July 13, 2013
“If you build it, they will come . . .”
From Theodore Roosevelt National Park we headed toward the Black Hills of South Dakota. On our way out of North Dakota, we followed the “The Enchanted Highway”. I had read in tourist brochures and online intrigued me.
Roads across America are punctuated with oversized representations of humble objects, usually in the service of advertising a restaurant or other attractions. They include giant hamburgers, hotdogs, a picnic basket (Newark, OH), a ketchup bottle (Collinsville, IL), seafood (all along the East Coast!) We enjoy discovering these amusing oddities as we travel. Are they uniquely American?
The Enchanted Highway takes this concept a creative step farther, offering a series of enormous (world’s largest) scrap-metal sculptures to be admired for their own sake. They depict iconic symbols of North Dakota life: geese, deer, grasshoppers and wheat, fishing, ring-necked pheasants, Teddy Roosevelt, a farm family. There appear along a 32 mile stretch of 2-lane road through farmland leading from an exit on Interstate 94 to the small rural town of Regent.
Teacher and artist, Gary Greff, dreamt up this imaginative way to help his economically languishing hometown of Regent. The roadside gallery would hopefully provide tourists with a reason to get off the freeway and drive into the small community. He began building in 1989 and has plans to continue to add to this metallic menagerie. Somehow he garnered the support and funds to manifest his vision. I pondered all the work of planning, fundraising, designing, organizing and building that it must have taken. And the continued maintenance it must require. Building structures that can survive a North Dakota winter is no small accomplishment. I admire this as an out-of-the-box approach to economic recovery and this novel way Gary contributed to your local community.
Traveling east on 94 toward Bismarck, the first sculpture came into view, almost soaring along side the freeway. It depicts geese flying under the sun and over green hills. Just after exiting the freeway, a small driveway lined with more geese on wing guided us to the large display.
Only a few other people were also stopping to view the sculptures. Some got out of their cars to admire and inspect them while others stayed in their vehicles, engaging in drive-by photo shooting. At each stop a small sign would explain how far the next sculpture was. There were also picnic tables and donation boxes (we lunched with the pheasants).
When we reached Regent, the town appeared very quiet, streets deserted. It was hot and the sun bleached out the color and details. The young woman working at the small gift shop, was entertaining herself by filling up water balloons and throwing them out on the empty sidewalk. I asked her if the Enchanted Highway had helped revive Regent, (since the answer wasn’t obvious to me). “Oh, yes,” she said, “that and the oil boom.” When the idea for the Enchanted Highway was first conceived in the 80’s, I doubt that anyone had a clue that an oil boom would arrive to this area, that the Bakken Formation oil reserve underneath the farms would someday be tapped.