By Richard McCord

Less than 100 miles north of New Mexico's border with Colorado, on State Highway 165 in the San Isabel National Forest, an inspired 56-year-old fanatic named Jim Bishop is building a great medieval castle, stone by stone by stone. Anyone who stops to see it will come away astonished.

The work began in 1969. At first Bishop meant to build just a stone cottage on his 2"-acre plot of private property off state Route 165 in the San Isabel National Forest west of Colorado City. But when people told him the cottage looked like a castle, the project became his magnificent obsession. Indeed he would erect a castle, he vowed, with his own hands.

In Bishop's vision, his castle would rival those built by European kings in the Middle Ages. It would be a major tourist attraction, helping the economy of the region. But he wanted the castle to be open to the public free of charge, during all the years it was under construction and then forever after.

Such was Bishop's dream. But dreamers and bureaucrats seldom see things the same way, and the project soon touched off a war of nerves with officialdom--a war now 25 years old.

A self-described "poor man," Bishop began using as his building material the large granite stones that were forever washing down into the ditches alongside the roads through the region. His plan was working fine--until national forest rangers demanded $18 a ton. Infuriated and unable to pay that cost, Bishop urged everyone he knew to call the Forest Service and complain. Soon he was buying the rock at 10 cents a ton.

To help motorists find his castle, Bishop put up a sign by the road. The highway department, however, informed him that the sign was illegal and must come down. Grudgingly he complied. Then he noticed signs pointing to nearby ski areas.

Rankled when told that those signs were "exempt" because skiers brought money into the region, Bishop built a model of his castle, parked it by the road, and erected a big sign inviting the public. He also listed the highway department number for people to call. The sign was allowed to stand.

And so things have gone for Bishop and his obsession. He has avoided costly insurance by posting notices that vistors assume all risk. He has avoided property taxes by forming a non-profit corporation. He has sidestepped building codes by assuring pesky inspectors he will make their lives miserable if they apply their petty rules to his monumental structure.

And what a structure it is. Although Bishop figures another 20 years of unceasing labor will be required to finish the job, already his castle soars into the Colorado sky. The central stronghold, the "keep," rises 70 feet in three levels, capped by a steeply pitched roof.

The rear arch is bathed in sunlight streaming through 85 huge panes of glass. Two towers surge past the 100-foot mark, with two more to be added later. One of them is to have a "solar-powered elevator" for the elderly and handicapped.

Topping the front facade is a fantastical creature, a fire-breathing dragon. Through 7-foot stainless steel jaws, fashioned from discarded trays from a hospital, a tall chimney from a stove belches fire and smoke into the forest air.

Future plans are more grandiose still. They include a moat and drawbridge, a great wall encompassing all 2" acres, an organ chapel, a concert balcony, "hanging bedrooms," and, of course, secret passages, tunnels, dungeons and torture chambers. And though it is hard to believe, Bishop swears he alone has done every bit of work on the already-huge castle.

Except when he's out hauling rocks or other materials, he can be found at the castle almost all the time, eager to push his dream, solicit donations, and express his contempt for government and other "godless" forces in America, the land he loves. His castle shows, he says, what one free man can do.

Jim Bishop's eyes confirm him as a man possessed, consumed by a strange, white-hot passion. Yet long after the works of more reasonable men have crumbled back into the earth, his wondrous monument will continue to amaze all who stop to look.

To order Richard McCord's book "The Chain Gang," a real-life adventure about journalism in Santa Fe, visit Amazon.com.

Other Articles by Richard McCord

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