Once you drive west beyond Bismarck, the state capital, you are struck by several things. One is the vastness of the sky and that the grasslands roll to the horizon, a simple beauty apart from nature’s flashier images of grandeur. Here, the plains echo eternity, helping explain the religious devotion that still flourishes in these parts.
The other is the absence of human life, beyond the evidence it has been here at some point, in the form of roads and signs and, very occasionally, the small towns you drive through. Many of those towns are already ghost towns, or teetering on the edge. It starts to feel like a ghost state.
Which is the fear of North Dakotans, that this state and its rural heritage will disappear entirely into the Buffalo Commons, swallowed up by its fast-growing metropolises, especially Fargo on the eastern edge of the state, which has seen its population grow by nearly twenty percent in the last decade alone.
Even with modern-day boomtowns like Fargo, North Dakota is a sparsely populated state. With a surface area of 70,700 square miles, it’s bigger in land mass than Illinois with its 57,915 square miles, but for every square mile of the “Roughrider State,” you’ll encounter fewer than ten people. With almost 230 people per square mile in Illinois, you might be able to imagine the difference.
North Dakotans cling to their tradition so fiercely because of the price they’ve paid to live, they and especially their ancestors.
My great-grandfather Kristian “Chris” Dragland left his parents’ homestead in McVille, in the eastern part of the state, when his father Lars, who’d brought the family over from Norway, was found dead in his barn, around the time of the Panic of 1907 and the lengthy economic contraction that came with it. Chris headed west, to New England, North Dakota where he was granted a homestead farm by the U.S. government and eventually married. My grandmother and many of her twelve siblings were born there and, for almost thirty years, they endured the isolation and the brutal North Dakota winters as they made a life as farmers, until the Dust Bowl swept away all chances to make a living and my great-grandfather borrowed against his farm in order to keep going, only to lose the farm to the banks when the drought overstayed. They headed back to McVille. Years later, my parents met in Fargo.
Though I’ve visited the Fargo region nearly every year of my life, I’d never been to western North Dakota until this summer, when we visited the Badlands.
Americans love an impossible dream, and nowhere is tilting at windmills more disadvantageous than in western North Dakota, unless, of course, you mean it literally, given the prevalence of wind farms in the region.
Teddy Roosevelt famously burnished his cowboy credentials there in his mid-twenties when the wealthy New Yorker’s political aspirations suffered a setback and his wife and mother died the same day. Heartbroken, he moved to a ranch he’d bought in the Badlands and put himself back together. He later claimed, “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” The love is mutual: a national park there now bears his name, the only national park named after a person.
The North Dakota Badlands rise up in Western North Dakota, forming a grandiose border between the Great Plains to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. With buttes—small mountains with flattop haircuts—punctuating great vistas filled with wild buffalo, horses and prairie dogs, the park, with its remote location, offers perhaps one of the most unpopulated experiences still available in an overrun National Park System. A three-hour moderate hike up and down the buttes exposes the visitor to countless breathtaking panoramas and a range of ecosystems that includes dense forests and near-desert-like conditions; we even spotted cactuses underfoot. Less-ambitious visitors drive a long car trail through the park that still rewards them with ample wildlife encounters.
The most popular entrance to the park is in the town of Medora, which has thrived for much of the last century as a more authentic take on Frontierland than the one found in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. With its permanent population of 112, Medora is a preserved cowboy town, complete with saloons, cookouts, museums and, of course, shopping. Its economic engine is the “Medora Musical,” an All-American, family-friendly revue with high production values that brings in more than 100,000 visitors a year. The town’s unabashed cornpone character will be given an urbane nudge in a few years, when the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, designed by the cutting-edge Norse architects Snøhetta, opens its doors.
In the last fifteen years, North Dakota has enjoyed a boom of another flavor, as its northwestern region around the city of Williston led the state into its status as the number-two oil producer in the U.S., after Texas. It was a transformative rush, with men swarming in to fill the high-paying jobs created to keep the oil pumping and a pervasive sense of a flimflam hustle gripping the region. Hotels were built to house workers throughout the region, including, at its southern edge, in Dickinson, which is also the closest large city near Medora. We stayed at a La Quinta Inn there just off the interstate. Signs on the door and the registration desk warned us to take off our muddy boots before we entered.
