Bishop Castle, San Isabel National Forest, Rye, Colorado
Bishop Castle is undoubtedly one of the craziest castles in the world, created by the one-man castle builder Jim Bishop. It’s an incredible place to get married or just to visit for inspiration.
Jim Bishop’s Dream
To a great extent, the construction of Bishop Castle has been fueled by creator Jim Bishop’s inveterate hatred of authority and his contempt for anyone willing to submit to that authority. He has spent years battling zoning, health, noise, and sales tax regulations in his ongoing quest to single-handedly expand and modify “the largest one-man construction project in the country, quite possibly the world,” all the while arguing that the government has “pulled a fast one on the americanSHEEPLE” by chiseling away at our constitutional rights through a monolithic global conspiracy. Along the way, certain neighbors have accused Jim of being a satanic presence for allowing rave parties in the castle, and at one point several years ago, he and his son even had to overcome fifteen felony charges in court for dispersing a large group of unruly wedding party guests with a shotgun.
What many people don’t know about Jim is that he has spent much of his life being humble, generous, and affable to friends, family, and strangers alike. He believes that giving to charity is a moral obligation, and the Bishop family applies this principle to real-world scenarios. The castle has functioned as a tax-exempt, non-profit entity since 1984. This means that a visit there is always free and open to the public. Of greater significance, Jim and his wife Phoebe run the Bishop Castle Non-Profit Charitable Foundation for New-Born Heart Surgery, which helps local families with medical expenses for young children who aren’t covered by insurance. Hence, donations and purchases from a gift shop the Bishop family built on castle grounds have paid for construction of the castle and treatment for children in need. In short, Jim is as complex as his creation.
The drive to Bishop Castle is a steadily curving incline along Highway 165, a road just southwest of Pueblo, Colorado that leads through dense stands of Ponderosa pine, broad meadows, and sharp ledges that open below to sweeping vistas of uncultivated ranch land. After several miles of steep road surrounded by thickening forest, visitors finally reach their destination at 9,000 feet above sea level in the thin Colorado air. Dozens of cars line the road, and scores of people stroll toward a thick barricade of trees penetrated by a dirt trail that passes a moat and a bridge Jim has been working on for the last several years. When jokingly asked if he’s planning on filling the moat with alligators when it’s finished, Jim says, “No, I think I’d fill it with lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats, but that might backfire on me because they would probably promulgate in the sewage.”
Just a few hundred feet farther up the trail sits Bishop Castle. Jutting above the trees, a dragon’s head of charred silver cranes over the castle’s face, imaginary flames rolling from its forked tongue and flared nostrils. The castle itself, a throwback to the Middle Ages and a testament to human endurance, sprawls in unapologetic splendor across a wide expanse of gradually sloping open ground. Every stone and every inch of mortar seem to have been hurled into a conflation of ordered chaos on a massive scale by a man who has never once used a blueprint or floor plan, only his sheer force of will and self-described “God-given genius.” Close by, a chipmunk scurries from one empty food wrapper to another. Although engrossed in its reconnaissance, the animal seems a study in cautious indifference as it continually dodges tourists who are themselves preoccupied with finding the right camera angle from which to shoot a picture of the dragon.
Flying buttresses on every side of the structure anchor three floors, lending the castle an appearance of stability and Old World elegance. On the southeast corner, a column of 42 outer steps dropping from the third floor to the ground juts out at 60 degrees, so steep and with such short footing that a tow-headed 6-year-old girl brave enough to have dared a solo descent on her own has stalled midway. Sitting on a step and trembling uncontrollably, she shrieks over and over, “Daddy, I’m afraid!” The father climbs the steps cautiously, grabs her in one arm, and carries her down slowly, intently, all the while clutching the wrought-iron balustrade, and although his emotions are far more guarded, clearly, he’s scared, too. This is a moment both father and daughter will never forget. They will be forever bonded by an event inspired by an unforeseen challenge, and one must wonder how their memories will filter and reinterpret this experience over the passage of time.
Thirty feet from the base of the castle, Jim stands in the bed of an old pickup truck. His spine is curved from years of hauling an endless supply of boulders that have built his fame. He wears a faded black t-shirt that sports a logo of the castle. Over his heart, a blue inscription reads, “Jim, the Creator.” This man is a far cry from the sickly little 3rd grade boy he once was, the one with the big ears, big nose, and devastating kidney infection who never seemed to fit in anywhere and suffered perhaps the ultimate adolescent indignity—the indifference of others. Now, he’s the grand designer of his own destiny, the center of attention and the one who chooses sides in an adult schoolyard of his own making, and he sees his castle as a protective barrier that shields him from his most resilient opponent, a hostile government that thrives on assaulting individual liberties.
A screwdriver in his hand, Jim quietly examines the motor of a pulley system rigged firmly into the bed of the truck. At various intervals, small groups wander up to the vehicle as if by accident. Most visitors have heard stories that recount Jim’s eccentric behavior, and indeed, moments like this often inspire Jim to burst into explosive, unorthodox dialectic with anyone willing to endure his incendiary world view. Suddenly, he spins on the crowd with a fierce stare and strikes up a debate with a nervous tourist. He points his screwdriver directly at the man and poses a provocative and unexpected question:
Jim: Do you own your car? Do you actually think that you own your car?
Jim: No you don’t. You have a certificate of ownership, that’s all. The bank owns your car. Some bank up in Denver holds the title to your car.
Tourist: How do you mean?
Jim: Do you think I own this winch? I bought it with greenbacks. I don’t own it. It’s their money and their winch. They can come and take it any time they want to.
Tourist: So who does own the winch?
Jim: The World Bank owns everything. The Federal Reserve. They own everything. Roosevelt gave it to them in the 1930s. I don’t own that winch. I bought it with certificate of money; they own it. You know, nobody owns anything. They own every individual.
Tourist: But who exactly is “they”?
Jim: The Rothschilds, the rich people in England and Europe. The World Bank. The seven rich families of the world. And a lot of them are Jews. But Hitler handled them the wrong way. He didn’t need to murder them. Take advantage of them. They’re the money-mongers. They’re the money people. Use them. Put them to work.
Jim plunges his hands down toward the crowd. They’re thick with calluses and covered in grease. He shouts,
Shouldn’t our elected officials be competent, patriotic, responsible role models? None of them are. They’re all legal criminals! They’re legal but unlawful. That’s why I call them “legal criminals.” Dictators! But do they have hands like these? Do they? Guess what? This is my kingdom! That road down there’s my highway because of this castle. Isn’t it refreshing to have a dictator of policy by merit of hard work and the help of God? Not warfare, not politicking, not brown-nosing? Isn’t it nice to see a dictator with hands like these? HA HA HA HA HA!
At this point, most of the people standing around the truck begin to disperse and head toward the castle. Jim goes back to work on the winch he claims he doesn’t own because he bought it with greenbacks. Still, legal tender plays a significant role in everyone’s life no matter how we perceive its symbolic import. It certainly helped shape Jim’s destiny. In 1959, when Jim was 15 years old and had just dropped out of high school, he gave his parents $450 he had earned from working odd jobs and convinced them to buy a two-and-a-half acre parcel of land in San Isabel National Forest, which is where the castle now sits. Hence, Jim’s youthful drive and instinctive desire for autonomy evolved into a life-long project that even he did not consider at the time of the purchase. His $450 investment, which probably seemed like a significant sum of money back then, has paid itself forward to every person who has visited the castle since.
To explore this monumental construction project in thorough detail, visitors must choose between two available means of access. On the one hand, they can enter the bowels of the castle through a network of circular stairwells that spring from the bedrock of the ground floor. On the other hand, they can scale the outdoor steps. Most decide to first enter through the castle’s interior, probably because of the natural desire to be drawn into and through a labyrinth of shadowy mazes and spiraling ascents that promises danger and uncertainty. The indoor stairwells lead upward through two tall towers thrusting to the sky, one of which juts 160 feet into the air, above even the tallest of the surrounding trees. The higher one climbs in the castle, the fewer people he or she will encounter on the way up. In fact, many visitors refuse to travel beyond the spacious, comparatively safe, and well-lit third floor. The castle becomes a character test for every person who enters inside its walls, and it briefly divides certain families and friends in the process.
The third floor has been the site of more than 160 weddings over the years, and it truly is something to behold. Scores of variously shaped but mostly arched windows dot the length of each wall, their stained glass artwork sometimes dark and foreboding, sometimes brighter and a bit more thought-provoking, like the image of a mysterious sorcerer holding a staff with a crystal ball mounted on the end, or the one of an eagle sailing over a Native American on a horse, with a header above the scene that reads, “I will live once as they once did, wild and free.”
