'The Enchanted Highway' Is a Folk-Art Odyssey Through the Heartland
One man's 30-year quest to save a small town through funky roadside art.
“Nobody’s going to drive 30 miles for normal,” Gary Greff says from behind the medieval bar inside his Enchanted Castle. Light from the gothic chandeliers and video poker machines illuminates the bar’s long monastery tables. It looks a little like someone dropped a gas-station casino onto the set of Game of Thrones.
But this isn't Westeros. It's rural North Dakota.
Greff’s “castle” — once a high school, now a Camelot-themed hotel — is the end of the road on the Enchanted Highway, a 34-mile stretch of titanic metal sculptures running from the middle of nowhere off I-94 to downtown Regent, a tiny town of about 130.
A trip down the highway is a journey into a storybook world of bright-green rolling hills, pale blue skies, and 45-foot grasshoppers. The mesmerizing North Dakota scenery is frequently interrupted by something surreal: A family of gigantic metal farmers here, a small flock of dinosaur-sized pheasants there. At the end of the road, travelers are greeted by a 50-foot knight fighting a dragon in the parking lot outside the castle.
If the Enchanted Highway were anywhere near a major city, it would be infested with visitors. But this is North Dakota. As such, you're likely to have it all to yourself. But the Enchanted Highway wasn't designed as an isolationist attraction; it was meant to save a dying town… one whose townsfolk don't always see eye to eye with its creator.
Regent isn’t exactly a place you’d call “welcoming.” You might spot a car or two on the three-block main street. The rest is dust, wind, and a general store.
“I saw this town was dying, and I thought ‘God dang, these small towns are going to be a thing of the past if somebody doesn’t do something,’” Greff says of his return home in the '90s after a career as a high-school administrator in Montana.
Realizing many Midwesterners — particularly farmers — are exquisite welders, Greff imagined a highway drawing in tourists, and tourist dollars, with eye-popping metal sculptures dedicated to North Dakota’s rural heritage.
Problem was, Greff was neither a welder nor an artist. So he reached out to his neighbors. “I called up some farmers and said, ‘Can you help?’” he says. “I basically had help from people in the town every Sunday night, and I eventually learned to become a welder.”
The result was the Tin Family, erected two miles north of Regent in '91. It’s a cartoonish collection of coffee cans, wheels, oil barrels, and scrap metal crafted to look like a classic North Dakota farm family. Many more would follow.
Unlike billboard-crazed South Dakota, North Dakota isn’t big on advertising its roadside attractions. Driving west on I-94 from Bismarck, you’ll see only one sign luring you onto the Enchanted Highway: a metal roadside sculpture beckoning drivers to see Geese in Flight off Exit 72.
“They won’t let me put up any billboards,” Greff says.
Geese in Flight is hard to miss, though, perched on a hilltop just north of the interstate. At 110 feet tall and 150 feet wide, it was the world's tallest scrap-metal sculpture when it was completed in 2002.
A few miles south you’ll spot a pair of five-story deer hopping a fence: they're crafted from used oil tanks, with special shading cut into the metal to highlight the animals’ flexing muscles. Further down is Grasshoppers in the Field, which stirred up controversy, according to the phone-in audio, since farmers really hate locusts.
If the Enchanted Highway has a social media star, it’s the Fisherman’s Dream, a scrap-metal ode to lake fishing. Walleye, trout, and a sunken boat sit "underwater" at ground level, while a 70-foot rainbow trout breaks through the "lake’s" surface high above, much to the delight of a surprised angler.
Pheasants in the Field is next, easily the loudest sculptures on the route as the Dakota winds rip through the gravel screening that makes up their bodies. Teddy Rides Again, a 51-foot outline of Teddy Roosevelt, follows, with a stagecoach parked in front. From there it’s on to the Tin Family, then finally into downtown Regent and the interactive Wirly Gigs, where prairie home scenes come to life with the push of a button.
Each sculpture is five to 15 minutes apart. It never really makes sense for a traveler to turn around: You simply have to see where this mystery ends.
Greff’s mission was to get people driving through to resuscitate Regent's economy. Unfortunately, the 8,000 or so people who visited last year dropped a grand total of about $15,000 at his downtown gift shop.
He hopes to turn things around with the Enchanted Castle, a 19-room themed hotel and conference center complete with a high-end steakhouse. Its parking lot is home to the highway’s latest addition, a still-unfinished 50-foot knight fighting an equally intimidating dragon. Greff envisions an immersive sculpture park where travelers pay $5 a head to see his brand of surreal, oversized folk art.
Just don’t expect the Enchanted Castle to be Excalibur on the Prairie. The night I was there, only three of the hotel’s 19 themed guest rooms were booked. The steakhouse only operates on weekends, as the cost of hiring a server would outweigh any potential weekday business. Even on the weekend, Greff says, business is slow.
The Enchanted Castle isn’t on Airbnb, Booking.com, or most other hotel-booking sites. Greff says he simply doesn't have time to run them. And though many locals have helped build the Enchanted Highway, he hasn't found much support in promoting it.
“I’ll be honest: the town’s (reaction) is negative,” he says, pouring a vodka-cranberry. “There’s a little clique that runs this region, and if you step on that clique’s toes, somebody’s going to tell you, ‘You can’t do that.’ I’m 32 years in and I’ve brought people here, and by now I thought the town would get on board but… that’s ok.”
Greff is now 72 years old, with no obvious successor to his work. He’s been offered commissions to build sculptures as far away as Germany, but as he’s the only one holding down the whole Enchanted fort, the cost of being away has been too high.
For now, Greff toils away inside the Enchanted Castle, pouring drinks and making breakfast for his guests and welding when he has time. He still takes pride in creating what may be America’s most spectacular drive for art-as-scenery, though, even if it hasn’t yet saved his town.
“Everyone can claim one sculpture here or there,” he says, “but nobody else can claim a whole highway. I just wanna figure out how to keep it going.”