Monday, September 30, 2019

Enchanted: Highway, Sculptures, Cafe and Castle

Gary Greff, a retired school teacher and principal living in the small town of Regent, North Dakota, decided his town was dying and he was going to do something about it. His story is an amazing feat of persistence, entrepreneurship, and creativity that really caught our fancy and gave us several hours of fun on our recent trip to North Dakota. 

I-94 is the main thoroughfare between Bismarck, the capital, and Theodore Roosevelt NP, the main tourist attraction headquartered in Medora, just off the I-94, 133 miles west of Bismarck. 88 miles west of Bismarck and 48 miles east of Medora is the small town of Gladstone, just off I-94. Regent is a very small town 32 miles south of Gladstone on a relatively straight unnamed road (at least on Google maps) sandwiched between farms and farmland on either side. In fact, if you google "North Dakota map" and click into the Google map, it takes three additional clicks before you'll even see the road on the map between Gladstone and Regent. There is no apparent reason to travel down that road unless you live there. 

According to a story on the RoadsideAmerica website, in 1990, Gary created a plan to create ten giant metal sculptures at intervals along the Gladstone to Regent road, to lure people to Regent. There he would build a water park, restaurant and amphitheater to keep them entertained and grab some of their tourist dollars. Gary had never done metal work before this project, he is self-taught. Gary leased land from local farmers at cheap rates, built the metal sculptures, the parking areas and fences and he does all of the maintenance, including cutting the grass.  

Somehow he got this stretch of highway to be call the Enchanted Highway, including signs for it along the freeway, and according to a CBS News report, he got the North Dakota Legislature, just this year, to allocate funds to help him maintain the sculptures. 

Instead of describing the sculptures in the order we saw them, I'll describe them in the order they were built. 

The first sculpture was The Tin Family, completed in 1991. It is just 1.5 miles north of Regent, the last one you see if you're heading into Regent from Gladstone. This is farm country and it features a farm family, a mother, father and son. The inspiration was the movie "Field of Dreams." Like the ball field in the movie, Gary hoped that if he built these sculptures, the tourists would come. It is mainly built of used oil tanks. Dad, the tallest of the three, is 45 feet tall and is held up by 16 telephone poles. The mother is 44 feet tall and her hair is made of barbed wire. The son wears a propeller hat and holds a sucker and is 23 feet tall. 

The second sculpture built, finished in 1993, 3 miles north of Regent, is Teddy Rides Again. Theodore Roosevelt spent many of his early years in North Dakota, near this area. Teddy, on his favorite horse, "Mulley," stands 51 feet tall and weighs over 9,000 pounds. It is built of used well pipe. There is a stage coach and horses in front of it. This was my least favorite of the sculptures. It lacks the three dimensionality of the others. 

One of my favorite sculptures, Pheasants on the Prairie, was finished in 1996 and took three years to build. It is 9 miles north of Regent and is the next in succession as you head north. Pheasant hunting is an important part of this area and this is a nod to that pastime. The frames are well pipe that are then covered in wire mesh screen and painted. The rooster is 40 feet high and 70 feet long. The hen is 35 feet tall and 50 feet long and the chicks are 15 feet tall and 20 feet long. 

Grasshoppers in the Field was the fourth sculpture, completed in 1999. Grasshoppers are plentiful there and a curse to the farmers. The large grasshopper is 60 feet long and 40 feet tall and made of interlocking metal. We met and talked to Gary (more on this later) and he mentioned that this sculpture was controversial among the farmers. When we did our hike to White Butte later that day, we noticed a lot of grasshoppers. It was in succession to the north, when built, but no longer is. 

Geese in Flight, finished in June 2001, is the most prominent sculpture and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest scrap metal sculpture. It is built of oil well pipe and oil tanks and weighs 78.8 tons. The circle in the middle apparently represents the sun and the lines stretching out from it represent the rays of the sun. The largest goose has a 30 foot wingspan and is 19 feet long. It is right off the I-94 freeway at Gladstone and is the draw to get tourists to see more, by driving south. You can drive up to this sculpture by following a road with geese in flight attached to white poles. This is also a favorite. 
The view from the freeway.
The view from behind. 
Deer Crossing, the next in succession heading south from the I-94, was finished in September 2002. It was made from old oil well tanks cut apart and welded to form the shadow design. The buck is 75 feet tall and 60 feet long. The doe is 50 feet tall and 50 feet long. There is a metal maze behind the sculpture with various designs cut into it. I'm not sure what the significance of the maze is. 

The maze behind it.
The last sculpture that has been completed is Fisherman's Dream, finished in 2006, and probably my favorite, just because it is so audacious and complicated. It was built in between the Grasshoppers in the Field and Pheasants on the Prairie. It is made out of tin and includes seven fish, including a small mouth bass, walleye, catfish, northern pike, salmon and bluegill. A 70 foot rainbow trout is jumping out of the water to catch a dragonfly and a fisherman in a boat fishes nearby. At least one of the fish was knocked over when we visited. 

The catfish.
The bluegill

Northern pike

I think this is a walleye.

The fisherman and the rainbow trout. I'm not sure if that dragonfly is a lure, but if it is, that fisherman has one heck of a fight on his hands. 
Greff turned the former high school into a medieval-themed hotel with 19 rooms, called The Enchanted Castle, and restaurant called Excalibur Steakhouse. It opened in 2012. After seeing all the signage for the steakhouse along the way I really wanted to eat there for lunch and have a steak. Unfortunately, the restaurant is only open for dinner. 

