My alarm usually goes off at 5:15 a.m., so waking up 15 minutes earlier isn’t that big of a deal. On this particular morning, though, I whip the covers off and hurriedly dress in a long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt and jeans. I stuff a beanie and gloves into a backpack with my camera and notepad, then rush downstairs to catch a ride to the Great Reno Balloon Race.
The Great Reno Balloon Race, which attracts dozens of balloon enthusiasts, is held annually every fall. This balloon festival, like most, kicks off in the pre-dawn hours before the wind picks up and weather conditions make flying a hot air balloon difficult.
We arrive at the balloon race grounds in the dark. Though on the cusp of autumn, the mid-September morning is chilly with a slight bite in the air. I stuff my hands in the pockets of my sweatshirt and make a point to walk quickly, forcing blood to circulate in my legs. Hundreds of people have already arrived, staking claim to the best viewing spots for the hot air balloon festival. They sit in lawn chairs covered in flannel blankets, thermoses of (I’m assuming) warm beverages resting in their laps.
I’ve been assigned to ride with Gale Mott a balloonist out of Fresno, California, who is flying in the Great Reno Balloon Race for the very first time. Gale, his partner Chris and another volunteer are already at the chase truck when I arrive. I help where I can in preparation for the ride, but mainly I watch as the team pulls down the basket, tests the propane and begins to unfold the balloon. Meanwhile, the balloon flying the banner for the Great Nevada Balloon Race and a red, white and blue balloon have started ascending into the air. Everyone stops what they’re doing for the Star Spangled Banner, which seems particularly haunting given that this weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Now that the official event has begun, the field comes alive as fans and propane tanks are turned on to inflate the multi-colored envelopes. Our balloon, Shadow Dancer, is a patchwork rainbow lying on the ground. Chris and the volunteer hold the mouth of the balloon open as Gale turns on the propane. The rainbow begins to inflate. Around us, other balloons are in varying states of inflation. I want to capture the balloons as they come to life but find I can’t snap photos fast enough.
Floating a few hundred feet above the ground, suspended somewhere between “up there” and “down below,” is something I have always wanted to do, and as Chris gives me a boost into the basket, I’m giddy with excitement as I realize my dream is coming true. The basket shakes briefly as the hot air overcomes gravity … and then we’re airborne.
I have questions for Gale, but all I can do is stand silently, watching balloons above me, below me and on every side. I feel a bit like a fish, surrounded by an endless tank filled with other swimming, floating, sailing fish. It’s not often that the world happens at 360 degrees.
“Keep an eye out for balloons coming up from below,” Gale says. It’s common courtesy to move for those below because they can’t see you but you can see them. I can feel the basket shifting as we move through the air, but otherwise I feel like I’m levitating.
I’m given strict instructions on what I can and can not touch, but other than that, I’m free to roam about the basket at my leisure, taking pictures of the balloons around me. Smoky the Bear, a panda bear and Darth Vader are highlights. There are more than a hundred other “standard” balloons like ours, but the patterns and colors are all remarkably different from each other.
The sky is quiet. Balloons make no noise except for when air is blown from the propane tank. The roads and people are too far away to hear.
I ask Gale why he flies a hot air balloon. “I couldn’t afford the helicopter or plane,” he says. “I love it every time I fly. When I don’t love it anymore, I’ll trade in my balloon for a boat.” He is unfamiliar with the Reno area so after only a short period of time in the air, Gale begins to guide our balloon toward the ground in a field adjacent to where we took off.
After deflating and burping the balloon (getting all the air out), we stuff the 200-pound envelope into a bag and then into the basket, which is then hoisted into the back of the truck. Putting the gear away seems to take a fraction of the time that preparing it for the flight took.
I’d gone up, up, up … and now my journey hundreds of feet above the world has come to an end.