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Jurassic Lark

Mark Cline with a couple of his slime monsters at a haunted house that runs at the Natural Bridge park
Mark Cline and some of his haunted house creations, adjacent to the Escape From Dinosaur Kingdom attraction he constructed in Natural Bridge, Va. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

"I'm not considered a real artist by other artists," he says. "But neither was Norman Rockwell. Neither was Walt Disney. It doesn't bother me."

Son of an electrician and a secretary, he was born in 1961 in Waynesboro, a town in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. In high school he was a terrible student, he says, and when he got out, he bummed around the country, rafting down the Missouri River like Huck Finn and motorcycling to Key West, where he earned a living taking photographs of tourists sitting on his bike, posing with his homemade statue of a two-headed biker.

Eventually he drifted back to Waynesboro and tried to make a living as a sculptor.

"He stood up at the City Council with a proposal to make a huge Styrofoam statue of Mad Anthony Wayne, for whom the town is named," recalls Doug Harwood, editor of the Rockbridge Advocate, a local tabloid whose slogan is "Independent as a Hog on Ice."

Alas, the philistines on the City Council nixed Cline's proposal.

He traveled to Virginia Beach, hoping to find employment making monsters for that city's many tacky tourist traps. "They laughed at me," he says.

In 1982, he moved to Natural Bridge and opened a haunted-house attraction, hoping to cash in on the tourists who came to see the Natural Bridge, a rock formation once owned by Thomas Jefferson. For a while, his haunted house did fairly well, but by the end of the 1984 season, he was going broke and sinking into depression.

"For four months," he recalls, "the only reason I had to get up in the morning was to struggle through the day so I could go back to sleep."

A few days after Christmas, he recalls, he traveled to a theme park called Holyland USA, in Bedford, Va., hoping to find work sculpting religious statues. Rejected, he drove home through a nasty sleet storm and decided to end his misery. He steered deep into the mountains, then climbed to a high peak, planning to jump off.

"But I hesitated," he says, miming the action of a man about to jump off a mountain. "Instead of looking down, I looked up. The clouds were moving and the sun came through. I took a deep breath and I felt this high I'd never experienced before. I walked down the mountain a changed person. I realized that my only purpose was to help people and make them happy."

So he changed his haunted house into the Enchanted Castle -- a place with fewer monsters and more zany stuff like a bungee-jumping pig. And tourists got to watch Cline create his sculptures, which enabled him to indulge his inner ham and entertain folks with his impressions of Elvis and Mick Jagger and Barney Fife.

It was weird but it worked.

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