I was born and raised in Sparks, Nevada and as such, there are few things I hold more sacred than the Great Hot Air Balloon Race. As a child, my parents packed us into our white Volkswagen bus with sleeping bags, a thermos filled with hot chocolate, and homemade cinnamon rolls. We got to Rancho San Rafael at the truly alarming hour of 5 am to watch dawn patrol, the glow show, and then witness the sea of colorful balloons fill with hot air all around us. In colder years, we snuggled up in our blankets and, as the sun emerged, shed our outside layers to embrace the new warmth. I can’t remember very many years we missed the race. Even as a raucous teenager and young adult, my friends and I would get off work at 1 or 2 in the morning, head to the side of McCarren Blvd, and pull an all-nighter as we waited for the first glowing balloon to signify the start of the race. I have dragged many an unsuspecting transplant to the Reno area to the early morning event and watched as their faces filled with wonder at this remarkable experience.
As a parent, I have continued this tradition boldly, and more often than not, without my husband (hunting season!). I have brought my newborns and toddlers, and have settled into a rhythm that works perfectly for my little family. All my life, we braved the crowds on Saturday morning, parking a few miles away and making our way to the crowded field trying to see through the dark.
Then, three years ago, I discovered the best-kept secret of the balloon races…FRIDAY! Friday is epic! Friday is wonderful! Friday, I can leave much later than Saturday. Friday, I can park much closer than Saturday. Friday, I get so much more space as I navigate between, around, and through the waves of colorful nylon flapping and growing until the final grand finale as they tip up, up, up to standing. Often this special moment evokes cheers and applause from the people closest to the balloon as the basket stands up. I fondly remember standing inches away from the Energizer Bunny balloon as a child. Though that balloon is no longer in business, my own children’s memories are filled with countless balloons rising as they, only inches away, feel the warmth of the great flames and the loud noise as the pilots work their magic. After I discovered Friday, there was no going back to Saturday! I love Friday! I pack donuts and cinnamon rolls the night before. I load up jackets and blankets and, now that my kids are in school, they pack their lunches, backpacks, and outfits the day before. We go to the race, cherish the surreal experience, and then I drop them off at school, tired but rarely tardy!
One thing that differs from my own childhood memories for my children is the cards. Many (most) of the balloon crews have these cards, similar to baseball cards, with pictures of their balloon and other advertising information on them. My kids go crazy for the cards! They dash around the field from basket to basket, “Do you have cards?” Some of the crew members cleverly ask questions or require some participation from them to earn their cards. Others, pass them from truck windows as they exit the field to pick up their balloon and pilot elsewhere. My kids exclaim, “We have to get more than 20 this year!” and “We have to get the elephant!” We wander from balloon to balloon, trying, always, to find the small spaces and the newly lifting baskets (they’ve discovered that the crew is most able to offer cards once the balloon has taken flight) and filling their wondrous hands with images of their conquests. This year, as the elephant balloon lifted I said, “I hope it turns around because I want a picture of its face.” My 4-yr-old promptly replied, “Here mom, this is its face,” sticking her hard-won card to my eyes. I laughed and explained that I wanted to see it in real life.
This year, as my kids were asking for cards, they found a crew member who told them that he didn’t have cards, but would we like to go up in the balloon for free?!?!? Um, yes please. So this year, my children were 5 minutes late for school. As they so eloquently stated, “It was worth it… this was a once in a lifetime opportunity!” I know it’s early. I know it’s cold. I know that it takes a day to recover from. But I also know this: every second, from the National Anthem to the final meandering people walking the newly empty field, is magical, magnanimous, dreamlike, effervescent, poetic, remarkable, beautiful. Please, do not miss out on this captivating event because of a silly thing like sleep!