Enchanted Castle Studios
Natural Bridge, Virginia
Mark Cline roars his pickup at 70 mph over hills and through hollows on Virginia's Hwy 130. He has a mission -- well, he has several missions at the moment -- and we need all of our driving skill to keep pace and to navigate the twists and turns. At least Mark is an easy target to follow. The large dinosaur that fills his pickup bed is hard to miss.
We met Mark an hour earlier, a few miles north and west, at his workplace named Enchanted Castle Studios. Mark, a wiry 43-year-old with arms like steel cables, has been building dinosaurs, giant Yogi Bears, Johnny Appleseeds, robots, pirates, bugs, leprechauns, monsters, and space aliens -- mostly for America's roadside attractions -- since he was 18.
"This is all I do," he tells us when we ask. "I just totally slam with it." The Enchanted Castle was his tourist attraction in the 1990s, acting as a gallery for his craziest work and a stage for his carnival barker sense of showmanship.
That ended in April 2001, when the Castle was gutted by a mysterious fire. Mark believes -- with some credible evidence to support him -- that it was arson, set by local Christian zealots who were spooked by his fiberglass gargoyles and demons and perhaps none-too-pleased by the "Holy Cow" statue out by the mailbox.
Mark remembers watching his attraction burn. "People couldn't understand how I couldn't be angry. But in my mind, I was already rebuilding. I just don't give up, dude."
Relics of the Enchanted Castle still stand: an observatory dome eaten by flames; a large alien bug; tree trunks with twisted human faces; a photo op in which tourists can become the star of the painting The Scream.
Mark, frankly, is too busy working on new projects to clear away the debris. In the same weedy yard lie dozens of fiberglass statues in various stages of assembly, strewn helter-skelter as if scattered by a bomb (or the wrath of Yahweh). African animals, a World War I doughboy, a Muffler Man reworked into a giant Transformer robot, King Kong clutching a biplane. Kong is destined for the Pink Cadillac restaurant in Roanoke or maybe the King Kong Restaurant in Omaha -- Mark can't recall exactly.
"The fumes are starting to get to me," he tells us by way of apology as he sprays a final coat of paint onto the belly of a life-size Raptor dinosaur -- the same one that we later find ourselves chasing down Hwy 130.
"You caught me during a real active day."
More creations, all of them big, pack the warehouse that also serves as the Enchanted Castle Studios' office. There's a gaping shark's head, a giant Cat In The Hat head, Jerry Garcia wearing a jester's hat, two huge skulls -- one with gold teeth -- and another Muffler Man, this one rescued from a defunct Roanoke ice cream stand. Four towering Egyptian sarcophagi lean against the wall.
Cline is part self-promoter, part dreamer, part businessman, part fiberglass wizard. Despite his ability, he insists that he has no training in art. "I'm not trained in anything," he tells us. "I'm an entertainer that knows how to do artwork."
Modesty, however, disappears when he assesses his merits as a showman. "I see myself as a kind of Walt Disney," he declares, several times. "I'm the P.T. Barnum of the modern age."
Update - May 2005: The Enchanted Castle Studios are located approx. 3 miles north of the Natural Bridge Comples on the left of Route 11. Public tours are now closed but if you want to buy a giant squid, duck or monster come on in or call 540-291-2353.