Our photo excursion had a promising name – “Golden Hour on the Enchanted Highway“. I grabbed my camera and plopped on a full seat of the minivan, joining two other travel bloggers.
Niki, a student and an author of the blog Chasing Departures whose loves to go an extra mile for the sake of an unusual angle for her travel photography.
My other co-traveler was Amy Piper, a woman with some crazy travel stories, of Following the Piper. Amy was once chased by bomb-sniffing dogs in the middle of the night in Bogotá. Another time, Federal Marshalls announced her seat number on a plane looking for a murder suspect.
Down Interstate 94 We Go
Soon we found ourselves on the highway heading toward The Enchanted Highway – a 32 mile stretch of road that features some of the world’s most massive scrap metal sculptures, 100 miles away from Bismark, ND. Doesn’t sound as poetic now, does it? It is a story of hope, so do stick with our minivan as we get off the beaten highway path onto the country road.
To get onto the Enchanted Highway, you have to get off the I-94’s exit 72 and take what looks like a county road. Gary Greff, Reagent ND native, is the artist responsible for this outdoor expose. As you can imagine, there is a story behind this passion project which you will explore with me as we go from one sculpture to the next.
Forty minutes after joining the group, the minivan jumped onto the ramp toward something giant. We joined a few other cars on a hill hovering over the highway. In the center of it set a large composition. A flock of Geese united in flight in front of the enormous eye of the sun.
“Geese in Flight” of the Guinness World Book of Records
“Geese in Flight” made the Guinness World Book of Records as the Largest Scrap Metal Sculpture in the entire world! The composition came to life in June of 2001, and it is all recycled scrap – flattened oil well tanks, pipes, and scrap metal. It weighs over 75 tons, and it is also the most expensive at $50,000 (mostly because of the construction crane). The sunray is 156 feet long and 110 feet tall. The largest goose in the metal pack has a 30-foot wingspan and is 19 feet long.
In 2017 however, “Geese in Flight” gained publicity for a whole different reason. Gary Greff, the author of this creation, leases the land sculptures stand on. However, new landowners wouldn’t honor the lease agreement and closed the road preventing travelers from the first stop of the Enchanted Highway. The sculpture author Gary Greff sued and won. The sculpture once again became accessible for travelers.
As we started our crawl back on the gravel road to the highway, I also noticed miniature metal geese on steel poles on both sides of the road – what a detail! Was it leading us to the next stop, Enchanted Highway stop?
75-Feet Tall Deer Crossing
The second stop could be seen from far away, but we had to get close to see Deer Crossing. A buck is gracefully jumping over the fence while the doe is hesitantly standing back. This structure was completed in 2001 and raised in 2002. The deer is 75-feet high and 60-feet long. The doe is smaller, 50 by 50 feet. The composition oil well tanks cut apart and welded to form the shadow-like design. Gary had to re-weld the buck’s leg onsite as the narrow Reageant streets made it impossible to move the composition through.
Fields on the left and right, and we are off to the next Enchanted Highway stop. This place is quiet. We come across cows from time to time and a few houses here and there, but it almost feels surreal to someone who is used to being surrounded by city bustle.
Gary Gref is a well-known person around here for doing something many would walk away from. My search for his name came back with over 10,000 results. He grew up in Regent, ND, and enjoyed the great outdoors North Dakota so known for. He became an educator and left his hometown but visited his family often. On one of such visits, he noticed the obvious – the town went from a town of 500 to a town of a hundred. It is only a matter of time before it will disappear completely.
Enormous Grasshoppers in the Field
Grasshoppers in the Field was the 4th composition of the projected, and it came to life in the summer of 1999. Five grasshoppers, made of old fuel oil and oil well tanks cut into pieces and welded back together, faced us as we pulled off the road onto the parking stop. The most enormous grasshopper is 40-feet tall and 50-feet long, and it is followed by four smaller grasshoppers and three smaller ones.
Grasshoppers challenged the farmers, ruined crops, and forced them to look for alternative crop solutions. This composition is a tribute to not giving up regardless of how big the obstacle is.
While many hoped that a major corporation would come and save the town, Greff knew better – why would a big company come to a city with no railroad and infrastructure and a population of a hundred? He came up with a plan. A 30-mile corridor of roadway connects Regent to Interstate 94. Travelers needed a reason to get off the highway! And that is how the idea of roadside attractions was born.
