REGENT, N.D. - The first glimpse of gigantic metallic creatures looming on the horizon brings to mind a scene from a 1950s science-fiction film.
Take a closer look and you will see that they are a heartfelt - and artistic - testament to life on the Northern Plains, drawing visitors from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
They are a series of seven colossal metal sculptures along what is known as the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile ribbon of two-lane road that disappears into the endless North Dakota prairie. They are the creations of Gary Greff, a former teacher and native of Regent, a town of about 200 at the southern entrance to the Enchanted Highway.
"I saw a town dying and farmers quitting. I asked myself, 'What can I do to keep this town alive?'" Greff said of Regent, which is in the southwestern part of the state and about 50 miles from the South Dakota state line.
Using junkyard scrap materials that are familiar to the people of the prairie, such as old oil tanks, well pipe and wire, Greff, with the help of community residents and students, set about creating realistic scenes that are, for better or for worse, part of life on the prairie. There are pheasants that are 70 feet wide, grasshoppers that stand 40 feet high.
"Geese in Flight" is a massive, intricate creation that is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest scrap metal sculpture. A crane operator had to verify its weight - 78.8 tons. The metal flock of geese against a sunburst background can be seen from miles away while traveling Interstate 94, and from the north end of the Enchanted Highway as you approach I-94.
"The Tin Family" is a whimsical collection of huge doll-like figures - a prairie father, mother and child -the tallest of which is 45 feet. A tribute to Teddy Roosevelt atop a bucking horse stands at 51 feet and weighs more than 9,000 pounds. "Deer Crossing" uses a technique known as shadowing and depicts a 75-foot-high buck jumping over a fence. "Fisherman's Dream" is a colorful, vibrant depiction of another North Dakota pastime and includes a leaping 70-foot bass.
It takes Greff, who has never had any training in art, about three to four years to complete each sculpture. The first, "The Tin Family," was begun in 1991. And he's not finished. There are others in the planning stages, including a spider web.
It was "Geese in Flight" that earned the Enchanted Highway an official sign on Interstate 94, something that Greff had unsuccessfully been seeking from the state. According to Greff, that finally happened after Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., mentioned the possibility of signs during the 2002 dedication of the sculpture. Newman Signs in Jamestown donated a billboard just outside nearby Dickinson, and the road between Regent and Interstate 94 is designated as the "Enchanted Highway" on the official North Dakota highway map.
People who come from all over to view the sculptures along the road can often find Greff working behind the counter at his Enchanted Highway gift shop - or repairing one of his creations.
Last November, on a sunny but very cold afternoon, Greff was attempting to restore "Deer Crossing," which had been toppled by an 80-mph wind shear.
"I put different cables on and double-reinforced everything," he said. "It was a reminder that Mother Nature is still in charge."
Greff depends on tax-deductible donations to build the sculptures. Maintenance costs are becoming an issue, so he wants to launch a partnership program where businesses might donate funds to help paint and strengthen the displays in exchange for a sign at each site acknowledging the contribution.
He also hopes to develop an RV park so that people will spend some time in the area, which is a few hours from the Medora resort area and the North Dakota Badlands. He also wants bikers from the Sturgis rally to consider a ride to the Enchanted Highway.
Greff knows that it takes money and time to develop those dreams.
"This is my life, and it's the rest of my life," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that when I am six feet under, I will have it set up where it will carry on. You just have to be positive."
On the Net: http://www.enchantedhighway.net/