Somewhere deep in the heart of Colorado's San Isabel National Forest, a fire-breathing dragon and one Spartan man keep watch over a stone castle in a valley. A 16-story tower spires from the ornate ironwork and angular masonry of a stained-glass grand hall, with several adjoining staircases and chambers. Sunlight invades the looming fortress, scattering shadows capriciously, while the occasional toll of a watchtower bell breaks the otherwise pervasive silence.
This medieval chateau triumphs as the work of that single watchman, a testament to 36 continuous years of solo construction on weekends and summer days. The man is Jim Bishop; the castle bears his name, and his work on it will continue until the heart in his chest no longer beats.
On the warm afternoon that we tour his empire, Bishop labors over rock and cement on an outer wall with one strong arm. His other hangs helpless by his side in a cast. Nothing keeps this 61-year-old artist from his passion.
Castle enthusiasts estimate that Bishop has handled every stone in the castle an average of six times. His accomplishment looms as possibly the largest one-man project in the world. Bishop has hauled his own rocks, felled and milled necessary timber, built scaffolding, mixed mortar and created complex rigging networks of pulleys to hoist materials. He has toiled over painstaking details, including the construction of a metal dragon's head that "breathes" fire with creative use of a hot-air balloon engine.
A truckload of hand-painted plywood signs adorn the castle's enclosure, relating stories and political opinions at each turn of our journey. The makeshift plaques detail Bishop's fight with the local government and his angst against unconstitutional policies and bureaucracy in general. Bishop wants his mammoth creation to remain free -- in spirit, and to its visitors -- forever.
As we gawk over an inviting crevice, children nervously scream from the high towers above. Adults roam about wearing childlike visages, nearly indistinguishable from the kids', save for facial hair and lines. Once we cautiously reach the exposed pinnacle of the highest tower, we understand the giddy shrieking. How did one man attain this zenith?
After toiling at the wall, Bishop takes up post on a folding chair next to his wife, Pheobe. It's a humble throne that oversees the kingdom. To Pheobe's right, a card table displays fund-raising items: baked goods and a few souvenir trinkets.
My girlfriend purchases a small loaf of banana bread for $5. The pensive Bishop looks over and declares, "If you can wait until you get that to some butter..." then trails off, shaking his head and pursing his lips in mock ecstasy. Like a truly noble king, Bishop extends kindness and courtesy to all strangers inside his gates.
Upon inquiry, Bishop relates that he wounded his arm in a mechanical accident during his day job, and not while working on the castle, as many have suspected. His disappointment at being hindered in his beloved work is evident, if not painfully obvious. He rests like a hungry, leashed wolverine staring out at a herd of deer or some other low-hanging fruit of the animal kingdom. Patience -- a glance at his accomplishment proves he must have mastered the virtue.
-- Matthew Schniper
Daytrip: Bishop's Castle, open seven days a week until sundown, year round. Free, donation suggested.
Escape Route: Take Highway 115 South to Highway 67; to Highway 96; to Highway 165. Travel south 12 miles; the castle will be on your right.
Extra Credit: Stop into Coyote's Coffee Den in Penrose on the way, then grab a photo down the road in front of Doxey's Apple Shed, site of the world's largest rocking chair.