After seeing these signs all along the road, I was ready for a steak. Unfortunately, it was not open. 
So we stopped at the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop and Cafe in Regent and waited behind a large group of tourists from a tourist bus to buy their souvenir shirts and mugs and ice cream cones. I settled for a ham and cheese sandwich, which was actually quite good, and a malt. 

While we ate and talked to the proprietor and his assistant, it dawned on us that we were talking to Gary Greff, the sculptor and entrepreneur. That was icing on the cake. I commented on the busload of tourists and mentioned that they only get such busloads a few times a year. According to CBS, only about 6,000 tourist follow the Enchanted Highway each your. That's crazy, this place is a blast and deserves much more. 
Judy and Gary Greff.
We didn't pay as close attention to the sheet metal construction in Regent, but Gary has a metal pine tree just outside the gift shop.
On the other side of the gift shop is what I think he calls the "Whirly Gig." It is a framed, open air house, with family members in various rooms. Two kids jump on a bed in an upstairs room, grandma washes two kids in a bathtub in an adjoining room, dad or grandpa is downstairs in front of the tv, smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper, while mom works in the kitchen nearby.  
Then there are several other murals in town. 

North Dakota was our 50th state, and many people, including Gary, laughed when we told them that. It is the 50th state for many people. But honestly, the Enchanted Highway was the quirkiest, most off-the-wall, creative fun thing we did in North Dakota, and worth a visit to North Dakota all by itself. There is something about the three dimensionality of the sculptures that is really intriguing. You can walk among them and the view changes each step you take. It is one of our most fun discoveries in all of the 50 states. 

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Pirogue Grille, Bismarck, ND

For our 40th anniversary we decided to visit North Dakota, our 50th state, and I needed to find a nice restaurant to celebrate. We were flying into Bismarck, so that is where I concentrated my search, although I was open to other areas. 

I finally narrowed it down to Pirogue Grille in Bismarck. It was the number 1 restaurant in Bismarck on Tripadvisor, the no. 1 restaurant in North Dakota in Only In Your State, one of the 10 Tastiest Places to Eat in North Dakota on Culture Trip, featured as a Vacation Idea in Dream Vacation Magazine, is Zagat rated and gets 4.5 stars on Yelp. I initially thought Pirogue might have something to do with pierogi, a Polish staple. However, after a visit to the Lewis and Clark sights north of Bismarck, I'm sure it must be a reference to the two large rowboats that the Corps of Discovery used that they called pirogues. 
Unfortunately, when I called to make a reservation for the evening of our anniversary, I was told they were closed because of the 45th annual Downtowners Street Fair that would be going on outside that night. The only time we could visit when they were open was the evening we flew in, the day before our anniversary, and our flight did not arrive until 8:00 p.m., much later than we normally like to eat. We finally decided to eat lightly during the day and eat there late. 

We got there about 8:40 p.m. and found the street in front of the restaurant filled with workers setting up large tents for the street fair. Although dark outside, it was nice and light inside and we found the staff very friendly. One of the things I was attracted to in my restaurant search was their focus on local foods. 

Judy ordered grilled lamb loin chops with black mission fig, lemon and balsamic relish. It came with mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables. I was tempted by it, but decided I would take a taste of Judy's and order a bunch of appetizers instead. The lamb was good and the fig, you can see smeared on the top, gave it a nice sweet taste. 
I started with a bowl of roast corn and bison soup. It was already pretty dark with pepper and I had them add some more. It was cold and raining outside and I'd arrived from the airport in sandals and shorts. So the warm soup was perfect: I absolutely savored it. It was not too hot, and the heavy pepper combined nicely with small chunks of bison, corn, carrots and a rich broth. I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a soup more. 

Judy has German heritage and loves spaetzle, so we ordered the appetizer of herbed spaetzle, braised rabbit, soffritto and parmesan. It was a nice conglomeration of tastes with little chunks of rabbit. Comfort food, also nice on a cold evening. 
I got another appetizer of house-made venison sausage with grilled onion relish. The sausage was dark and quite strong. The onion relish was kind of vinegary, and I didn't like it with the sausage. But the stone ground mustard was fabulous with it. It kind of covered the strong taste of the sausage with the seedy textury zing of the mustard. 
I ordered an appetizer salad special which included some vinegary greens, quartered cherry tomatoes, a vinegary corn relish and cold and vinegary chanterelle mushrooms (apparently from Saskatchewan). I was kind of disappointed with this. None of the parts were really great and it did not mix together well. 
My favorite of the evening, aside from the warm comfort of the soup, was the Walleye trio of tastes appetizer, including smoked walleye, a prosciutto wrapped walleye and a walleye version of crab cake. All three versions were good, all had different textures and is the kind of dish I really love: It was exotic food to me, in the sense that I've only tasted walleye a few times; and it had an unusual presentation, both individually and as a grouping. Each version was in a small square bowl/dish, placed side by side on a larger rectangular plate. I would not have wanted an entree portion of any of them, and did not find any of them to be outstanding, but together as a mixture of tastes and textures, it was fabulous. 

For dinner, Judy got chocolate tart with chocolate glaze and a huge dollop of whipped cream. Judy really likes dark chocolate, but my taste for it has never really developed. 
I got a special, a berry trifle, with blue berries and raspberries. The berries were wonderful and the sponge cake and custard were good, although I prefer it a little more wet. 
Altogether, it was a very special meal to celebrate a significant milestone in our lives, with a nice touch of North Dakota thrown in. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Caspian Tern

While boating in the lagoon outside of Port Isabel, Texas, between South Padre Island and the mainland, we encountered quite a few Caspian terns, a beautiful bird with a long orange bill with black at the end and a black cap. I've only seen them once before, in Florida. Here are a few of my favorite photos: