It didn't take much.
"Nutjob," "magician," "foam," and "Stonehenge" in one sentence? Reading this e-mail and realizing I was only an hour away in Christiansburg, Virginia, unofficial home of the hotel gas leak, dizzy spells, roadblocks, nighttime fire truck light shows, and the cancellation of all food delivery, this was no difficult decision. I was headed to Natural Bridge, Virginia, to find this nutjob.
Needing to find his whereabouts, I searched the Internet for his website.
All I was looking for was an e-mail address, but there was so much more:
The "nutjob" was Mark Cline and he, along with his wife, Sherry, run Enchanted Castle Studios. Before my eyes could make it past the quote, a video automatically began playing.
For 83 seconds I sat paralyzed, hands over mouth. Who made this? Why was this made? Why, at that time, were there only 61 views? Who is singing? Please say it's Sherry?
I scrolled back up the page, completely flustered, seeing phrases such as "Hunt Bigfoot w/ a Redneck" and "JUST PLAYIN'" and "Dino Kingdom" and "Leprechauns & Giants." I rushed to find his contact information.
It was as if someone were a few steps away, about to explain the plot twists of a movie you were about to watch. I wanted as few spoilers as possible, because this felt like a dish best served with as little knowledge and background information as possible.
Because it was after 10 p.m., I sent an e-mail instead of calling. I hoped I'd get a response before I left the next morning, but the AOL e-mail address really wasn't doing much to suggest that I would.
The next morning, I woke up to find an e-mail. From Mark Cline. The text:
I called you last night, I'll be at my studio today.
I look at my phone and he wasn't lying. At 11:22 p.m. he called and left a voicemail. A 48-second voice mail.
That voice mail:
Hello, this is Mark Cline and I am working late here in my studio and I just got your e-mail. Hitchhiking, well I could give you some stories about that. Anyway, my phone number is 4 — well, you've got it. I'm working late. I'm working on George Jetson, a giant hot dog and Superman, and some stuff that needs to go to New York. We just shipped off a bunch of stuff to New Mexico two days ago, but I'm here at my studio building stuff. I'll be here tomorrow. It's supposed to be pouring rain, so you can call me. All right, bye.
It was time to go see Mark Cline.
Even as I approached the Natural Bridge exit, got on the ramp, and drove by an orange-vested man with a shotgun who was closely observing a group of prisoners picking up trash, I'd never actually stopped to consider what the phrase "Natural Bridge" might mean. I was so focused on Cline and that voice mail and that video, his town's odd name hadn't even registered. As I drove, however, signs suggested that there was a bridgelike geological formation attraction ahead, and, should I keep driving and following signs, I'd discover said bridgelike geological formation attraction in a few minutes.
Finally, after a great deal of buildup, I'd arrived.
The signs led me to this building, the "Bridge Entrance and Gift Shop." Confused, because it didn't really look like a bridgelike geological formation attraction, I parked in a sea of tourist buses and made my way to the building.
When your heart is set on having your mind blown by nature, it's slightly disenchanting for an ATM and a giant gift shop to serve as the first lines of defense. After being bombarded with carousels of name-based tchotchkes that always rudely skip from Rebecca to Renee, it was time for the third line of defense: a $21 cover charge to see the Natural Bridge.
They wanted me to pay $21 to walk inside just to go back outside.
After signing the receipt and regretting this pit stop, which was stealing hours away from my afternoon with Mr. Cline, my ill feelings were quickly reversed when I walked down the stairs and, finally, saw the main attraction:
There it was. A natural bridge, indeed. I was floored.
Walking under the bridge, and then the beautiful, relatively untouched 1,000-yard path to a waterfall, it reminded me of nature's great ability to allow for a temporary reprieve from the rest of the world. After staring at this massive arch of rock, and listening to the various sounds coming from birds and frogs and running water and the sound that comes from not picking up your feet when walking through pebbles, I found myself stepping directly into deep, mud-filled puddles.
Sometimes we forget how much fun it is to walk through mud and step in puddles, which is a travesty. Thankfully, here, at this moment, the state of my shoes didn't matter. Nothing mattered but this $20.99 sanctuary.
And then there was the little boy with the rock.
Wonderment is this beautifully cyclical thing, and I remembered that when I saw the little boy with the rock.
