A few weeks ago, we set off in our well-traveled old vehicle (215,000 miles and counting) to drive from Chicago to eastern Montana and back. Our itinerary covered nine states, many of them known for their flat, rural landscapes. Former travelers of the route had warned us of desolate stretches of dry farmland and little in the way of distraction or excitement, but we loved almost every minute of the drive, which was apparently more verdant than usual after a summer of rains.
With few major cities or attractions along the way, we sought out other reasons to leave the highway and break up the drive. What started out as a silly diversion to see a large Viking statue (Big Ole in Alexandria, Minnesota) turned into a quest to see all the animal sculptures we could find as we headed west. Herewith, a photo essay of the “World’s Largest” creatures we collected as we traversed I-94 across the Northern Plains.
First up is Otto the Otter in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Built in the 1970s by some local teenagers, the 40-foot long concrete-covered metal otter sits well off the highway in Adams Park. Is it because he was our first critter that I still love him the best?
He’s not an official World’s Largest, but this painted buffalo in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, is one of several painted bison sculptures created as part of the 2006 “Herd on the Prairie: A Virtual Stampede” installation in Fargo.
Looming over Jamestown, North Dakota is the actual World’s Largest Buffalo, the first of the roadside sculptures erected in North Dakota. The unnamed bison is almost twice as tall as Otto the Otter; built in 1959, he now overlooks a live bison herd (including a rare white buffalo) and the National Buffalo Museum.
Just a few miles later, we were off in search of the “World’s Largest Sandhill Crane.” Sandy, in Steele, North Dakota, seems to have a loyal following, but we were not as enamored of her as some of her fellow creatures. She sits in a rather uninspiring, unkempt little park and she just looks unproportional somehow! Apparently, the area is known for its fine birding opportunities.
And then came “Salem Sue,” the World’s Largest Holstein Cow. Now there’s a location for a giant animal statue – a high hill near New Salem, North Dakota. A steep, gravel road leads visitors up the hill to Sue’s perch overlooking the beautiful local dairy farms. Erected in 1974, Sue was originally built to advertise the high-quality cows and milk in the area, and she continues to promote tourism and the joys of rural life.
As we neared the western border and our stop for the night, we exited I-94 to drive part of the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of road with a series of scrap metal sculptures. Unfortunately, we grew tired after a full day in the car, the long distances between sculptures, and the knowledge that we had to retrace our route on the slow two-lane road. Of the three installations we saw, Grasshoppers in the Field was our favorite.
As we left North Dakota via Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the art animal parade came to an end, but we were lucky enough to catch a few glimpses of some flesh-and-blood fauna on the rest of the drive.
Rounding a corner on the Notch trail in the Badlands in South Dakota, we spied a herd of elusive bighorn sheep and managed to snap a few photos before they ran off.
Kitschy as they are, the animal sculptures on this northern route are a fun way to get off the road and see a few small towns. Our buffalo stop led to a great lunch at a small coffeeshop in tiny downtown Jamestown, and some of my favorite photos of the trip were taken on quiet rural lanes on the way to find the quirky creatures. If you ever find yourself crossing the plains on I-94, take a few extra minutes to see this artistic menagerie along with the real-life western animals.