Though the oil boom has receded with lower prices of the commodity and a collapse in demand during the pandemic, the town of Medora is a perpetual boomtown, thanks to its status as a tourist destination. It owes its unlikely success largely to the obsessive vision of Harold Schafer, a successful North Dakota businessman who created Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach and Mr. Bubble and, when he sold the company, put his money behind the Medora Musical and the preservation of Western culture in the town.
Less than 50 miles east of Medora, a two-lane highway intersecting with the interstate is marked by a large sculpture, “Geese in Flight.” At 110 feet tall, 154 feet wide and nearly eighty tons, it’s in the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest scrap-metal sculpture. It also serves as the gateway to the Enchanted Highway, a series of seven roadside sculptural installations running from Interstate 94 to the town of Regent, thirty-two miles away.
To understand the madness of the Enchanted Highway you have to acknowledge the complete improbability of Medora, a town of about the same population operating with a foundation counting more than $65 million in assets.
The Enchanted Highway was started thirty-two years ago by Gary Greff, a native of Regent, North Dakota, a town of about one hundred, who saw it as his quest to save his hometown from the ghosts. If not for Greff, Regent’s only claim to fame would be that North Dakota’s retired senator Byron Dorgan grew up there. “My grandfather came over here from Germany,” Greff says. “Got through Ellis Island. He rode the train out here, then they were on the wagon train too. He set up a farm with whatever they got for homesteading—260 acres. And then he basically raised his family. There were twenty-one kids in that family. And he survived the Dust Bowl; he did what he had to do to survive. He made moonshine, and sold it to the local guys. My brother now farms the homestead farm.” Given this, how could Greff not do everything he could to save the town?
We arrived in Regent on a Sunday morning, directly from a short visit to my ancestral hometown of nearby New England, where we walked mostly empty streets and took a few photos before hitting the road. In general, Main Street is not where North Dakota farmers spend their Sabbath, and we expected to find the same in Regent. We pulled up to the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop expecting it to be closed, but were surprised when it was not only open, but that its lone staff member was the founder of the whole enterprise, Gary Greff.
We tend to mythologize the lives of our impossible dreamers, in the same way we fantasize about life on the farm. Whether it’s the idea of the gentleman farmer or the pop-culture silliness of shows like “Green Acres,” us urbanites glorify a lifestyle that is, in reality, grinding hard work, from sunrise to sunset, at low wages that might even disappear entirely thanks to the vagaries of weather or markets.
At seventy-two, Greff has been grinding away at his dream for thirty-two years, and it’s not getting easier. He grew up in Regent as the oldest of eight children, but did not want to farm. “My folks farmed,” he says. “I didn’t wanna farm, so I went into education. I got my degree in elementary and junior high; taught for eleven years as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, seventh and eighth grade. Then I went back, got my masters. Then I was a principal for eight years as junior-high principal.”
At the age of forty, Greff was ready for a change. Back home between jobs, he saw that his hometown, which had once had a population as high as 405, was dying. “I thought, how do I bring people to help keep this small town alive?” he says. “And this is the idea I came up with. I never laid a bead of weld in my life, never had an art class. Just said, well, how do I keep Regent alive? And I didn’t know what to do. We had the paved road from the interstate to here, and I thought, now, how do I bring people from the interstate to here? And I didn’t know what to do. And a local farmer, out of town, welded a small man holding a bale, out by the mail. Then it dawned on me; that’s what the ranchers and farmers of the Midwest are good at. They had to know how to weld to survive. So, let’s use what they were good at to our advantage. But I thought, no one’s going to drive thirty miles for normal sculptures, but they might drive for the worlds’ largest.”
He started with the “Tin Family,” three miles north of town. It wasn’t easy. “I’m not married and so forth,” he says, “but I told people I lived on $1,500 a year. And they said, ‘How could you live on $1,500 a year?’ Well, the way it works out is, when I came home, my dad owned a trailer park. There was a trailer there that he said, ‘you can live in that and don’t pay no rent or anything.’ So, I lived in the trailer when I first started. And then basically, my folks would give me one meal a day, and they’d provide me milk and bread for the week. And my brothers who farmed would butcher once a year, and they’d put meat in my freezer, and I went on fuel assistance. A few times I had to get some food stamps. I’m not proud of it, but I had to do what I did. I just built the Enchanted Highway. I lived on nothing. I didn’t entertain a lot; I didn’t go out a lot, but family was around, so we got together to play cards, and we did things. I can’t say I regret it, because I was around family.”
