Here Be Dragons
and the Sculptor Who Conjured Them
Our June blog ended by saying “Next stop – glorious Yellowstone.” But before attempting to describe the almost indescribable wonders of Yellowstone, we want to take you on a slight detour – a 700-mile U-turn to the east.
Several days prior to arriving in Yellowstone, we camped out one night at what would commonly be labeled as a roadside attraction, situated along Interstate 90 just west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Physically, it’s 18 acres of mostly grass, surrounded by a cow pasture on three sides and a soybean farm on the fourth. We arrived by a winding gravel road that also serves as a resting place for the cows when they so choose.
Crossing the requisite cattle guard, we entered a parking lot, which also doubles as a prairie dog town. Our host informed us the critters were here first, so be careful where we park the van. We could now see we were near the highway we had just exited. If our eyes hadn’t told us this, our ears would have confirmed it. The engines from the semis both climbing and descending this stretch of road provided the familiar diesel grumble that could be heard long before any 18-wheelers were visible.
The nation’s highways are full of places like this, roadside stops that beckon you to exit now so you can experience the world’s largest ball of yarn, a genuine UFO watchtower, a real live jackalope. And so on. Except, this exit off I-90 is different. It’s a place that reminds you it’s not just the points of interest that make the journey worthwhile, but also the people you meet along the way.
Person of Interest
The person we met after crossing the cattle guard was our host, Wayne Porter. Wayne is not your average individual. But how could he be since he has made it his life’s mission to make people happy by residing on this small, sloping plot of land, greeting visiting tourists with a level of enthusiasm not expected on a hot summer’s day. If this land were only populated by Wayne and nothing else, he would still linger in our minds. But he is there to introduce us to Porter Sculpture Park.
Wayne is the creator of the park that carries his name and the artist who populates it. However, when I ask Wayne how he would describe himself to people, he is purposely brief and simply says he is someone who wants to make people happy. That’s it. He feels no need to expand on this statement by explaining he does it through uniquely sculpted art with complementary poetry on handwritten signs lining the pathways.
During the warmer months, Wayne sits alone in an un-air conditioned shed that rests on the dirt parking lot, contently waiting for visitors. When they arrive, and there does seem to be a reasonable stream of cars, he enthusiastically explains what inspired him to build these mostly strange creatures. His energy is contagious.
Wayne’s creations dot the landscape like peculiar outcroppings growing up through the tall grass. The most noticeable is a 60-foot tall bull’s head. Wayne will warn you that it contains a hidden scary feature on the inside, so look closely, but don’t be too afraid. Nearby is a small school of upright fish skeletons holding umbrellas, as if awaiting long past due precipitation. Numerous dragons populate the menagerie. Then there is a wild boar that looks eerily real and out of place in this sculpted world of make believe.
At night, Wayne sleeps in a trailer, with his albino dog Bambino laying nearby. The trailer has seen better days, but like Wayne, it is surely happy to be planted where it is. In Wayne’s younger years, it served as his traveling home when he spent his days and nights herding sheep. These days, this hut sits atop his 18 acres, looking down on all Wayne has cut, bent, bolted, welded, and somehow hauled here and attached solidly to the ground. After sheepherding, it must be a relief to know your animals aren’t going to wander off into the night.
We were fortunate to also meet Wayne’s sister, Audrey. She periodically takes off from her medical practice in Des Moines, drives 300 miles, and then camps out here for a weekend or even a week, to tirelessly paint these steely beasts, helping bring them to life. She thinks nothing of making the trip.
When the weather turns cold in October, Wayne heads north to his hometown of St. Lawrence, South Dakota for a warmer, more secure building to live in. It’s a short 150 miles away. There he spends the winter in his shop creating more surreal metal structures, which will soon adorn his prairie canvas that nearly abuts the interstate, for all passer-byes to get a brief glimpse of. And for those who take exit 374 and park amongst the prairie dogs, to discover first-hand the vivid dreams of an artist. Just as memorable, they will also meet a person who’s stated goal in life is to simply make people happy that they came by for a visit.
You won’t get that from a big ball of yarn.
Bob and Julia
PS: Click here to watch and listen to what America means to Wayne and Audrey. (The list is in alphabetical order by first name.)