North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway is 32 miles of soaring, metal art sculpture that qualify as some of the largest in the world. They are as unusual as they are enjoyable, qualifying unequivocally as must-see Americana Road Art. But the highway isn’t about the objects at all. North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway is about a MAN and his singular vision.
Small town characters/sometime heroes are sometimes an odd lot. My husband and I swap stories about the characters from our respective small towns – his in West Virginia, mine in SE Oklahoma. Those characters, as we call them, were a bit different, marched to the beat of a not-so-audible drum, hardworking, kind, and talkative. In a small town these individuals are part of the community’s colorful tapestry. They are a clean stamped part of the puzzle, fitting in while not being forced to lose their identity. And while this is commendable of small towns, they are at the same time frequently guilty of speaking from both sides of their mouth. On the intake they can welcome uniqueness with invitations to “come here” while on the exhale uttering whispers of displeasure and not-so-silent “get aways.”
Gary Greff is a small town character. I only hesitate to say “hero” as I feel I don’t know enough of the story. However if you judge such things based not on the outcome but intent and the effort expended, then Gary qualifies. Near 60, Gary hails from a small town to which he was never able to break the tether (Regent, ND), lives below the poverty line but is tenaciously steeped in hope for his own life and for the survival of his hometown, and has spent the past 20 years fighting for a vision of betterment for his community. His young life in Regent was re-directed by tragedy. At 16, driving a motorbike with his 15 year old brother on back, Gary hit a curb in town. His brother died at the scene. People’s lives are shaped by such.
After teaching school in various communities, at age 40 Gary moved back to Regent led by a vision to do something to curtail the demise of his hometown. He’d never pursued art of any kind. He couldn’t weld. And yet the sculpture below made it into The Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Metal Art Sculpture. It’s 110 feet tall, 154 feet long and weighs 79 tons. And photographs like any beautiful piece of art.
Gary Greff between 1989 and 2006 did all of this. And he did it amid harsh criticism, ridicule, accusations of insanity, the scorn of fellow townsfolk, one rebuff after another, and over time a severely curtailed financial and volunteer donor list. His brother Brad said, “people walked across the street to avoid him”. He did, what no other townsperson in Regent, ND has been able to do – he drew people to the area. And continues to.
Gary’s art didn’t save Regent in the way he’d envisioned. The High School closed. The town appeared to me to be a rural American small town clutching survival when I saw it in March 2009. Gary’s dream for an Enchanted Highway Theme Park and droves of tourists dropping their money in Regent hasn’t materialized. But his vision, hard work and undying commitment left a commendable and very memorable mark. Gary Greff is the best kind of dreamer – he takes action.
To see the Enchanted Highway and Gary Greff’s art, take Exit 72 (about 20 miles east of Dickinson, ND) off of I-94. The Highway runs due south from there and ends in Regent. There is no charge so if you see a contribution box, leave some currency behind.
“No one, I discover, begins to know the real geographic, democratic, indissoluble American Union in the present, or suspect it in the future, until he explores these Central States, and dwells awhile on their prairies or amid their busy towns.” – Walt Whitman
Heartland Chronicles is a series of radio documentaries set in and around Middle America, exploring the region’s people and communities. A concentrated focus on this region allows us to draw what author William Least Heat Moon refers to as a “deep map” – a careful, long-term exploration of place that reveals the truth of everyday life today. Here’s the 2005 interview with Gary Greff (the MP3 choice seems to work best).