“That’s when I put down my rifle. I never hunted again.”
That’s Bill Lee, from Scenic Balloon Rides, talking. He’d just taken Carolyn and me on a spectacular hot air balloon ride through Red Rock Park, outside Gallup, New Mexico. Created by sediment that drifted over the millennia to the bottom of long-gone primordial sea that covered the center of North America, chips and bits of flora and fauna were hardened and then sculpted by wind and rain. The resulting reddish, iron-rich stones have an eerie, monumental smoothness, unperturbed by time, silent and imposing.
Lee takes small groups of people up in his balloon, drifting over the rock formations that were once home to Anasazi and other indigenous peoples who, though they may have lacked the scientific knowledge to explain the genesis of these ancient forms, understood that these massive outcroppings were sacred expressions of the nature of which they and other beings – some natural, others supernatural – were an unquestioned part.
Only a few days ago, a hot air balloon came down in Lockhart, Texas, killing 16 and becoming perhaps the worst ballooning disaster in U.S. history. Though I feel fortunate that I didn’t have this tragedy on my mind when ballooning outside Gallup, there was not one moment during our ride that was not remarkably serene, calm and totally under Lee’s control.
Lee has been sailing his beautiful balloon through these valleys for some years, and yet he flowed with a tireless enthusiasm for the tranquil beauty of a place where his family has lived for generations. “My great grandfather hunted Geronimo,” he told us with pride, and his people have been traders and hunters in this “land of enchantment” for a long time.
This was my first balloon ride. It was a wonderful way to get the lay of the land, and when the land is as dramatic and varied as the mountains of New Mexico, I can’t imagine a better way to visit and view this awe-inspiring countryside.
After we set down and stowed Lee’s balloon and related gear – a task that required a five-person crew – he walked us through some of the nearby canyons, exploring Anasazi petroglyphs and related rock-bound reminders of those who lived here long before Columbus and Coronado brought European civilization, religion and destruction to the indigenous peoples. We found several of the ubiquitous spiral symbols, the mysterious concentric circle calling cards of the Anasazi, as well as several human forms and animal shapes, turkey, deer and other carvings too weather-worn to identify. Lee showed us how the splayed human hand could have been traced in stone to portray the spread feathers of a turkey, but like so many who have spent time studying the Anasazi, he seemed at a loss to explain the spiral shapes seen on Anasazi and Ancestral Puebloan dwellings all around the Four Corners of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
There is no definitive explanation for these spiral shapes, but my belief is that the circles reflect the natural connectedness among humans, animals and nature. When Anasazi and others took the life of an animal, they would say a prayer of thanks for the beast, the animal brother, who had died to provide food for the hunter’s family, all part of the cycle. We who buy our meat in frozen blocks are far removed from that sense of connectedness.
As we were walking out of the Red Rock canyon, I asked Lee if he did much hunting, and he said he used to, but not anymore. As he explains, one day he was out, sitting in wait for prey. A mountain lion came out of the underbrush, “and put both his big paws on a tree and just turned around so I could see his eyes through my scope. I don’t know if he saw me,” Lee remembers, but he sat silently in awe of this wild feline, “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t shoot it. Why would I kill such a thing of beauty? That day, I put my gun down and I never went hunting again.”
The ancient people who lived in New Mexico, and whose hunting grounds we saw from the air during our balloon tour, harvested the local beasts for food, which seems an eminently honorable way to procure animal protein for the table. Wild kill is also likely “clean” meat, untainted by antibiotics, growth hormones and other man-made profit-boosters. I jump to have wild game whenever it’s offered, which is rarely. You pretty much have to know a hunter.
Many hunters say they love the natural world, and there are few better ways to admire it than from a balloon floating over areas that are largely inaccessible by any other means. Sport killing, seeking entertainment and taking joy in slaying the creatures of the world, would be a repulsive thought to the Anasazi, as it is to me and I believe to Lee. And I can see how, as an enthusiastic admirer of the natural world, Lee thought it was better to put down his rifle and go up in his balloon.