The process was slow. First, he collected rocks in his pockets. But after his wife tired of mending the holes in his pants, he graduated to baskets. And when those could no longer contain his ever-mounting cache of pebbles, a wheelbarrow became his most trusted companion.
After long days on the mail route, Cheval schlepped his load home (“Sometimes I did 5 or 6 kilometres, and when I was loaded up I carried them on my back,” he wrote). He began to transform the stones into otherworldly shapes. “Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason (besides who isn’t a bit of a mason?),” he once wrote.
Cheval broke ground by digging a pool, which he encircled with a menagerie of sculpted animals. The creation of bubbling waterfalls and gnarled caves followed. And from that base, he constructed many-tiered towers spangled with accretions resembling writhing coral, voluptuous fruits, and petrified palms. Elsewhere, naked cherubs perched on soaring arches, three-story-tall stone men guarded lofty turrets, and twisting stairways led to conga lines of gargoyles. Other figures were inspired by Hindu gods and Egyptian mummies, which he likely learned about in the pages of the popular French magazine Le Magasin pittoresque.
As the structure grew, he also scrawled poetic phrases into its wet concrete surfaces. In one nook, he embedded what could be interpreted as his lonely, albeit proud mantra: “The work of one man.” To Cheval, not even his wildest visions were unachievable: “I thought of Napoleon who said the word ‘impossible’ does not or should not exist. Since then, I agree with him. The word impossible no longer exists.”