Desert Frosty: Albuquerque's giant 'tumbleweed snowman' greets drivers

This year's version of the Albuquerque tumbleweed snowman is the biggest ever. (

This year's version of the Albuquerque tumbleweed snowman is the biggest ever. (

They didn't wait for snow to bring Frosty to life along Interstate 40 -- they used what they have: Tumbleweeds.

Each day, more than 80,000 vehicles driving through New Mexico's biggest city are greeted by the unique expression of holiday cheer that is a lot more southwest than North Pole. The 14-foot snowman, built every year for the last two decades by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, looms above the busy road, a familiar site to locals and a curiosity to visitors.

"This started as a joke about 20 years ago, but became a tradition,” Jerry Lovato, executive engineer of the authority, told “When it was first put up people drove by and honked their horns. They loved it, so we kept doing it.”


"The tumbleweed snowman is a fun way to celebrate the holidays," said Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. "It is a great reminder to folks that Albuquerque enjoys a high desert climate that also gets enough snow to build a snowman at times."

But with an average annual snowfall of less than 10 inches, those cherished moments for children are few and far between.

The desert snowman has grown over the years. The earliest version was just 3 feet tall. But this year's is nearly five times that size, despite being made of just three bundles of the iconic prickly southwest bush that is thrown around the region with the early fall winds. Lovato and his crew of 11 have construction down to a science. Beginning in August, they scour the city for potential bushes that can be used for the snowman.

This year, with the city in a deep drought, the crews had to water the selected tumbleweed crop to give the bushes more girth. Once the bushes are selected, they are spray-painted with nearly 6 gallons of white latex paint, then meticulously placed on the 12-foot base and rebar frame made by department welder James Moya.

"He takes a lot of pride in his job,” Lovato said. “He’s the third-generation welder to work on the snowman and it keeps getting better.”

Ronnie Carrillo, who works at a Holiday Inn Express near the snowman, said it isn’t officially the holiday season until he sees its arms outstretched waving to motorists on the freeway.

“The first time I saw it, I didn’t believe what I saw -- a tumbleweed snowman,” said Carrillo, a native of Los Angeles who has lived in Albuquerque for nine years. “But now this is our holiday icon.”

John Amy, of Annapolis, Md., was in Albuquerque on business and wasn’t aware of the snowman until it was pointed out to him.

“It’s appropriate on so many levels,” Amy said. “I like it, they’re brilliant for putting it there.”