Washoe Valley resident Terri Ratkoviak was hooked on ballooning the first time she stepped into the gondola. That was in 1993, and within 18 months she had her balloon and license.
"I love the free feeling of flying and the camaraderie of balloonists," said Ratkoviak, who will be among the pilots participating in the Great Reno Balloon Race when it opens today. "From up above we get beautiful views of the valleys and I love the landscapes."
She said getting up early in the morning is the worst part of the sport, but that means the balloons are down early and that's when the tailgating begins.
"The people are wonderful," she said. "You see the same ones at different rallies. We're our own small community."
Veteran Air Force pilots Jim Hetherington and Toby Gandy have been a part of that community for 15 years.
As they readied for an ascent from Reno's Rancho San Rafael Park on Thursday, the sun lay low on the horizon to the east. Fall's chill was in the air and the peace of early morning was broken by the steady drone of fans as they filled the balloons with air.
Fans give way to blasts from the burners, then the sweet silent grace of balloon aviation, so gentle it seems the rest of the world is moving while the balloon stands still.
Convention falls away and Truckee Meadows landmarks like Rattlesnake Hill and Peavine Mountain stand out against Reno's urban confusion.
Complacency alternates with a tickle in the pit of the stomach when one realizes the only thing between the gondola and the ground is a thin layer of nylon and few blasts of hot air.
The pilots control altitude, but wind direction is everything. Balloons travel with the wind, so it can't be felt, and Hetherington studied the terrain looking for a hint of its direction in order to manipulate over a field just off Fourth Street.
"Leaning in this thing doesn't help, but it makes you feel better," he said as he guided the balloon into a light breeze.
Beyond the beauty of the valley was the back yard survey. Dog pens alternate with decks, and people stand in their bathrobes, video cameras in hand. The dogs seemed confused, and one cat ran through three back yards.
Gandy said he enjoys flying low over the neighborhoods and jokingly asking for directions to Sacramento. He also said that propane tanks and power lines have an affinity for each other as we sail within 35 yards of a line before setting gently down (just two bounces) in a field in northwest Reno.
WHAT: Great Reno Balloon Race
WHEN: 6:30 a.m. today, Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Rancho San Rafael Park, Reno