A terrace surrounds the third floor. The walkways themselves are constructed of expanded metal while both the railings and supports are fashioned from Jim’s signature ornamental ironwork. The same floor has also been the nerve center for a host of all-night raves over the years, which has led to neighbors accusing Jim of harboring satanic forces. Ironically, when asked if he thinks letting ravers party in his castle all night is safe, Jim says, “The reason it’s fairly safe is because people can sense the danger. There’s no deception. Evil and the Devil only have power through deception. If people could see how evil the Devil is, they’d avoid the Devil, and they’d avoid deceivers.” All the same, some neighbors who especially hate the raves got a judge to issue a permanent injunction against them. Jim circumvented this problem by changing the name of the events to “private parties” since private parties aren’t illegal for someone with a 501(c)3 non-profit charter from the IRS.
Higher up, above the third floor, is where the real tests of courage take place, in remote corners of the castle designed to puzzle the will. Those who travel this far add compelling new chapters to their anthologies of fear. Most people traverse the walkways cautiously, muttering under their breath. Whether they venture only as far as the relative safety of the third floor or dare to scale a tower’s peak, they’re all afraid to one degree or another, but increased altitude breeds intense anxiety. They clutch the curled iron rails, hoping no one senses their distress, and they can’t help but wonder how something so immense and anomalous could have possibly been built in such a seemingly benign corner of the Colorado wilderness. They know they’re on their own up on these heights, and the uncertainty of the next moment keeps them vigilant. One particular section of the castle best defines this high strangeness. Jutting out into the sunlight, a lone walkway sways uncertainly from powerful wind gusts, and then it dead ends abruptly in midair.
This forlorn passage to nowhere is probably as representative of Jim’s cynicism as any other location in America, if not more so. Outliers perceive conventional views differently because they don’t live in a conventional world. From an outlier’s vantage point, ritual and tradition appear as meaningless and dangerous distractions, as things to be scorned and avoided at all costs. They are byproducts of mind viruses that have been implanted in the American psyche by people in power who wish to shape and direct group behavior. In an environment like this, self-preservation requires a colder eye. The worst thing one can do is let manipulative control structures define cultural identity based on unwarranted consumer-driven obsessions tethered to the global economy.
Consequently, Jim doesn’t see much hope anymore in the American Dream, and beyond individual acts of decency and ambition, our destiny as a visionary nation of high ideals seems to have run its course. He believes we are being subsumed by a corporate police state that answers to global, not national, interests, and the citizenry is oblivious or indifferent to this sobering reality. He says,
There’s nothing united about the United States. We’re an offshore bankrupt corporation. Geographically, we’re a country. Politically and economically, we’re not. Our soldiers fight for a corporation, not a country. Our leaders are the warmongers. And what’s the big thing now? Football! Basketball! The World Series! Them are just games.
Of course everything’s just a game. This is just a game. But you ask yourself, who benefits? The people who benefit are the people forcing this one-world government. The World Bank. They got these bailouts, where they all got paid because they collect again because you signed the contract. All the mortgages were paid. If they’d have given us the money, we could have paid off our bad sub-prime houses and stuff and had money left over to stimulate the economy.
You ask yourself, who benefits? They got the Patriot Act. There’s nothing patriotic about the Patriot Act. Congress didn’t even read it, let alone write it. Cheney and the banksters wrote it. They got the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act. They got the NSA, empowered that even more, where they can surveille everybody. They got multi-jurisdictional cops everywhere now. Any cop can pull you over for any reason. Everybody’s a terrorist because you used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now we’re all guilty until proven innocent because it makes money. See what’s going on?
Looking down from the castle’s apex is a defining moment for the more ambitious guests. Perhaps only from here, from this sovereign perch, does Jim’s vision come into focus, and this view must have surprised him, too, at times, must have made him rethink who he was, penetrated deep into his wrought-iron and granite world of will and idea and somehow twisted the perception of his own monument into something even more bewildering and transcendent, beyond illness, pain, sorrow, and confusion, something timeless to the touch, sacred to the eye, an offering to the lonely hand of humanity that’s always reaching out for something it can never have, and now, here in the high and windy forest, the arches and walkways and stairways and towers and dragon and unsettled tourists converge in one man who, day and night, year after year, harvested boulders from the hills, carried or hoisted them into place with paternal care and Stone Age aggression, and grouted them tight with cement until he realized that he could never stop — one man built those towers, wrote his own legacy, and nurtured an inner rage that will likely follow him to his grave, pleased as he is with the redemptive art of construction, with the wonder of useful dreams made whole, the ones that should never die.