Aerial poetry in motion.
Those words best describe the Third Annual Monument Valley Hot Air Balloon Event at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Jan. 11-13. Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation (NNPR) sponsored the event.
Hot air balloon pilot and enthusiast Graham Bell from Malvern, England has a love for the Navajo Nation. He returned to the Navajo Nation for his seventh trip to fly in the festival. It was only his second time participating in the annual balloon festival. Graham was one of 20 pilots from around the world who soared through the crisp blue skies in a towering grand assembly fashion.
"Monument Valley is a mystic place in the nicest possible way. There's just something that I just love here," Bell explained. "When I received an invitation to participate in the Monument Valley Hot Air Balloon Event, it didn't take me more than three seconds to say yes. I always dreamed of flying here."
Graham has been piloting his balloons through the skies for 22 years and has participated in many hot air balloon events worldwide. Although the event at Monument Valley has fewer balloons in the air than other events he has been involved in, Graham said he especially enjoyed his rides on the Navajo Nation.
"It was very peaceful and serene," he said. "There's no pressure here, just pure enjoyment to see a panoramic view of the area. I also met a lot of amazing people."
Bell said he vacationed with his son and daughter and visited several parks in the Four Corners region including Grand Canyon in the past. However, Bell said their favorite place was Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
Chris Bell from Aberdeenshire,Scotland, came along for the ride, but he didn't know he was going to also get a birds-eye-view of the iconic red rock formations.
"It was absolutely amazing and it exceeded my expectation," Bell said. "It was just wonderful and I feel privileged that I had an opportunity to be a rider. I can see why people see it as special place - it's mystic. To see Monument Valley from the sky is just magical."
Cathy Stringfellow of Albuquerque said although she is from Albuquerque, N.M., she would rather fly at Monument Valley.
"There is no comparison to the balloon event in Albuquerque," she said. "This place is absolutely beautiful."
Bryan Hill of Page, Ariz. echoed Bell's comments.
"Monument Valley's most unique rock formations, mesas, buttes and iconic scenery provide a jaw dropping backdrop creating one of the most breathtaking places on earth to enjoy hot air ballooning," he said
Hill said the idea of hosting a hot air balloon event on the Navajo Nation was discussed in 2007 and finally brought to fruition after many months of planning by Hill and NNPR staff. Since then, Hill has worked quietly behind the scenes with NNPR staff to launch three successful hot air balloon events in Monument Valley.
He was quick to point out his gratitude to the Navajo Nation.
"The balloon pilots and crews are all grateful to the NNPR staff for putting this event together," Hill said. "We hope this event will continue for years to come and be a boost to the local economy. All the pilots feel privileged to both fly Monument Valley and spend time with the locals. Flying hot air balloons in Monument Valley is exciting then when you add the welcome we received from the people of Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation, the event elevates to 'outstanding.' We are all already looking forward to next year."
No expense was spared at the third annual event, which featured a variety of activities, games, speakers, entertainers and musical genres suited to the entire family. Navajo leaders also attended and participated in the eye-catching celebration.
Event coordinator Geraldine Camarillo said she met with the community six months before the event to coordinate who would perform at this event.
"We try very hard to accommodate the community's input and this year we had a great line-up for both Youth Day and Family Day," she said.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly thanked the community for coming out and thanked NNPR for bringing this event to the Navajo Nation.
"Thank you to all the visitors for coming," he said. "You can get to know who we are. We have a lot of great food and places to shop. Look at our beautiful sites here on the Navajo Nation. I am very proud of the Navajo people."
Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim has become a mainstay and especially enjoys the annual Monument Valley Hot Air Balloon Event. In fact, this is the third time Jim has journeyed through the skies as a rider.
"Thank you for allowing us to be here today," said Jim. "I'd like to welcome all the non-Navajos here. Be sure and buy from our Navajo people and help them. Let's also take care of our land and keep it beautiful."
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Nez, also a balloon rider, said the experience provides a better appreciation of the Navajo land from the air.
"We have one of the most beautiful places in the world," he said. "I want to challenge the Navajo people to be good stewards of our land and keep it beautiful and pristine."
Larry Holiday, a community liaison who works with schools in Monument Valley, assisted with the Navajo shoe game, incorporated into the event for the first time this year.
Holiday said the Navajo shoe game was a match-up between elders who have years of knowledge and wisdom versus the younger generation. Holiday said it is important that communities host Navajo shoe games and other winter events because that is when oral stories and activities can be shared about early Navajo history.