If you’ve ever taken I-81 north through Virginia, you’ve passed the town of Natural Bridge, in Rockbridge County—home to a ninety-foot limestone arch that extends over a gorge, a geological anomaly probably formed by an ancient underground river. Natural Bridge is an anachronism from the Route 66 era of highway travel, a place where you can pay twenty dollars to look at a rock, eat a rock-themed lunch, and then buy a shot glass illustrated with a picture of that same rock. As any respectable tourist trap must, the town hosts a constellation of other attractions: a petting zoo, a dinosaur/Civil War theme park, and the Natural Bridge Wax Museum (now closed, and former home to a ghoulish Obama tribute). Best of all is the featherlight, faux prehistoric monument known as Foamhenge.
As its name suggests, Foamhenge is a one-to-one scale replica of Stonehenge, made of foam. It is identical to the original, save the flecked gray paint, the accompanying statue of a deadhead-ish Merlin, and the fact that it was erected several millennia later. For the past twelve years, the henge has been the most public of Natural Bridge’s draws, garnering a steady stream of visitors and enough press to be mentioned in the same breath as the area’s actual ancient rocks. Its creator, an artist named Mark Cline, calls it his “foam-nomenon”: the unlikely culmination of his career as a sculptor of roadside attractions.
But Foamhenge is slated to close for good this August, when the property will be repurposed as a state park. Cline is looking for a new home for his sculpture—something that’s proved challenging, he says, since he’s been busy opening a new dinosaur theme park, Dinosaur Kingdom II. (The first Dinosaur Kingdom burned down in 2012.)
“It’s like I’m trying to fight a war on two fronts,” Cline said when I passed through the area in mid-July. “I’m exhausted.”
Cline’s home base is an all-purpose fabrication shop called Enchanted Castle Studios. The front yard is full of Frankensteinian visions of 1970s Americana: a giant female head and a humanoid-hair metal gorilla coexist with boat-size ants and slime monsters. A mutant dinosaur stands harmoniously alongside a giant, Valhalla-bound chicken beast. The effect is more charming than scary—the monsters look friendly, familial. Cline says he builds them as a way for people to confront their fears.
Cline is a handsome, slight man in his fifties. He moves like a guy who could perform a card trick without breaking eye contact. He speaks softly, in a tone that makes statements like “I’m worn out from building a giant albino dinosaur” seem reasonable. When I visited his studios, he was showing a family around the property—a teenage girl in Chucks and a DINOSAUR KINGDOM II T-shirt, along with her parents—but he directed me to his fabrication shop, where disembodied wax heads, salvaged from the old wax museum, lined the walls. Cline’s assistant, Melvin, a powerful-looking guy with tribal tattoos, sawed a stand for a cardboard cutout of Cline, costumed as a magician. A pair of disembodied dinosaur claws lay ominously in a corner.
There’s an origin story to the Enchanted Castle: When Mark Cline was in elementary school, he was not good at reading. This was in a time when there was no recourse for kids with dyslexia, so Cline was placed in a slow-learners class, an experience that gave him time and encouragement to make art and taught him compassion. Later, when he was in his early twenties and out of work, he drew on his early experience. He decided he wanted to make things that could inspire and heal. He wanted to create magic, which he defines, in a handwritten note that hangs above his desk, as “the ability to transform certain perceived realities into impossible scenarios.”
In addition to Foamhenge and the Dinosaur Kingdoms, he’s behind a ghost tour, a magic show, an active prop shop that’s produced everything from Broadway set pieces to a giant skull for Alice Cooper, a defunct Monster Museum (apparently destroyed in a 2001 arson by fundamentalist Christians), something called “Cap’n Cline’s Pirate Adventure Ride and the Mummy’s Tomb of Doom,” a forthcoming mini-golf course, and an enchanted forest. His wife, Sherry, is the business mind of the operation. When we met, he showed me a picture of her on the brochure for his magic show, dressed in a red dress and looking slightly bemused. “She’s my Roy Disney,” he said affectionately.
When Cline and the touring family joined me in the fabrication studio, I was examining a fiberglass visage of Stonewall Jackson, who was missing an arm. He placed a hand on the Jackson mold, and announced matter-of-factly, “This is going to be for ‘Stonewall Jackson Battling a Spinosaurus.’ We are creating a bionic arm for him.”
“Oh, that’s great!” said the teenager’s mom.
He continued, “This story takes place in 1864. Everyone thought Jackson died, but, in our world … don’t let the secret out, but he changed his identity and went through a brand-new program called the witness-protection program. He bit the bullet and joined P. T. Barnum in New York and became the bearded lady. Really threw off suspicion.”