Three decades and seven installations later, Greff’s enthusiasm for his project is unwavering. He’s a consummate salesman, a one-man tourism bureau for his tiny town. A few years back, he realized that even if he could lure folks down the road—according to his counter, about 6,000 cars drive the Enchanted Highway into Regent each year—to save the town they would need something to keep visitors around to spend some money. So he decided it needed a hotel, and when the local school was merging with another town’s facility nearby, he took the building over and converted it into the nineteen-room Enchanted Castle Hotel along with a steakhouse and a tavern. Unfortunately, with the oil boom waning and at a size too small for bus tours going into Medora and too small for a local college’s dinner theater, it’s a long way from viable. But Greff is using its grounds for his next sculpture, “The Knight and Dragon,” and he’s got big ideas for more. “Behind it, we own twenty acres of land,” he says. “So, I thought I’ll maybe build some sculptures back there. Some major sculptures. Then, you can’t see ‘em from the road; you can’t see ‘em because the hotel’s in front of it. So then do something with metal art, and sort of do a theme park, so maybe I can charge people to go in to see it. Then maybe they’ll stay at the hotel. So, maybe I can raise some funds that way; become a destination.”
Greff works like a farmer. He described his typical week to me as working at the gift shop on weekends, 9am-5pm, then going over to the steakhouse/tavern and serving customers from 5pm until 11pm. On weekdays, he’s got someone to cover the gift shop for him, so he goes to the hotel and serves breakfast at 6am, then goes to church at 7:30am before he starts welding on his latest sculpture, which he does from 9am till 5pm, when he goes back to the hotel and serves customers until 11pm. Every day.
The sad truth is that, in spite of its scale and success at attracting visitors and attention, the Enchanted Highway remains a solitary endeavor. Greff has set up a foundation, but it’s basically just his family. His meager revenues come mostly from the gift shop, which he says brings in $10,000 a year, and the hotel has gaming—North Dakota legalized gambling in 1992—that brings in $20,000 a year. All in all, the whole operation costs seventy-to-eighty thousand dollars a year, Greff says, and that’s without him getting paid anything. Costs include the creation of the mammoth sculptures, yes, but also the acquisition of the land they sit on, either through lease or purchase, and then the maintenance of the existing sites: mowing the grass, repainting and repairing sculptures.
At this stage of his life, Greff is thinking a lot about his project’s future. Will it survive him? The town that he devoted his life to saving, which he has saved for all intents and purposes, has never supported him. Anyone who’s read Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” will understand. It’s not that anyone had a better idea, it’s just that who was he to decide how to save it? After all, he’d moved away for almost two decades, making him something of a carpetbagger. And it’s not like he went to the town council with a Powerpoint proposal or anything. He just did it. Stil, this slight is more emotionally hurtful than a lost economic opportunity. His town could not afford to support this project now even if it wanted to. And it has, inevitably, leaned into it a bit. The closed storefronts on Main Street are now “museums” and the town pays for inexpensive flyers promoting the Enchanted Highway along with other businesses.
I ask Greff to consider the whole of his accomplishment. Looking back, does he have regrets? “I mean, I’m happy I did it,” he says. “I guess I expected more support. I’m a one-man show. And you know, you can only do so much as a one-man show. And I thought the city would come on board more; well, they haven’t. I thought the state would come; they haven’t. I thought maybe there was a philanthropist out there that would see that I was doing this, but that hasn’t happened. So, I’m sort of a one-man show. Now I’ve reached the point of, after thirty-two years of welding, giving my life to it, I hate to see it die when I die. So I’m sort of at a crossroads in my life. I want to see something happen. I gotta make something happen. I mean, if it means I’m gonna have to go to the state, and if it means I’m gonna go to the legislature and you hear of a guy that welded himself to the capitol front door, you’ll know who it is. Because if I gotta get publicity, I’m gonna get something, somewhere, somehow, because I’ve stuck too much into it, and people enjoy it. People come down and they say, ‘This is worth it! This is gol’ dang it.'”
We left Greff and drove his Enchanted Highway, stopping at each sculpture along the way. In spite of it being a Sunday morning, we encountered other visitors at each and every stop along the way, making their way to Regent.
We headed back toward Fargo on the Old Red/Old Ten Scenic Byway, which had become Highway 10 in 1925, only to become obsolete with the interstate. From the colossal Assumption Abbey in Richardton, to the ghost town of Sims and even the Salem Sue, “The World’s Largest Holstein Cow,” we took in one town after another fighting for survival like Regent. But none could match the magic of the Enchanted Highway.