Before the sun had peeked from behind the mountains Thursday in the Animas Valley, with the temperature still below 40 degrees, a group of balloon enthusiasts gathered on an empty field west of Animas Valley Elementary School.
Led by balloon meister Doug Lenberg, the group hoped to launch four hot air balloons as a pre-flight before the official kickoff of the Animas Valley Balloon Rally, which was held Friday through Sunday. But after consulting with flight services, Lenberg learned the wind speed was too high to safely fly the balloons.
“Pack it up!” Lenberg yelled cheerfully to the group.
Without hesitation or any audible grumbles, the crew began rolling up the launch pad and stowing the baskets. Lenberg, a balloon enthusiast for over 30 years who no longer flies, walked over to a reporter to explain the situation.
“Balloon events are not measured by money or balloons in the air,” said Lenberg, wearing shorts, a light sweater and a cowboy hat. “They’re measured by smiles – do you see a single person here who isn’t smiling?”
Despite the appearance of a failed launch, the group, close to 20, stood around joking with each other, drinking coffee, watching their breath rise and smiling. For Lenberg, that’s all that matters.
Bitten by the balloon bugLenberg’s love of balloons began long ago. He began flying with a friend in 1986, and after a couple of years serving as the crew chief, he began taking flying lessons. In 1994, after two years of training, he obtained a license. The perks of being a pilot, for Lenberg, were all about sharing the experience with others.
“It wasn’t about me. It was about the people I could take with me and see the joy on their faces and just show them a different experience than they were used to,” Lenberg said.
Flying in the Four CornersIn 1998, Lenberg moved to the Four Corners. A year later, he discovered the Snowdown Balloon Rally and soon became a participant, as well as helping to organize the rally. As he got more accustomed to the area, Lenberg eagerly participated in as many rallies as possible. One rally that stands out to Lenberg is the Navajo Nation International Balloon Rally when he was able to fly over Monument Valley. Throughout the many years of flying, the passion for ballooning remained the same.
“Ballooning is all about sharing for me,” Lenberg said.
Lenberg’s relationship with Tristan MacLean exemplifies his passion for sharing.
Lenberg met MacLean when MacLean was a student at Fort Lewis College. MacLean already had his pilot’s license, but was working toward a commercial license and began taking lessons from Lenberg.
“Doug was looking to have a student because he wanted to help the sport grow,” MacLean said.
With obvious admiration in his voice and excitement to speak about his mentor, MacLean said Lenberg’s pilot skills “are by far some of the best I have ever seen.”
MacLean is now a commercial pilot and works in Albuquerque, but he credits Lenberg with much of what he knows.
“He really helped me to grow my piloting skills and become a better pilot,” MacLean said. “We developed a really strong bond and relationship. He’s become like family to me.”
MacLean now flies Lenberg’s old balloon and flew in last weekend’s Animas Valley Balloon Rally
“Doug is a very unique human being, and one of the good ones, as they say,” MacLean said.
An unexpected flightOct. 3, 2014, started like any other morning of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Countless balloons, of all shapes and colors, populated the sky above Albuquerque with the Sandia Mountains serving as a majestic backdrop. Lenberg, with a small party, was among the many pilots rising into the air.
However, before long, Lenberg knew something was wrong. He had lost the control and function of his left arm. Without alerting his passengers to his fears, Lenberg started a descent. Lenberg’s wife, a member of his chase crew, saw his balloon descending earlier than expected and raced to meet her husband just as he touched down in a parking lot.
Once on the ground safely, in the presence of his wife and support crew, Lenberg passed out. He was quickly taken to a hospital and within 90 minutes of the onset of his heart attack, the severity of which was later called a “widow maker” by his doctor, Lenberg had three stents put in his chest.
“So, I give thanks every day,” Lenberg said.
A year later, Lenberg was back to flying in the Albuquerque Fiesta, doing what he loves.
However, in 2018, Lenberg needed four additional stents. His cardiologist advised Lenberg to stop flying because of the stress associated with piloting. It was a blow for Lenberg, but he wasn’t going to let it stop his involvement with the sport.
“I decided I wanted to help get more community balloon rallies going,” he said.
Rally organizingLenberg has been the balloon meister of the Animas Valley Balloon Rally since its inception, an event that he was able to create with the support of Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
“He is one of the most energetic and enthusiastic people I have ever seen,” Harper said.
One of the many benefits of the rally is the business it brings to Durango. Harper estimated last year’s balloon glow in front of the D&SNG attracted close to 1,000 people.
In the rally, the balloons launch from land owned by the Cottonwoods Homeowners Association, and it is Lenberg’s attitude and work ethic that have created trust between the HOA and the rally.
Mike Fry, an HOA board member, said residents have been so happy with the event in the past that multiple residents with empty lots have given Lenberg permission to hold balloon glows on their property for this year’s event.
“He’s been a great asset to our community,” Fry said.
After nearly 20 years of helping to organize the Snowdown Balloon Rally, Lenberg was forced to retire last year. His doctor advised him against tromping through 2 feet of snow at 7,000 feet in elevation to help put up balloons.
But Lenberg has turned elsewhere, helping to create and organize a number of other balloon rallies in the region. Lenberg is the balloon meister for the Steamboat Springs Balloon Rodeo; the White Mountains Balloon Festival in Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona; the Animas Valley Balloon Rally; and the San Juan River Balloon Rally, and he hopes to start one in Farmington, called the Three Rivers Balloon Rally.
And each balloon rally he organizes or attends, he is forced to watch from the ground as the balloons float into the air.
“I want to get in the basket and get behind those burners, and I want to float among the trees, but I can look around and say, ‘I’m making a lot of people happy,’” Lenberg said.