AT 14, JOHN VAN BARRIGER, longing for vaster vistas than those of his flattish hometown of Aurora, Ill., walked 20 miles to the nearest tracks hoping to catch a freight train headed for the majestic mountains of the American West—snowcapped ranges he had seen only at Saturday matinees. A woman spotted the truant in a boxcar and called the police. But the dream survived. Van Barriger, a painting contractor who collects western artifacts, never stopped thinking about those peaks. "You'd see these [mountains] that you wanted to grasp and hold on to," he says.

Now, at 62, Van Barriger is building his own mountain, a proposed 60-foot-high pile of brick and dirt that, only half-finished, already covers an area the size of a baseball diamond. It is meant to be the crowning feature of his 32-acre, frontier-themed property near tiny Big Rock, Ill.

Van Barriger refers to his mound, which he plans to cover with gravel and red rock to imitate the sunburnt peaks of Arizona, as a work of art. The Kane County Development Department, however, sees it as, well, a big pile of brick and dirt. And worse. "The fact is, his right to express himself has resulted in a violation of county ordinance," protests executive director Phillip Bus, who has referred the case to a state's attorney. He says 40 percent of Van Barriger's mountain encroaches on the floodplain of nearby Welch Creek.

Van Barriger has already spent $10,000 defying topography, and though he could be fined as much as $500 for each week his mountain stays where it is, he says he would go to jail rather than move it. His neighbors, also a bit bored with the terrain, tend to sympathize. Says retired carpenter Earl Pearl: "John made it prettier around here. It was just a plowed field before."