RYE, Colo. — There are different drummers, and then there are different drummers.
Jim Bishop has been marching to a really strange one for four decades now, building a castle, Bishop Castle, all by himself, rock by rock, a monument that now rises 160 feet toward the heavens in the San Isabel National Forest between Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Its fire-breathing dragon won’t blow smoke through its nostrils till weekends after Memorial Day, but already there are dozens of tourists climbing and crawling about the impressive towers. Children are negotiating the catwalks and turrets with abandon. Adults are holding on for dear life.
When I first drive up to Bishop Castle, I wish I were the late, great Ernie Pyle, stumbling upon a sight nobody else has ever seen, the first to share it with the world through newspaper word pictures. It doesn’t happen that way much anymore.
Jim Bishop has been on television. He’s all over the Internet. Reporters from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas — and, of course, Colorado — have been here. If you Google “Jim Bishop” you can see photographs and read all about the castle on Jim Bishop’s website or Wikipedia. You can watch Bishop’s anti-government rants on YouTube. Depending on the narrator, Bishop is either a national hero or a serious nutcase, you decide.
I don’t know where you’d have to go to “discover” something first anymore, but it would be a lot more remote than at 9,000-foot elevation near Rye, Colo. Mars, perhaps.
You can argue with his politics, but you can’t argue with the castle. With foundations 12 feet deep, its basic three stories aren’t the half of it; spiraling wrought-iron garnishes and towers seem to disappear into a sky the color of Windex.
Jim Bishop used no blueprints or written plans, but has kept at it since 1969, adding a moat here, a dungeon there, the dragon with its neck built out of donated stainless-steel warming plates headed to a dump from a Pueblo hospital. The castle won’t be done till he’s done, and he looks plenty healthy. The day I visit, he’s burning brush. “Enjoy yourself, tell people, word of mouth is important,” he says with a distracted air. There are no rants.
Jim Bishop bought the land with the help of his parents when he was 15 years old. He saved the $450 it cost from throwing newspapers, cutting grass and helping at his father’s ornamental iron business. He started work on a cabin at the site 10 years later, and friends kept remarking the stone construction looked like a castle. His imagination took over. A castle!
Jim harvested the granite, with permission, from the national forest, and estimates he’s handled each stone at least six times. He uses cables, blocks and pulleys, come-alongs and tripods that he has designed and built. Working from the ground up, he’s become used to heights.
Even the Internal Revenue Service and local zoning officials couldn’t stop the castle from rising. “Love” letters to pesky government officials line the walks into what amounts to a perpetual construction zone. Oddball flourishes — stained glass of a rocker playing guitar, an Excalibur sword in a rock, a wringer washing machine in the banquet hall — make this the most bizarre beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
So what if I’m not the first to drive up to the moat, park my car and walk boards over mud to the steep stairs? So what if I don’t write about it first? We can’t all be the first to step foot on the moon, or hit a golf ball across its pocked surface. But all of us can dance in the moonlight.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.