Smiles for Miles
The story behind TOYNOTA the art truck
Story By Gina Cole; Photos by Frank Varga; Videos by Brittny Goodsell
Although Ranger Kidwell-Ross' living room ceiling is painted to look like the sky, sometimes he opts for the real thing, sleeping in a loft he built behind his house and waking up to the birds. The structure is guarded by stuffed animals, sculpted creatures and funky characters Kidwell-Ross had found or designed.
In his 22 years on the tucked-away Alger property now known as "Rangerville," Kidwell-Ross has found new ways to bring fun to the forest. In 2009, he decided to take that fun on the road.
Dubbed "TOYNOTA," Kidwell-Ross' creation is a Toyota pickup covered in almost 700 toys, candy dispensers and musical items, including CDs, noisemakers, tambourines and a glittery saxophone. Anyone with the inclination is allowed to touch the toys and make some noise.
Kidwell-Ross created TOYNOTA as a way to bring joy to a world affected by economic recession.
"I thought, 'I have a job. I have a house. Life is good. What can I do to cheer people up?'" he said.
Then, he thought back to something a Buddhist monk told him when he visited Thailand: that we can only affect the person who happens to be sitting next to us.
So Kidwell-Ross decided to make his neighbors smile, whether it's during a Fourth of July parade, the Skagit County Fair, or an errand to Home Depot.
"I try to incite smiles from people," he said. "That's the whole idea, I guess."
The truck attracts plenty of attention from people of all ages. One of the best things about driving it, he says, is when three generations of family members check it out, each recognizing different toys and characters, which gets them telling stories about their childhoods.
His favorite thing, though, is a particular smile TOYNOTA elicits. Children see the truck and dash up to it, with their parents telling them to look but not to touch – and then Kidwell-Ross tells them that as long as their parents are OK with it, they can.
"They'll turn around and have this beautiful smile on their face," he said.
Kidwell-Ross does have one warning for children taking in the magic of TOYNOTA. When they reach for the suds spewing from bubbling aquarium tubes on each side of the truck, he says, "Be careful or you'll get clean!"
That always gets a giggle.
Neighbors find Kidwell-Ross eccentric, which is nothing new for him. When he finished his master's degree in economics, a particularly straight-laced professor could only describe him in a recommendation as "unfailingly cheerful."
When the economy has fully recovered, Kidwell-Ross said, he plans to continue driving TOYNOTA because there is always more cheer to be spread.
"It's uplifting, and I think you could do worse than that," he said.
No toy has ever been stolen from the truck. In fact, people often leave toys on it, although at this point Kidwell-Ross is not sure where he would put them.
Even so, he appreciates the sentiment. Everyone can do something to improve the world, he said.
"Make it a happy place," he said. "Why not? We're only here for a few minutes."For a look at Toynota and to learn more, take a look at the article's accompanying video of the vehicle.
For a look around "Rangerville," take a look at the article's accompanying video of the property.