and travelers from all over the world visit the tribal park's unique towering sandstone formations, but only once a year do a privileged few get to tower over these monuments themselves during the annual Monument Valley Balloon Festival.
"This is by far the best place to fly because, well, just look at it, it's absolutely awesome," Phoenix balloonist Susan Farley said on a chilly Saturday morning near Rain God Mesa just moments before she and her crew flew away in her balloon Sky Sailer.
Farley has been ballooning for 28 years and first flew Monument Valley in 1991 when it was by invitation only. She flew again the next year but according to her, flights didn't resume in the area until 2002 and now with the festival well established, she hopes it will be a regular occurrence.
"Yesterday we flew the mittens and that is something in my lifetime I never thought I would do," Farley continued. "It was so extraordinary because balloons are like the Navajo Nation: you go with the wind, it's a spiritual thing."
In its second year of existence and this time held on the three-day weekend of February 24-26, 2012, the hot air balloon festival has grown tremendously from a few hundred visitors and one sponsor to more than 5,000 visitors and ten sponsors.
"It is so much bigger this year with all the tents and way more packed," Arlisa Yazzie of Flagstaff, Ariz. said.
Last year Yazzie came only with her boyfriend but after showing her children the pictures of the colorful balloons, she was made to promise by her children to take them this year.
The bulk of the festivities started before sunrise on Friday with an early balloon launch throughout the tribal park. As the sun quickly went up and through beautiful rock formations, colorful balloons began to follow with their slow and deliberately cautious ascend into the morning sky.
With great weather and low winds, all 20 balloons in attendance were confident enough to fly; something that didn't happen during last year's event.
Employed by one of the event sponsors Ferrellgas, Sam Brown flew for approximately an hour after being part of a balloon crew.
"The best part was going up and floating, flying the contours and really soaring like and eagle," Brown said.
Friday was the event's youth day with a full lineup of fun activities and famous Native entertainers and motivational speakers. The events included a scavenger hunt, a beading and face-painting booth and other such activities. Motivational speakers included the Navajo Nation vice-president Rex Lee Jim, Gabriel Yaiva and Kelvin Long.
"It was fun cause' we got red balloons and I got a dog painted and I forgot what else," Brian Fisher, 6, of Kayenta, Ariz. enthusiastically said.
Local resident and tour guide Jordon Billsie was well prepared to paint children's faces. A tourist favorite for his high energy powwow dancing demonstrations, Billsie extensively read-up for weeks at home on the art of face-painting.
"I face-painted more than 200 kids I think, I lost count with my wife," Billsie said. "We had a lot of people but the entertainment was great!"
Borderline weather complicated things for some balloonist on Saturday morning. Only 12 balloons went up near famed Rain God Mesa and John Ford's Point. Considered by many to be the tribal park's crown jewels, the Mittens were far too windy for even the bravest of balloonists.
Veteran flyer Colleen Marchand of Gallup, N.M. said winds need to be below 10 miles an hour for proper inflation because the balloon can behave like a cupped sail depending on conditions. Moreover, she emphasized a well established principle in ballooning that states if you have wind when you start, you almost always have more wind when you land.
"Monument valley is a more windy place because of the monuments," Marchand said. "It has a Venturi effect meaning that wind going around an obstacle or a curved surface will pick up speed and wind going over a compressed area is going to have more pressure and speed like water going through a skinny water hose."
Donovan Maloney of Tuba City, Arizona was unfazed by the possible prospect of a windy ride.
"I'm fired up for this ride since it is a nice day and I am looking forward to seeing the overview of this beautiful area," Maloney said while being part of a crew about to ascend Rain God Mesa.
More 4,000 people attended Saturday's launch and numerous festivities throughout the day. As the day got colder and much windier, thanks to an increase in sponsors and public attendance, festival goers were able to enjoy the comforts of a large 400 by 60 feet heated tent outside the park's visitors center.
Media representative for the Navajo Parks and Recreation department and the Monument Valley Balloon Festival coordinator Geri Hongeva said the point of the event was to give back to the community of Monument Valley and the Oljato chapter as a whole.
"The Monument Valley Navajo tribal park wants to give back to the immediate community since there was no admission, vehicle or concert fee," Hongeva said. "we wanted to facilitate a community event that would bring everybody together and also support the sport of hot air ballooning."
Saturday's highlights included performances by the ever-popular Joe Tohonnie Jr. and Apache Crown Dancers, Todi Neesh Zhee Singers and former Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla Cody.
"I love Joe so much because of what he sings because I feel him," Cindy Smith of Blanding, Utah said. "You heard all the women screaming when he sings his songs and I was the loudest with my sister."
The high winds of Saturday afternoon continued into the evening and carried over into Sunday morning. Balloonists and festival goers were throughly disappointed after watching several small test balloons being battered by the wind and violently forced into rock walls on Sunday morning.
"I wish the weather would have been more cooperative, but that's the way it is with ballooning, you take the good with the bad in our sport," Gallup balloonist Bill Lee said. "I really enjoyed the flight even though we only got to fly one day but that was worth every minute I spent here."
Veteran balloonist from Gallup, Peter Procopio stopped at several locations throughout the tribal park in search for calmer winds but never found them.
"We balloonist are vain people," Procopio said with a chuckle. "This is a very beautiful place and we want to fly."