Stories from eight years of living on the road in America
by Michael Boyink / firstname.lastname@example.org
“You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders.
No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets.
When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
– John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Steinbeck published those words in 1962. He could already foresee how interstates would create a “Generica.”
That same year, Ross Ward began building the type of roadside attraction Steinbeck was mourning the loss of.
Not that Ward had any intentions of trying to attract traffic from nearby I-40 heading east from Albuquerque to his home in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
He was just creating a place for his artwork.
Enjoying a hobby.
Settling down after 30 years spent traveling with the circus, painting backdrops, attractions, and setting up traveling displays of his work.
By 1983, enough people wanted to see Ward’s “hobby” that he opened it as a museum.
Like the City Museum in St. Louis, Tinkertown is hard to describe in a few words.
It features hand-carved circus dioramas. Gypsy wagons. Murals. Skeleton sculptures. Snake Charmers. Miniature saloons set in wild-west scenes. Animated jug bands that play for a quarter. Mummified fortune tellers living in glass booths that spit out wisdom on paper slips.
Paintings. Etchings. Drawings. Antique memorabilia. Clothes from the world’s tallest man. Arcade games. Farm equipment. Old tools. Old toys. Found art.
All housed in what Ward considered an in-progress work of art in itself – a sprawling, rambling, 22-room structure with 51,000 glass bottles encased in 20 tons of rock and cement.
Tinkertown reviews use words like “eccentric,” “odd,” “a half-forgotten story,” and “cute, playful and a bit creepy.”
I’ll add one more: melancholy.
Few places give such a sense of what it’s like to be inside someone else’s brain. Wandering the tight isles and low ceilings of Tinkertown, you get a vivid sense of what Ross Ward was fascinated with, his delight in creativity and whimsy, and his nostalgia for circus days gone by.
Who he was, really.
Then, having just “met” him, you learn that Ward passed away in 2002.
After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1998.
Ward’s daughter Tanya came home to help care for him during that time.
She wrote about how the disease began to affect him. She said he grew “less tethered to this world” and got “frustrated with his tools as he forgot how they worked.”
Alzheimer’s didn’t stop Ward completely, however. In an 2013 interview with the LA Times, Tanya said Ward was “sometimes angry and frustrated, but he continued to draw and paint even after he was moved to an Alzheimer’s care unit.”
Also caring for Ward during those final years was his wife, Carla.
Tanya said “his love for her seemed to keep one little light on in his brain even after most everything else had gone dark.”
Carla Ward still runs the Tinkertown Museum, opening it each season in memory of her late husband.
Who, as it turns out, took a playful, posthumous poke at us.
And at you.
Painted on the end of a glass bottle in a Tinkertown wall are the words: “We did all this while you were watching TV!”
So, what are you doing tonight?