He directed our attention toward a storyboard pinned to the wall of the studio, where a cartoon Abe Lincoln wrangled a winged dinosaur with a piece of paper in its mouth. “And there’s a Troodon with the Gettysburg chat!” he said. “You know that Abe Lincoln originally called it a ‘chat’? They changed it to ‘address’ to be more formal.”
I asked about a recurrent character in the drawings, a green slime monster that Cline referred to as Mr. Slime. “The slime characters!” Cline explained, as if he’d just remembered that he’d left something on the stove for too long. “Back in the seventies there was a TV series called Slime Theater, a late-night horror show with one of those guys who would, you know, come out of a coffin … But this guy, he didn’t come out with a cape or anything. He was more like a hippie. He wore a T-shirt and smoked cigarettes. Would keep a beer in the fridge behind the couch. This was the seventies, so everything was rat fink and psychedelic art. Their character was Mr. Slime, very R. Crumb. I sort of took him and adopted him.”
He looked around, taking account of the giant blocks of post-industrial foam and comic spreads. “I’m John Henry here,” he said. “I do everything old-school.”
The family left and we walked toward his office, which was fronted by a bronze-looking sculpture of Cline holding hands with one of the many Mr. Slimes. I asked about the fate of Foamhenge, and Cline looked deflated. “All you’ve got to do is Google foamhenge and there’s probably”—he sighed—“a thousand pictures of it. It’s been on TV shows, the Discovery Channel, BBC, in Japan. It really surprises me, considering I just made it as an April Fools’ joke in 2004. It was an easy installation. When I unveiled it for the media, I even did a sort of David Copperfield. I phased through a block of foam.” (Cline calls his magic hobby, which includes things like “phasing” through foam and riding unicycles through rings, “the art of misdirection.”)
And how did people react when they heard that Foamhenge could close?
“When the news first hit, I got calls from all over the United States,” he said. “I couldn’t pick up the phone for a week. Everyone was trying to tell me why they needed Foamhenge. Why they needed it in their backyard, or for their community.” He seemed flustered. “And I’m trying to build a dinosaur theme park, you know?”
Cline got a lot of calls, but no suitable takers. He decided he needed to narrow his criteria. He wants Foamhenge to remain in the area, to drive business, to stay public, and to fit well on whatever land it eventually occupies. But he’s encountered a host of bureaucratic problems. One interested town is in debt from a golf course. Another didn’t want to pay for the installation. Cline said that it can be political. Nearby city councils apparently have a hard time justifying the installation and upkeep of a ring of giant foam blocks and a hippie wizard, no matter how timeless.
“I tried to convince people in the state that it does well for the state,” he said. “But everything is a liability now. Some of them liked the idea but didn’t want to take responsibility for it.” As he spoke, he picked up an oversized straitjacket on a coatrack. I looked out his office window toward a yard full of beautiful liabilities. A boxy foam robot peered back at me through the blinds.
Cline is holding out hope. With the help of websites like Roadside America, the nostalgic interest in roadside attractions is bigger than it has been since the fifties and sixties. “Everything is different now,” Cline said of the roadside attraction economy. “I think in some ways there is even more of an interest. It’s all this good Americana-type stuff. People say, ‘We don’t want this to go away. This is a part of who we are.’”
The morning was getting late, so I said good-bye to Cline and headed toward Dinosaur Kingdom II, where I followed a winding path through a series of large tableaus: civil-war soldiers fighting tyrannosauruses, a man milking a cowlike dino, an ominous chapel, a long-necked animatronic beast stowed in a gimmicky outhouse. It was better than any mystery spot this side of the Mississippi. I bought a T-shirt and thought about what Cline had said about his work: how he hopes it’s a force for the good. I think it is. The park made no great claims for itself—an absurd revisionist history of the Civil War notwithstanding—but it offered a chance to get outside my head, to forget my daily concerns. I thought, instead, about the consequences of a run-in between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and General Ulysses S. Grant.
A mile up the road, I climbed the hill to Foamhenge. Styrofoam has a half life of anywhere from five hundred years to forever, but it’s an inglorious forever: the henge could use a fresh coat of stone-colored latex paint, as could Merlin. But no weathering could eclipse the weirdo joy of the place and its guardian. That morning, it was peaceful, a perceived reality transformed into an impossible scenario. Standing there, I felt as light as foam.
Eileen Townsend is a journalist from Memphis, Tennessee. She writes about visionary art and the South.