It requires determination to reach the Nebraska panhandle, an area wedged between South Dakota, Wyoming, and the northeast corner of Colorado. Some might go so far as to say there’s little to recommend the attempt. But over 60,000 visitors set their sights on a strange tourist site every year, which has been dubbed “one of our nation’s 10 wackiest attractions.” I finally managed an up-close encounter after decades of promises to myself. I missed its official dedication on the summer solstice of 1987 all the way to its enormous gathering camped out for a glimpse of 2017’s once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse. Carhenge depicts a recycled piece of history, an impulsively accurate replica of England’s prehistoric Stonehenge ruins which have been falling apart on the Salisbury plain since 2000 BC. Like its ancient counterpart, Carhenge occupies a circle containing three standing trilithons, two station stones, a heel stone, and a slaughter stone, all placed to mimic the original.
As its name suggests, nobody dragged monolithic stones across the Nebraska Sandhills to engineer the Carhenge installation. In 1987 artist Jim Reinders retrieved 39 dilapidated heaps from local sources, mid-20th century American auto salvage, pumped up the tires and rolled them into the circle, completing the work in six days. Twenty-two cars tipped into 5-foot trenches stand with their headlights pointing toward the stars. Eight are laid flat and welded across upright car pillars to imitate traditional trilithon arches. Eventually painted gray, the entire structure mimics the color of stone, though I suspect the family just wanted to avoid the unavoidable chore of washing and waxing the cars.
Carhenge is not a tribute to classic American automobiles, although any savvy autophile might easily identify a ’61 Cadillac DeVille, a ’65 Chevelle, and a ’51 Willys Jeep in the mix. Overall, the cars lack luster. They qualify as carcasses rescued from the jaws of the crusher. The monument originated as a tribute to the artist’s father, but the finished product also qualifies as an elaborate tribute to parody.
A 2017 interview with 90-year-old Jim Reinders exists on YouTube where you can still see the twinkle in his eye as he recounts his personal history working for an international oil company as a petroleum engineer, being shifted to many locations around the globe. His time in London – his favorite assignment – provided plenty of up-close time with Carhenge’s distant relative, a place he loved to visit and revisit while living in the UK.
Standing in the Carhenge parking lot, glancing across its 10-acre field, I could appreciate how perfectly the Reinders clan memorialized America. After all, most people arrive at this remote site north of Alliance, Nebraska by car – our legacy to the world – like it or not.
Erecting the monument required a family crew of about 35 relatives and friends. Of that monumental undertaking, the artist writes: “We were able to reduce the time of the original Stonehenge construction by 9,999 years and 51 weeks.” And as if to drive the point of America’s automotive birthright home, three small foreign cars were buried on the Carhenge site with this sign: “Here lie three bones of foreign cars…they served our purpose while Detroit slept.” A wisecrack delivered by a high priest of irony.
The sculpture received much criticism when completed. Detractors maintained it was an eyesore and should be torn down. I wish this sort of sentiment would erupt in my neighborhood where salvage litters the landscape of backyards and backlots. I even know of one place where a buried car with its windows rolled up served as a makeshift septic tank.
A group known as the Friends of Carhenge rescued the monument. While grumpy neighbors complained, loosely organized defenders claimed the installation had enough market potential to enhance the local economy. Political bickering ensued. Eventually a comment box appeared on site where visitors reacted to what they’d seen, and an overwhelming support for the project emerged, not only among the community, but among a small but growing tourist population. Eventually Reinders gave the 10 acres to the city of Alliance and one of the “wackiest attractions” in America found a semi-permanent place on the map.
I say “semi-permanent” because in the earthly game of rock, metal, and scissors, Stonehenge will outlast Carhenge. But if visitor statistics continue to surge, it’s only a matter of time before the city council proposes sacrificing the occasional tourist.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.