In my family, we love to throw caution to the wind and go on madcap adventures, so long as said adventures are suitable for both a dog and a 3-year-old boy. So it was that over Labor Day weekend we all piled into the car and set out for a seldom-visited part of Colorado known as the Wet Mountains.
We got a late start and drove until well past dark, finally pitching our tent at a national forest campground at around 10:30 at night. The next morning, the campground host, a friendly older gentleman from Kansas City, came by to collect our fee and chat for a spell. He asked where we were headed, and when we said we didn't really know, he told us we had to stop by Bishop Castle, which was just up the road.
He told us the castle was really neat, but then he offered up this cryptic warning before he left: "Try not to get in a crowd. Jim Bishop's more likely to leave you alone if you're by yourselves."
We weren't really sure what he meant, but we thanked him for his advice anyway and broke camp. Once everything was packed in the car, we drove out of the campground, and there, just minutes away at the top of a hill, we found the castle.
You know how every so often you come across something so incredible that words can't do it justice? That's what we're talking about here. I used to think the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was the coolest manmade structure I'd ever seen, but that was before I saw Bishop Castle. All I can say about the place is that if you live in Colorado and you haven't been to it, drop what you're doing and go there right now. It's seriously that awesome.
It was built -- and is, in fact, still in the process of being built -- by one man, Jim Bishop, working by himself and doing everything by hand. Bishop laid the first stone in 1969 and has slaved away on his labor of love for the last 41 years, creating something straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's wildest dreams.
The first thing we noticed about Bishop Castle as we drove up was that it is huge. I don't know what I expected to see, but it was definitely something smaller than the real thing. The tallest of the castle's four towers rises 160 feet out of the woods, a gargantuan metal dragon head protrudes from the apex of the main roof, and the base looks as if it takes up about a half-acre or so.
The second thing we noticed about the castle, after parking and getting out of the car, was Jim Bishop's booming voice hollering loudly and profanely to anyone within earshot that the U.S. government is sticking it to all of us "sheeple," Hillary Clinton is a horrible bitch, Custer County (where the castle is located) is named after a terrorist who murdered native Americans, etc., etc. Suddenly the camp host's warning made perfect sense.
Fortunately, as we approached the castle, which is open to the public seven days a week on a pure donation basis, Bishop tired of his rant and went off to do something else, leaving us free to explore. We walked up into the main rooms, which feature elaborate, filigreed metalwork and stained-glass windows, and then my son and I climbed, very briefly, up into the second-tallest tower. The reason we only climbed up into it briefly was because the whole thing started to shake when we got to the top of it.
I'm not saying the tower was in danger of collapsing, but I wasn't going to stick around to find out for sure. I was there long enough to notice, however, that the tower has two metal walkways emanating from the top of it that just sort of end in the middle of the air, threatening the unwary with a hundred-foot drop if they're not paying attention.
In fact, let me put it this way: It's inconceivable that something so fraught with peril could be open to the public in 21st century America, but somehow, thankfully, it is. I'm guessing that any building inspectors who've tried to shut Bishop down barely escaped with their lives.
As we were leaving, we saw Bishop working on the castle's massive front gate. I was going to thank him for his efforts but decided it was probably best not to engage him in conversation with a child present. That might have been a little more adventure than I was looking for.
Todd Hartley built a really cool Lego castle when he was 9 but couldn't convince tourists to come see it. To read more or leave a comment, please visit todd-hartley.com.