The scene is almost apocalyptic. Long lines of taillights blink in the early morning darkness in Reno, Nevada. Bleary-eyed children, wrapped in blankets, trudge alongside their parents.
They’re among thousands converging on Rancho San Rafael Park for the Great Reno Balloon Race. The countdown begins.
“Three…two…one…glow!” the announcer booms.
Eighty-eight hot air balloons glow in the darkness.
One of them is Kemo Sabe, an 85-foot-tall balloon piloted by Jeff Johnson. He's competing for the sixth year in the race, hoping to win a share of the $11,000 prize.
A balloon race is not a race to a finish line. Each pilot carries several brightly colored beanbags, labeled with the balloon's number. To win a prize, you have to hit targets on the ground with the beanbags.
"You’re gonna fly near the targets and he’s going to pitch his little bag out and the one closest to the X wins," one of Jeff's crew members explains.
Jeff has never won this race, but his hopes are high as we slowly ascend into the morning air. In keeping with tradition, he leans over the side of the balloon's wicker basket and blows a tarnished horn.
Hitting a target from a thousand feet in the air is no simple task. Steering is tricky. To change directions, a pilot must move the balloon up and down to catch shifting air currents. But Jeff has a plan.
“What I’m gonna try to do, I’m seeing the soccer ball going that way, so I’m gonna get up here without running into that stagecoach," he says, as he squints into the early morning sun.
He navigates slowly around the field, avoiding dozens of other balloons. The target draws nearer, but the wind shifts and pulls Kemo Sabe off course.
The balloon loses altitude. It skims a pond and there's a barbed wire fence dead ahead. But there's another subtle change in the wind's direction.
“Feel that wind?" Jeff asks. He licks a finger and holds it in the air. "I like that. It takes me that way."
The breeze carries Kemo Sabe slowly back across the field. As we near the targets, Jeff drops the beanbags over the side of the basket. He hits two targets out of three.
The chase crew is on the ground, watching the balloon’s progress in the air. It's called a chase crew for a reason. Because pilots can't control where they land, a team follows them as they near the ground. Jeff alerts his crew using a two-way radio. He’s getting ready to land.
“Okay, Tonto. Kemo Sabe here. Time to go chase!"
Several minutes later, Kemo Sabe’s wicker basket rasps along the hard-packed earth. Within minutes, the ground crew has dismantled the balloon.
By tradition, once the balloon is safely on the ground, the team pops a cork on a bottle of champagne. Together in a circle, they recite "The Balloonist’s Prayer."
“The winds have welcomed you with softness, the sun has blessed you with its warm hands, you have flown so high and so well that God has joined in your laughter and set you gently back in the arms of Mother Earth," the crew recites.
Today, Jeff's team has extra cause for celebration. For the first time in five years, their beanbag bullseyes have earned them a spot in the top 10. At sixth place, they head home with a prize of eight hundred dollars.
At age 65, after 30 years of ballooning, Jeff Johnson says he does it for the love, not the money. And there's always another race.
“They’re gonna have to pry those burner handles out of my cold, dead hands," he says, chuckling.