The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carhenge builder has the last laugh

Carhenge in Alliance, Neb., has found itself in the band of totality for the solar eclipse and is getting lots of attention as a result. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

ALLIANCE, Neb. — When Jim Reinders built Carhenge — a Stonehenge replica made out of classic American cars — it was decades before anyone was talking about the path of totality.

Plenty of people in western Nebraska shook their heads at the project, and for a long time they smirked when they drove by the odd sight off the highway in middle of the Great Plains.

But now the 89-year-old Reinders is probably having the last laugh, considering that Carhenge has become one of the most talked-about destinations to view the eclipse in the entire country.

Did he ever expect his creation to be connected to an astronomical event like this?

“Absolutely not,” said Reinders, who now lives in Pearland, Tex., but returned to Alliance with his family to watch the eclipse. “I'd like to say it was all part of the greater plan, but I'd be lying through my teeth.”

When he first built Carhenge, the local community was for the most part against it. “A lot of dissent,” he remembered. “They thought it was a vertical junkyard. An eyesore. Had no place being here.”

He'd decided to construct the car-copy monument — a memorial to his father — after spending time in England and visiting Stonehenge. But then, the Cadillac Ranch in Texas was also an inspiration.

“It kind of grew from there,” he said.

Whether the 39 primer-gray-painted jalopies north of Alliance are tapped into the same ancient mysticism as the English stones remains a mystery.

“Stonehenge was put up, and people later came by and made explanations about why it was that way,” Reinders said. “It's all bulls--- as far as I'm concerned.”

In Reinders's opinion, everyone is just trying to leave their mark. “I like to think they're like people today. They want the universe to know they were here,” he said.

While Stonehenge aligns with both the summer and winter solstice, Carhenge mostly aligns with amber waves of grain.

Along with the circle of cars, Carhenge consists of three trilithons — structures made up of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top — within the circle, the heel stone, slaughter stone and two station stones.

To stand in the shadows of the cars is to walk among a monument to that quintessential icon of the American spirit: the automobile. And it's fitting that the thousands of people who came here to have a mystical experience arrived by car.

“It's the spirit of the American who is considered idiosyncratic,” Blake Marnell, 52, a retail manager from San Diego, said of the site. “Someone who has the freedom to do it even though people don't understand it.”

Marnell drove to Carhenge because “I figured this was the most American place in America to see the American eclipse.” He praised Reinders's vision and spark. “It's creative. It's expressive. But it's also authentic.”

Cars and camper trucks from across the United States have filled the wheat and bean fields adjacent to Carhenge. High school students were up most of the night to direct traffic. Some folks gathered came from as far as England and even Australia. They woke to an early-morning fog.

Dan Grayson, 59, a veterinarian from New York City, has been chasing eclipses since he tried to view one in 1991 from Hawaii. Clouds foiled that plan, and he became obsessed with seeing them unobstructed. He has since traveled to the salt flats of Bolivia and Dracula's castle in Romania for viewings.

Carhenge makes his ninth eclipse. He chose the location for “the kitsch factor.”