Travel

'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.

Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier

“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.

Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier

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.

Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier

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.

Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier

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.”

Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier
Photo by Laura Grier

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.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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