With the candles shining into the newly fallen night and a violin playing softly, young Keira Callahan approached the 67-year-old man, whose rock creations were aglow in the dark backdrop.

“I love it,” the 7-year-old exclaimed to Old Dog, the drifting artist known now as the creator of the Rock Garden behind Calhoun Seventh-day Adventist Church. “I put down three candles and saw two frogs.”

Right behind Callahan was Ashley Sebastiani and her 9-year-old daughter Molly, of Jasper.

“We just wanted to say we’re so glad we skipped choir,” laughed Ashley Sebastiani, who first met Old Dog with her daughter just days before while on a field trip to Copper Creek Farm, deciding to return to Calhoun for the sixth annual lighting ceremony at the Rock Garden, to see the castles and cathedrals, tiny villages and narrow footpaths.

And in response, Old Dog smiled, finding joy in the excitement and wonderment in those indulging in his creation on Sunday night.

“This is the payoff,” Old Dog said. “You just saw how much I’ve been paid. There needs to be people who don’t live on money.”

In addition to finding fulfillment in the reactions of strangers, the Rock Garden is a reminder of Old Dog’s own children and the inspiration he felt as a young father to give them a place to play. And it’s why he stays late, after the crowd has come and gone, to reflect on the “town games” — an invented game involving clay figures and rock towns where an imagined place was brought to life — he played with his children over the years.

“There is a presence here,” Old Dog said. “And it’s the presence of the Lord … and love and discovery and playfulness.”

It’s a place of rebirth, where Old Dog and his wife, Joyce, shared in their common artistic expression more than 10 years ago, to build a place without drama or stress, only sporting the essence of what childhood should be — the freedom to dream and imagine.  

The story, at least as he tells it, goes that when he asked her to marry him she declined, saying he was broke and had too many kids. The next day she came back to him with a change of mind, and the two married in the garden.

“The Lord has given me the desires of my heart,” said Old Dog, sharing from Psalm 37.

Before the lighting ceremony began, Old Dog spoke with a man, who shook from Parkinson’s disease. The man said he had come to the garden with the intent to end his life, overcome by his diagnosis. But when he found himself in this place, he found new life, Old Dog said.

“It’s like a dream world,” he said.