Walking toward a waterfall was a family of four — a mother and three children. The youngest, a boy of about 5, darted toward the waterfall as soon as he spotted it. The older sister, probably around 13, had headphones in, and was so over this. As for the middle kid, he walked with his head down, situated perfectly under his mother's hand, staring at a rock.
This wasn't a spectacular rock. There were no mica on the surface, it wasn't considerably large or oddly shaped, and it was grayish brown, also known as the color of every other rock.
But still, he stared at this rock with the faintest of grins on his face, and I got it.
At age 26, at the Natural Bridge, I was the little boy with the rock.
Two hours later, I couldn't have been happier with this detour. As I walked out of the Natural Bridge site, an employee reminded me that the wax museum next door was part of my package. Staring at it, however, and reminding myself that there's nothing worse than a well-funded wax museum, I passed up the opportunity and hopped back into the car.
Because it was time to see Mark Cline.
Getting through to Enchanted Castle Studios by phone seemed to be an impossible task. I couldn't get anything resembling a signal. Even though it seemed rude to make my presence felt unannounced at Cline's studio, I didn't really know what other option I had. As I followed my two-mile route from Natural Bridge to Cline's workplace, my nerves began to build. What was I going to even ask this guy?
I started creating an outline for something resembling an interview, mentally scratching off dumb questions as they presented themselves. And then, again, my plans changed.
Oh yeah. Right. FOAMHENGE. And the gate was wide open.
It made sense to check out Cline's most famous work before meeting him so I could have a sense of the scale of his work. The pathway to Foamhenge was a dirt road, but from street level it wasn't clear where it led.
Even in the middle of the day, with the sun shining, I got the sense that suddenly the gate was going to close and the sky would turn pitch black. And there would be clowns. Thousands of clowns.
After two minutes of excruciatingly slow driving, due to the path's mini-craters, Foamhenge began to creep into view.
And then, after one final curve, I arrived at Mark Cline's Foamhenge.
Sure, I don't know why this exists, but it doesn't matter. He built a Styrofoam Stonehenge on a bluff in the middle of Southwest Virginia, because why not?
It was clear that weather had taken its toll on the structure, with much of the outer layer deteriorating, but it was still impressive. Because it was huge. And most importantly, next to Foamhenge was Merlin.
There were eight people cycling through Foamhenge to take pictures and try to make sense of the installation during my 30 minutes there. As I headed back to my car, I noticed a sign near Merlin (who, by the way, was situated on some sort of spring that purposefully caused him to rock back and forth) that explained its significance.
Merlin essentially serves as a memorial for a friend of Cline who passed in 2007. Reading this, and then looking back at the beat-down foam core, and then looking out at the picturesque field of flowers Foamhenge sat above, my vision of him as a “nutjob,” which originally led me to this place, was fading .
Maybe this was simply a guy who best expressed himself through giant, kooky art projects. Maybe, just maybe, this guy was really talented and creative, but an easy target to chalk up as crazy, because there's nothing easier than calling someone crazy.
Or maybe he was batshit crazy. I didn't know.
Enough was enough. It was finally time to go see this man, Mark Cline.
Hey, give me a minute, let me finish mixing some stuff.
Those were the first words Mark Cline said to me, in person, as I peeked into his studios, unannounced, excited, and sufficiently weirded out. You see, before I'd found him, I had wandered aimlessly for three minutes looking for the entrance, and there was this:
And that was all before I walked into his yard. This yard:
I didn't mind waiting, because I'd just landed in a fantasy junkyard where shrapnel and used car parts were substituted for headless men riding headless dinosaurs.
Yes, it was odd. But it was also borderline magical, like a backyard Universal Studios.
Having completed a loop of his grounds, I hung out by the barn where he was working. Cline was one of three men in attendance, and the scene mirrored the archetype that is the black barbershop. The guy in charge, Cline, is doing work but also concerned with four or five other things at the same time; a younger guy, seemingly in some apprentice role, isn't doing much talking and instead is focused on his job; a third man, off to the side, is in no way involved in the work and instead is only there to yap it up and make fun of anything that can be made fun of.
