Sandia Park, New Mexico
Tinkertown sits in the hills north of Albuquerque because Ross Ward lived there, not because of Route 66.
Nevertheless, Tinkertown's blend of folk art, nostalgia, and D.I.Y. attitude have been embraced by Route 66ers -- even though the attraction is miles from The Mother Road and didn't open until 1983, long after Route 66 had ceased to exist in this part of New Mexico.
Ross was destined to build Tinkertown, or something very much like it. He enjoyed visiting roadside attractions as a kid, worked for some as a teenager, and painted carousels and circus banners as an adult. He learned about the kinds of things that people would pay to see.
Ross spent years collecting Old West paraphernalia, road culture relics, and exhibits from defunct attractions. Then he added hundreds of his own hand-carved figures and large animated dioramas, and packed it all into a maze-like structure, built out of cemented rocks and junk salvaged by Ross and his wife: old farm equipment, lots of weathered wood, tens of thousands of bottles.
He hand-painted his favorite positive-thinking slogans on signs everywhere, and added bits of harmless joshing -- wacky buzzards, goofy cowpokes -- throughout.
What Ross created was a crazy person attraction without the unnerving crazy person.
The inspiration of the carnival funhouse is easy to see in Tinkertown. Halls are narrow, walls are uneven, rooms wander willy-nilly, clutter is crammed onto every surface, including the ceilings and floors: tools, bones, horseshoes, farm and mining relics, old lanterns and license plates.
"Set your watch back 80 years," promises one sign. "This is that place your friends told you not to miss!" declares another. "No aid, no govt. grants, no committees," boasts a third.
The equanimity of Tinkertown's displays leaves you feeling that you've missed something, and you probably have. "I've been here three times already," we heard one tourist say in the gift shop. "There's so much to see!"
An exhibit of the shoes and pants of a former World's Tallest Man is given equal weight to one of the old bottles dug out of a Santa Fe dump. Up near one of the ceilings is a display of clothes irons and a Ross sideshow banner promoting a two-headed baby. Which is more worthy of your memory space? In Tinkertown, everything is.
Helpful bill changing machines encourage visitors to feed quarters into old arcade contraptions and Ross's animated dioramas. His miniature Wild West town stretches over 60 feet long; his Boot Hill features God and the Devil battling for souls over a cemetery serenaded by a skeleton mariachi band, featuring a "holy cow" with a halo, and a likeness of Ross Ward himself in a coffin, about to be buried.
Full-size Ross died in 2002, but Tinkertown continues under the stewardship of his wife, Carla, preserved as if Ross had just stepped away to salvage more old gas station signs or to paint a circus wagon.
"He just always wanted to express himself," Carla told us. "He really did what he wanted to do." Those are sentiments that the Route 66ers can appreciate, too.