Killed by a Castle

Killed by a Castle September 20, 2011

We spent a few days in Pagosa Springs, one of our favorite getaway spots in Colorado. Although there’s not much in the way of nightlife, we wouldn’t have much use for it anymore even if they did, seeing as how we have one-plus kids in tow.

The highlight of Pagosa is the hot springs, which include more than a dozen manmade pools, all fed by a mixture of river and natural hot spring water. The smell all around the place is pungent, like a giant fart really, but over time that stench has come to represent relaxation for us. We take the three-hour drive from Pagosa to Pueblo a few times a year, decompressing and getting ourselves ready for the certain rush of activity that faces us when we get back home.

My son, Mattias, has come to really enjoy the springs too, even though the mellow environment isn’t exactly complementary to his personality. Something about the zoned-out hippie vibe of the place, though, affects even him. This isn’t to say that he’s an easygoing kid or anything, but I like to think it’s a good exercise in relaxation for him too. I’m not so sure the other guests at the springs agree, but relatively speaking, he’s a pretty chill little guy there.

One of his favorite things to do is to talk to everyone. Whereas we find his endless stream of questions a little bit of a beat-down after a while, new acquaintances still find it charming. He has no qualms about going up to complete strangers and asking them about what toys they like most, where they go to school, and if they’re big enough to make it through the night without wetting the bed.

He’s also quite the ladies’ man, even when he’s not trying to be. It’s sadly ironic that one of the best chick-bait strategies on the planet is a little kid, which generally puts you out of the running to take advantage of their charms.

Amy took Mattias into the locker rooms to change one afternoon, when they came across two attractive young women from Europe, each in their trademark itty-bitty bikinis.

“Excuse me ladies,” Mattias walked up to them as they were changing, “can I spin your suits for you?” There’s a centrifuge-like device in the locker rooms that spin the water out of the swimsuits to make them easier to pack. I have to assume that, given his age and lack of sexual awareness, he was really just trying to be helpful, but lines like that to literally charm women out of their clothes don’t come along every day.

They smiled and respectfully declined his offer, but he persisted. “It’s not too loud,” he said. “I can do it for you later if you change your mind, or you can probably handle it if you want to do them yourself.”

How awesome is that? Moments like that make a dad so proud.

On the way back from Pagosa, we decided to take a detour toward Rye, in the mountains south of Pueblo, to check out a landmark that’s grown to mythic proportion these days, called Bishop Castle. I’d never seen it before, despite living an hour or so away, and Mark could hardly resist the temptation to show off something to me I’d never seen before. It definitely was worth the extra time to get there.

Jim Bishop began building this castle, out in the middle of nowhere on the eastern ridge of the Southern Colorado Rockies, about thirty-nine years ago. Every day, he hoists one flagstone on top of another and secures them together with mortar. Every day, he welds two more pieces of wrought iron together. As far as I know, he has no specific blueprints, and based on the structural integrity, he’s consulted with no engineers, but the product of his obsessive labor is one of the biggest structures ever created by a single pair of human hands.

Jim was there the day we visited, his shirt caked in concrete dust, and his fists hanging at his sides like stones he worked with every day for decades. The entire area is littered with handwritten signs he’s posted over the years, most of which point to a less-than-intact psyche. Quotes like “9-11 was an inside job” and rants about the federal government and taxes are all over the place. I guess you could assume that a guy who spends his entire adult life building a castle in the middle of nowhere by hand with no plans is not exactly normal, but the signs add to the eeriness of the place.

“Here,” Jim jumps into a conversation with us that apparently had been taking place without us prior to our arrival, “see this book? They feature my place in here, and this thing’s published in Japan. Japan!” He pointed to another structure, emblazoned with hammered metal and noticeably bigger than his own place. “Mine’s not the biggest building ever built by one man. This one here is being built by a monk in Spain who believes God told him to do it.”

He tossed the book back in the passenger seat of his pickup truck. “I’d like to say I’m building mine to glorify the Lord,” he said, shaking his head, “but God knows when you’re lying. Me, I’m doing this to glorify myself and my family. That’s it.” He nodded as I dropped a five-dollar bill in his donation box – he’s proud to point out that no tax dollars have subsidized his project – and returned to his labor.