Between the yard and the conversation I eavesdropped upon, maybe I didn't ever want to talk to Cline. I was having a gay old time simply existing in his orbit, and perhaps a one-on-one would ruin the myth that he had become over the past 12 hours.
So, of course, right after thinking that, he walks toward me and escorts me into his office in the adjacent building.
Mark Cline has the aura of a cowboy. He seems tough in his cowboy boots and jeans, but is also well-groomed, with stubble uniformly covering his face, long stringy hair falling down to his neckline, and a fedora that is as much a part of his character as it is a tool to keep the sun out of his eyes.
At first, our chat was somewhat tense. Perhaps due to a mix of my not announcing myself and his apprehension at why I was present, he seemed a bit guarded. It was clear, however, he wanted to talk.
I began, simply, by asking about Foamhenge.
We premiered it in 2004 as an April Fool's joke. It proved to be like a free piece of candy — you bring more people in, they see this was built by Professor Cline, and you'd see the other attractions. So it was kind of a business idea. But my other businesses burned down last year, the Monster Museum, Dinosaur Kingdom, Hunt Bigfoot. And then the Natural Bridge just made an announcement about a month ago that they're up for sale, and if they didn't sell by October that they were going to auction it off in November. So that leaves the fate of Foamhenge very questionable. However, if that comes down
At this moment everything about his demeanor changed. A certain twinkle in his eye appeared. Like he was inviting me to take a journey with him.
So I leaned in and matched his goofy smile with an equally goofy smile. He continued:
I do have another replica of Stonehenge that I built. Down in Alabama. So I'm probably the only man in history that's built not one but two replicas of Stonehenge.
I was not expecting this boast, but I loved it. And he was so pleased with himself, not only that he did it, but that I know this about him. Cline tells me it's down in the Gulf Shores of Alabama, on the property a multibillionaire. It all sounded so farfetched, but the bravado he had about himself was infectious. I was sold.
The one down there has all the pieces and it's made out of fiberglass, so it will be around a long time. This is made to last. A lot of people don't know about that.
He begins to tell me about this 20-year connection he's had with this multibillionaire, which begins to shed light on Mark Cline the businessman, and perhaps Mark Cline the genius.
I was down in Virginia Beach building a fun house, and wanted to check to see if I had enough money in my account to get a sandwich. I checked it and he'd already put half the money in my account. So we've had a relationship for years. He flies me down, I do these huge sculptures for him. I did this one, The Lady in the Lake, you may have seen it on my website, I did that for him. That and Foamhenge — or Bamahenge as they call it.
Mark Cline wasn't some crazy holed up in rural Virginia building giant goblins and dinosaurs in his yard and then trashing them four hours later. He was a commissioned artist. And it wasn't just limited to George Jetson and the giant hot dog from the voice mail.
I gotta get some pieces ready to go to New Mexico, a 12-foot robot and statue for a restaurant, and then on Monday we shipped a 14-foot cowboy to another place in New Mexico and a pair of giant hands. And a buffalo and a dinosaur head should be arriving today.
These ventures seem like massive, time-consuming endeavors, but it's clear he can turn them around in a matter of days. And he seems to know he's good at what he does.
I got contacted by — this is my third contract I've signed — to do this TV show, kind of a reality show, where I'd be the Johnny Appleseed of roadside art. Where I'd go from town to town and create a piece of art that would be inspirational or represent a town in some fashion. And then I'd go to the next town.
WHOM DID I HAVE TO KILL/SLEEP WITH TO MAKE THIS SHOW HAPPEN?
And when they came to me, I told them this is how I'd like to do it. Because this way, it'd be helpful for tourism, helpful for the town, but also something the town could be proud of.
Mark Cline's motives were really beginning to make sense. This was a good man. He just wanted to make people happy.
Cline shrugged off the fact that he hasn't had the best luck with these shows getting picked up ("They'll never probably get produced"), but it was clear his work wasn't a means to an end. It was simply another way in which he could make his impact felt and, of course, boast a little more.
There are so many roadside attractions, and so much underground business in this type of thing, that has created a fascination in the American landscape over the years. And, in fact, it's what helped build America. With little stores and little places alongside the road. Snake farms, Route 66, they would come up with something bizarre and wild to pull the traffic off the road. Really, it was just an early form of advertising.
