Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Reno Balloon Races and Virginia City Camel Races
Trip Date: September 10-12, 2004
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: Sepember 22, 2004

Two club members and an associate took the four-hour drive to the Reno, Carson City and Virginia City area of Nevada for a three-day Great Basin Desert photo extravaganza.

The camels and the naughty antics of the Nevada locals proved to be less than exciting for the participants; however, the Reno Balloon Races were the unexpected silver-lined surprise in this overland venture. We bunked in Carson City to be near the Virginia City camel races, but next year we plan to book rooms in Reno so we can make it to the balloon launch area, well before dawn, in order to see the spectacle of 150 balloons going aloft in about 15 minutes at sunrise. Club member Dave took the initiative in doing some last-minute Web research for times, locations and weather conditions for the balloon races. Thanks for the effort, Dave; it really made this trip a winner!

After the ceremonial check-in dinner of prime rib at the Carson City Nugget, we sacked out early in order to catch our 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls. (No fair-weather photogs in this group!) 4:30 came like the proverbial “other shoe” and soon we were carpooling the half-hour to Reno, bleary eyed and too weary to even worry about breakfast. We found the 5:30 a.m. traffic jam and made our way through the pedestrian-choked residential streets of northwest Reno. As we cradled our equipment and walked toward the gathering five balloons hung in the air above, barely visible in the pre-dawn glow from the eastern horizon. Music played and an announcer counted down signaling the balloons to light up like brilliant lanterns hung high in the black night sky. Of course we stopped and scrambled to set our tripods, mount cameras and fiddle with buttons and knobs to try to capture that fleeting moment. The sight was awesome and thousands of people, some bundled in sleeping bags, gave out a unanimous gasp of amazement, “Ohhhhh!” Some of the local folks were having breakfast barbecues in their front yards while others scurried to park their cars and get to the park before everything began to bust loose.

The “dawn patrol” balloons bobbed up and down and completed their light show as the sun began to force itself on the horizon with a warm glow. We were standing in the middle of a large open area widely dispersed with balloon crews unloading their trailers and a multitude of spectators. Two balloons were quickly filled with air and blasts of flame heated the air inside them, making them strain at their ropes. These were the “hare” balloons in a large-scale game of “hounds and the hares.” The “hares” went aloft (one took the shape of a large eagle) just before the sun broke the horizon and when the sun’s rays hit the field, 150 or more balloons seemed to bloom out of the ground like colossal, multi-colored mushrooms. Within 15 minutes most of the balloons were aloft, chasing the first two balloons. It was a sight to behold!

A gentle breeze from the south carried the pack of balloons to the northwest where many made landings in a residential area. We gave chase with the car and set up on a hill on the outskirts of town, where we were able to get some very nice shots with our long telephotos. We watched the chase crews with their large pickup trucks and trailers drive out to find their balloons and crews. We stopped for a copious breakfast at the Atlantis Casino’s all-you-can-shovel-down-your-throat buffet and then went on to Virginia City for the parade and the camel races.

After the morning’s balloon spectacular the camel and ostrich heats seemed a bit lackluster. The commentary over the loudspeaker was geared more for the inland locals and visiting bikers rather than the handful of sissy Californians who made their way over the Sierras. Virginia City is still a gritty, tough-talking little town that refuses to change—and if you don’t like it, you can... Well, I’ll keep it polite, here. We stayed as long as our constitutions could handle the hot weather (in the 90s) and the noisy commentary from the chatty announcer.

The camels were obviously not thoroughbreds, but they were well behaved and did not spit in our faces (per their stereotype). It was easy enough to get to the camel-racing arena, located atop one of the massive piles of tawny colored mine tailings at the bottom of town. However, getting back to the car was quite an ordeal since the town was built halfway up the side of a mountain at the 7,000-foot level. The trek back to the Bucket of Blood Saloon involved a lot of panting, sweating and stops in the shade to rest. The many bars on C Street were generally packed with boisterous locals, bikers and some hot and thirsty tourists in their best Wal-Mart fashions. Our small group, of course, defied classification!

We came to the consensus that we’d had just about enough of this nonsense and went back to Carson City to take a nap. We rose momentarily to go to the Atlantis again and gorge ourselves on the dinner buffet before we retuned to repack our camera bags and hit the sack again.

As is always the case, 4:30 came like a hot poker to the ribs and we dragged our limp bodies to the car to go gather some more spectacular balloon images. Once again, running asunder of the pre-dawn traffic jam, we found a place in the parking lot and darted down to the balloon staging area in good time to find the five or six “dawn patrol” balloons grounded, unable to launch because of a building wind. For a hot air balloon pilot, a 15-mile-per-hour wind is a gale that would put him, his one passenger and his craft at peril. The balloons performed their light show on the ground, promptly deflated and were packed up while the announcer apologized about the cancellation of Sunday’s event. Immediately the whole crowd gathered their blankets and sadly went home—one of the risks inherent in being a balloon race spectator. We took the insult like troopers and steered over the nearest hash house for breakfast to lay plans for the rest of the day.

Dave and Chong decided to forego the camel races and spend their Sunday taking pictures in the Sierras on the way home. I returned to Virginia City and took more camel and ostrich pictures on a much cooler, but windier and very dusty day. I soon tired of trying to protect my camera from the dust squalls and packed it up and headed out on the long road back (via Las Vegas). This northern Nevada trip is a must-do for next year, but instead of the camel races being the main event, we’ll be going to see the balloon races with an optional stop at Virginia City for camels and ostriches.

Incidentally, Reno Nevada is a hotbed of photo opportunities in September. The Labor Day weekend is the official end of the weeklong Burning Man Festival, held about 120 miles north of Reno. The weekend after Labor Day is when the Reno Balloon Races and Virginia City Camel Races happen and if you manage to stay around for the next weekend, you’ll be able to see the Reno Air Races. (Somehow I can’t justify staying in Reno for more than two weeks! I think I would surely die of boredom.)

© 2004 S.R. Hinrichs