Travel has transformative power, you might have heard, and as cliché as it may be, it’s also true. Encountering new sights, smells, and ideas leaves imprints on your soul, some of them not much more than a whisper, and some that make an indelible mark. Some encounters, with their gravitas, are destined to put a giant red pin in your lifemap. No one climbs Mount Everest, for example, without throwing around some kind of life altering banter afterwards. But some travels, even most travels, don’t have the Everest significance, and yet, unassumingly these experiences make their presence known.
I had one of these humble life markers today at an out of the way roadside attraction just outside Albuquerque.
Tinkertown Museum is the folk art creation of a single man, Ross J. Ward. For over 40 years, Ward carved, collected, and constructed a menagerie of wooden figures and eccentric Americana. Entering the museum, an innocuous little sign says simply “I did all this while you were watching TV,” and then you enter the world of Ross Ward.
The museum is a maze of twists and turns with room after room of animated figures that come to life with the push of a button. Armed with a pocket full of quarters, visitors can awaken such delights as Esmeralda the Fortune Teller and Otto the One Man Band. Buttons animate other scenes that were hand carved by Ross J. Ward. Along with the quirky displays, a faded paper sign both informs and extols readers about the nature of the collection with a few words from Mr. Ward. “I did it all a dollar at a time without a grant or a bank loan! You can do the same no matter what your project.”
Laid out like an I Spy book, you could never see every detail, even with multiple visits. The passion with which Ward created this kaleidoscopic wonderland created an experience where I both knew him and loved him, even though just moments before he had been a stranger.
Ward’s wife, Carla, greeted us as we exited the museum. I thanked her profoundly for sharing the work of her husband with us. She chatted for a moment about his passion, and how much she enjoys watching others enjoy his work now that he is no longer living. I was struck by the warmth and admiration in her eyes as she spoke of her late husband. As we parted, I imagined the connection she must feel to the work, and the immortality it provides for Ross Ward. His spirit, alive with ingenious passion, permeated every square inch of the hodge-podge creation. Like a living being, the construction that was meant as a simple personal project reached deep into my understanding and demanded attention.
To drive the point home a sign that summed up the lifework of the artist was strategically placed at the exit to the museum. “Live life as the pursuit of happiness,” it proclaimed and even ordered. It’s exhortation was impossible to ignore. Although on the surface the collection appeared capricious, Tinkertown was not just a winsome way to spend an afternoon. The creation inspired me to deep thought and action. As we drove away, the unexpected mark in my soul began to challenge me to find a way to pursue happiness every day. With that challenge percolating, I found myself filled with gratitude that Ross Ward had the good sense to follow his passion instead of watching TV.