I'm one of the only people that do this, like this. I know other people that can do figures and things, but not nearly as fast as I do it. You know, Mark Twain once said "It's not bragging if you can do it."
This guy Mark Cline in one moment can be a champion of joy and happiness and world peace, and seconds later have the endearing confidence of a battle rapper. Just incredible.
There's someone out there, 24 hours a day, that's looking at something I made, because I have so many thousands of pieces, and someone is looking, or grinning, or having their picture made, or having it on a video, or pointing it out, and when you have the power to put smiles on people's faces, there's a good chance that they'll laugh, and if they'll laugh, that's been proven to heal people. There are so many ways to do it; this just happens to be my way of doing it.
I wanted to go through my e-mail and fight that guy who called Mark a "nutjob." I was steadily becoming very protective of this guy.
I recently stuck up a picture of Stonewall Jackson
About 13 miles from here. I put him up. He lived here, in Virginia. In fact, I run a ghost tour. You gonna be around tonight? I'll take you on my ghost tour.
This was the unofficial end of our formal interview, because Mark Cline had left his seat and was now collecting a treasure trove of Mark Cline–related paraphernalia for me to take.
Now back outside, it was clear he wanted to make sure I knew everything there was to know about him, and his work, before I left his yard. He needed to make sure I understood the whole story. So he told stories of a time he had a column for the local paper, as well as his side hustle as an illusionist, including the props he built for Alice Cooper.
Curious about how a well-meaning oddball like him is perceived in the town, he thankfully echoed the fact that he's appreciated by most members of the community.
When I first moved here, they didn't know what to make of it. I was more of an outcast. But then people started getting used to me and I would go over and help with the schools and talk to the kids and do things, and now I'm on the tourism board. And, you know, I get all of these accolades. These are just some of them. I just keep them up because people want to see them when they come by.
But, again, by most. Not everyone. The topic he glossed over earlier, some of his attractions burning down, finally came back to the forefront.
I was watching my studio burn to the ground at 2 a.m. I had walked across Route 11 to get my mail. In the mailbox was a blank manila envelope with no return address on it. I opened it at about 4 a.m. and read it by the roadside. The contents [included] a one-way ticket to "Hell" with my name on it and a torn-out picture of me from the Roanoke Times from a week before. The picture was burnt around the edges and my eyes were ripped out. The most striking content was a handwritten letter titled "Hellfire and Brimstone." It read "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost we have found a slick upon the face of God. His name is Mr. Mark Cline." It went on to accuse me of "ceremonial witchcraft" and "devil worship" because I build houses of the devil, "haunted attractions" and on and on.
So this was heavier than I expected. But, oddly enough, I wasn't completely surprised. Cline continued:
The last sentence: "God uses fire as His Judgment. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door." I read this as my work of nearly 20 years, plus all my interviews over the years, films I'd made, artwork as a child, my entire studio, office and attraction, tools, all my molds, and about $20,000 worth of unfinished jobs burned up.
Mark Cline told this story as if he were playing Mark Cline in the made-for-TV movie about Mark Cline. The dramatics were heavy, but it felt right.
A storm was coming.
He wanted to make sure I knew where I was headed, but also, in a last-ditch effort, to make sure I understood the scale of his work. He attempted verbally to point me in the right direction. He failed. For the next 10 minutes, he drew me maps.
Yes, he wanted to make sure I had my orientation on Route 11, but since I was driving around anyway, I might as well see his Stonewall Jackson next to the Devil's Backbone Brewery. Or his Bethlehem by the Food Lion. Or his Flintstones by the McDonald's. Or his giant ant in Goshen. Or his brontosaurus in Glasgow.
He'd put in work to make this area he called home a better place. I guess he had earned the right to channel Mark Twain.
With the skies growing more menacing, I knew I had to bolt for the highway. It was fine, though. Mark Cline didn't need to prove anything to me. I believed him. And I believed in him.
It was time to leave Natural Bridge.
Later in the evening, as I pulled over to wait for a storm to pass through, I checked my e-mail. It was from Mark Cline:
I forgot to tell you about King Kong. He’s about 15 feet tall and about a mile north of my studio on Route 11 in front of the Pink Cadillac Diner.
One day, Mark. Not now, but one day.