Rather than a monument, Bishop Castle is more of a memorial. Jim began building the sprawling structure as a young man, bringing his son into the mix when he was old enough to do his share of the work. One day, they were removing a massive tree for by hooking a chain around the trunk, and pulling it down with their truck. The way the story goes, they got the tree partially dislodged from its spot, but the deeper-running roots kept it from coming completely out of the ground. To help loosen the hold it had in the rocky soil, Jim’s son crawled down in the crater beneath the tree to cut loose some of the roots. As he worked, the chain loosened inexplicably, freeing the tree from the truck and sending it sliding back into its hole, on top of Jim’s son, who died instantly.

I can’t confirm the details of the story, and there was no way I was going to ask Jim to verify facts, but however it played out, the tragedy casts a pall over the ongoing work Jim Bishop has done ever since. As I scaled the hundreds of steps making up the spiral staircase in the 180-foot tower, it felt like I was shrouded in his grief, built up, one stone at a time, over so many years. Like the castle itself, there was no clear resolution to his grief; instead, he just kept pushing forward, building more every day, if for no other reason than to keep from having to stop.

The top of the spire was dizzyingly unsteady. My legs were shaking visibly by the time I reached the top, partly due to exertion and lack of oxygen at about 7,000 feet, and also because the whole thing just didn’t feel quite done. It bowed with the wind, an iron cage perched on top of hand-picked stones, all depending on thousands more below them to maintain their place in the order. I could see for miles from the highest point, causing me to feel at the same time strangely omnipotent and pitifully alone. I wondered how much thought he put into the metaphoric significance of the castle, or if it simply oozed out from his pores and into his work, taking on pieces of his own consciousness and personality as any person’s lifelong project would do.

Amy breathed a sigh of relief when I finally crawled back down from the top. She pointed out, when I commented about the precarious nature of the construction, that someone like Jim, who has been forced to face the reality of his deepest fears – in this case, losing a son – mere things like the risk of death hold no power any more. I looked up along the path of my ascent, and saw his makeshift scaffolding, all along the outside walls. The whole contraption was no more than a collection of two-by-fours, held together with some old nails. Anyone would have to be nuts to walk along such a deathtrap, especially with fifty-pound boulders in their hands; that, or they simply would have to practically welcome death.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. Find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • Mrsdowns41

    The energy that surrounds that place is palpably. The nature of the place made from  stone in it natural state stacked by a man with an agenda, to the view of Lake Pueblo from the spire. Weather he is making a political statement or grieving the loss of a son, Bishops Castle has taken on a life of its own. We all leave a piece of our energy when we go there and it gives Mr Bishop purpose. A reason for all of his toiling. 

  • Daryn

    By the grace of god Christian Piatt, I would love to see the castle that you have built with no money by hand and with no help well grieving!! I bet its easy to sit behind your desk and criticize this profoundly motivated man work. When you die nobody will care about your writings but that castle will be there in his memory for a long time buddy.

  • Merissa

    Chrstian Piatt,
    It sounds to me like you are criticizing Jim Bishop more than anything.
    And the whole bit about him not being normal? What in the Lords name is normal to you? I visited his Castle today and got to shake Jim Bishop’s hand. He is an extraordinary man with more talent than most people can muster up in a lifetime, and more motivation and passion in his work than anybody I have ever known. If his work doesn’t blow you away, you must be one of those rich yuppies who doesn’t appreciate real dedication and hard work. Jim Bishop isn’t nuts, he is pure genius.

  • valerie

    Not accurate. This is simply a story. Did not research.

  • April

    I read this article, and it just destroyed my childhood memories of Mr. bishop.
    My family and I went to the castle about 25-26 years ago, and my memory of the whole experience is now based on untruths. We were told that Mr. bishops son had gotten lost after the snow fell, and they didn’t find him until spring, ironically just across the road, apparently the whiteout snowfall made it too difficult for the young boy to find his way. I remember how touched my whole family was that one man was building this beautiful castle to honor his son… fact so touched that I’ve been telling my hubby all about it for 15 years and hoped to revisit with my own kids…