Landing a 70-foot-long Trout
Fisherman’s Dream came to life in 2006, and it is the most recent sculpture. This one is a three dimensional you can walk through, but I promise that you might feel tiny surrounded by giant fish. Seven fish play here under the water surface. You might recognize smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish, northern, salmon, and bluegill, which measures 30 feet long. A fisherman in a boat is trying to land a 70-foot-long rainbow trout. Dream on fisherman!
Gary Gref’s idea was a huge one, and it also required the same size commitment. He had to leave his profession and commit to the project full-time. His thinking was actually simple, “Nobody’s going to drive 30 miles off the interstate for normal sculptures, but they might drive for the world’s largest.”
Catch those Pheasants on the Prairie
Pheasants on the Prairie took three years to complete and was installed here in 1996. The rooster stands 40 feet high and 70 feet long. The hen is 35 feet tall, and chicks are 15 feet tall. Greff had to cut a pheasant in half as it was too wide to come out of the workshop. These three-dimensional pheasants are made of wire mesh, and I couldn’t help but admire the art form of these giants.
It is also realistic enough to confuse hunting dogs from time to time. The whole composition is a tribute to an event that brings hunters to the area and benefits the town.
Gary Gref learned to weld, found local support for his projects and recruited volunteers. He also designed giant whimsical sculptures that will fit into the landscape of North Dakota. And little by little, the Enchanted Highway was born.
Teddy Rides Again
Teddy Rides Again was the second sculpture that came to life here in 1993, and it is an undisputable tribute to North Dakota history. Theodor Roosevelt first came to North Dakota to hunt and loved the area so much, he bought a cabin here. However, on his second visit, he came back a broken man, who in a short time, lost both his mother and his wife. Living in Elkhorn Park made him face different kinds of challenges. The 26th U.S. President declared that North Dakota and Badlands helped him in more ways than one. He didn’t believe he would have become a President if not for the years he spent here as a cattleman.
Teddy and his favorite horse “Mulley” are made out of old pipes and stand 51 feet tall, weighing over 9000 pounds – 3112 feet above sea level. In front of Teddy stands a wooden stagecoach making it an exciting photo opp.
Greff built maquettes for each sculpture but could only weld during the wet winter months to avoid the possibility of brush fires. He also handled the maintenance of the statues and the grass around it. He lived in a trailer, although he had a large metal building for use as a studio.
The Giant Tin Family
The last stop on the Enchanted Highways is actually the oldest sculpture – Tin Family. Tin Pa stands 45 feet tall and is held by 16 telephone poles – itis built of used farm equipment in 1991. Tin Ma is 44 feet tall, while the son is 23 feet tall. It took some engineering to figure out what size sculpture could be supported against the prairie wind and storms.
Like all other sculptures, this one uses local products – barbed wire for the mother’s hair, grain augers for earrings. Furthermore, look a the tin son as he enjoys his lollipop made out of the bottom of a 500-gallon farm fuel tank.
Did Gary Greff’s project solve all of Regent’s problems? Not even remotely! In 2010, regent elementary school closed due to declining enrollment. In his Closed Schools photo exposé, Richard Colburn writes, “When closed, a school, once a dependable community institution, becomes a powerful descriptor of a community’s prospects.”
Enchanted Castle at the End of the Enchanted Highway
Do you remember the school closed in 2010? Gary transformed it into an enchanted theme hotel. Enchanted Castle, a medieval-style hotel with 19 guestrooms, a medieval tavern, and steakhouse opened up in Regent, North Dakota.
Did Gary complete his Enchanted Highway? Hopefully, not. However, each new construction relies on the artist’s vision and individual donations of material and money. A knight and dragon is a sculpture destined to stand in front of the Castle in the Regent, ND. This project is practically entirely self-funded but is yet to be completed.
There is also A Giant Spider web crawling with metal arachnids, but it is on hold. Other plans include a huge buffalo, or bison; an American Indian on a horse spearing a buffalo; a farm scene over a wheat field and sunset, all in 3-D. The one he is working on now will be the “world’s largest motorcycle,” measuring 102-feet tall and 40-feet wide, all made to scale.
Gary’s big Dream includes a water park, restaurant, and amphitheater. Not only he successfully encourages travelers to get off the highway and take the Enchanted Highways, but he is also bringing them to Regent, ND. The traffic on the Enchanted Highway is up and his hometown is growing.
Do something different next time you travel! If you mainly travel abroad, take a local road trip. Get off the beaten path and explore the gems waiting to be discovered.