At a famous Albuquerque balloon fiesta, Kiwanians have it made in the shade.
Story by Jack Brockley • Photos by Steven St. John
The rising sun shoots stripes of soft pinks and blues from Albuquerque’s eastern horizon where the Sandia mountains emerge from the night’s shadow. Cued by the dawn, tongues of yellow and orange flames fill nylon bags with heat, causing the bags to bob upright, reaching seven stories high. And higher. They are yellow, red, purple, blue, orange … each hue soaking in the early morning’s luscious light. Then, they lift. One by one. Then, by the dozens, they rise into a now-glowing New Mexico sky. Ten, 60, 100 and more. Many more.
A mass ascension at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a sight to behold. Promoters say the fiesta, with more than 600 hot air balloons, is the most photographed event in the world and estimate that 25 million pictures are taken during its nine-day run. It’s no wonder that camera-maker Canon is the presenting sponsor of the annual spectacle, which draws pilots and visitors from around the world.
Of the 900,000 crew members, vendors and camera-aiming gawkers at Balloon Fiesta Park that week, about 250,000 have face-to-face encounters with Kiwanis.
On a cool October day in 1972, 13 balloons gathered in a mall parking lot. The annual fiesta quickly grew to become the world’s largest ballooning event. As the event expanded, planners needed help handling the thousands of spectators. So, in 1979, the Albuquerque Kiwanis Club started directing parking lot traffic and selling tickets.
Though they no longer park vehicles, the club continues to coordinate ticket sales, with assistance from other area Circle K, Key Club and Kiwanis clubs.
“We raise anywhere from US$65,000 to $90,000,” says Treasurer Jeff Rowe, who estimates the volunteers sell 250,000 tickets every year. “Over the time we’ve been involved in this, we’ve raised upwards of $1.5 million, which is returned to the community as charitable help for kids.”
To show their appreciation for being included in the event over the past 40 years, Albuquerque Kiwanians marked their club’s 100th anniversary with a $100,000 gift to the festival and Fiesta Park: a K.I.S.S.
Located at the edge of a field where marching bands practice, Little Leaguers play ball and Scouts train, the Kiwanis International Shade Structure provides a large shadow of relief from the intense sun. With its seven 10-inch-thick steel masts grounded and connected 13 feet deep, it’s a place of safety during lightning storms. Because the club sells engraved paving bricks that are laid beneath the structure, it’s a fundraiser too. And, with a Kiwanis-family logo on each of the seven sails that stretch and spiral from mast to mast, it’s a prominent, year-round PR display.
The day ends with another gorgeous New Mexico sunset. Darkness settles onto Fiesta Park, and 600 balloons wobble upright again. Illuminated by their burners, the tethered envelopes glow in a stunning ground-level light show. The crowd wanders among the “shapes,” appreciating the artistry of Vincent Van Gogh’s face, laughing with the grinning “Pigasus” and sharing Star Wars trivia as they gaze at a towering, menacing Darth Vader.
This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.