When visitors come to Colorado, they flock to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, to FlatIron Crossing, to Castle Rock Factory Outlets. Those shopping meccas are among the state's top five tourist attractions, according to a study released last month by the Colorado Tourism Office. But if visitors ventured just a little further afield -- to any of these five very individualistic achievements, for example -- they'd remember Colorado as much more than repetitive chain stores and endless asphalt.
Unlike Europe, the United States is short on gaudy, extravagant, tourist-attracting castles. Since 1969, though, Jim Bishop has been doing his part to fill the void, one stone at a time.
When he was just a kid, Jim's parents bought him a two-and-a-half-acre plot of land off Highway 165 outside of Beulah, where he and his dad started building a cottage. Thirty-five years later, Bishop is still building that cottage, which has now grown to a 160-foot-tall castle with two towers, a fire-breathing dragon, a balcony that wraps around the structure, stained-glass windows, an iron bridge -- and no construction plans.
The signs that Bishop has posted outside his castle are just as remarkable. In one, he rants: "This Planet Should Be Renamed the United States of America I Do Not Believe In One World Power -- This Is Problaby the Only Real Answer Places Like Japan Germany & Iraq Should Be Taken Now." They should be taken, Bishop explains, because they started a war with us. "It's part of the one-world power," he says. "From the Illuminati to the Knights Templar, Hitler, Janet Reno, Bill Clinton, Sadass Hussein, Osama bin Eradicated, Yassir Arab-crap. If they want one-world power, why not call it the United States of the World? I don't believe in that imperialism crap. Why the United Nations of the World? Why not do it the right way?"
Not that Bishop is a big fan of this country's government. He's run afoul of the law by taking rocks from national forest land, by making the castle a non-profit organization, by renting it to an out-of-hand wedding party. "The government knows they're all crooks," he says. "They steal, squander, mismanage. They're incompetent, they waste tax dollars, they're against great patriots like me. They're of the devil!"
By now, Bishop's Castle has grown from a mere construction project -- grandiose though it may be -- to proof that the government can't control its creator. "They tried to tame this Indian! They're not going to tame me," Bishop insists. They're certainly not going to make him observe zoning laws: Although Custer County prohibits buildings above 25 feet, the castle was grandfathered in because Bishop started on it before there were zoning laws, he says.
Now in his sixties, Bishop recognizes that the castle may never be completed -- but he says he's already made his mark, since the castle symbolizes the success of a high school dropout who was told he would never amount to anything. "I'm the great castle builder!" he concludes. "These two hands with the help of God built all of that. If Donald Trump wants one like that, he's gotta set aside his money and build it with his own hands. All the money in the world ain't gonna duplicate that."
Antonito is best-known as the northern end of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, but one man thinks he can beat the train as the biggest attraction in town. Cano -- his name is derived from the word "Chicano" -- has already built four castles on land he inherited from his grandmother. They're not as substantial as Bishop's Castle, but they've been enough to keep him busy for 25 years.
"It was hard to find work out in this rural area where there's no economy or prosperity," Cano explains. "You don't want to work for the farmers or ranchers because they don't even pay minimum wage, so you're on your own. I didn't turn into a drug addict or alcoholic, because this is what I got into."
He also got into what he calls Vitamin M. "Mary Jane is my inspiration," he says. With dope fueling his design plans, Cano has built what he calls the King, the Queen and the Palace, plus a fourth castle known as the Rook, the Horse and the Knight. "Seven years ago, I looked at it, and it started looking like chess pieces," he explains. (To those low on Vitamin M, the buildings look remarkably unlike chess pieces.)
The King, which is the only structure that Cano allows people inside, is a four-story tower adorned with aluminum cans and hubcaps, with windows made from shards of glass that Cano collected at the dump. The second story of this castle is "Jesus's Casita, for when he's around the locality," Cano says, adding that all of his castles are a shrine to Jesus, and "if you don't know Jesus, it's your loss."
Inside the chess-piece castles are small rooms decorated from floor to ceiling with an aluminum quilt of more than 100,000 beer and soda cans. Cano used to go out on Saturday nights to collect the cans, but now he just waits until Sunday morning. "My mom used to tell me, 'I don't know of anyone who can hold a bottle in one hand and a hammer in the other,'" he says. "If only I had another hand."
Most of his construction materials were either donated or scrounged. "I cleaned Antonito up," he explains. The Palace, where he resides, is lined with old bottles; the floor is covered with hand-me-down rugs. More donations adorn the rest of the property, which features a cross made of Keystone Light cans and a prophetic cement cookstove studded with marbles that predict events, Cano says, including 9/11. "This one has yet to happen," he adds, pointing at one group of marbles. "Maybe the Santana will come, or maybe something might happen in Iraq. This is a long path, but it's supposed to be something positive, kinda."
Now that his four castles are constructed, he plans to keep sprucing them up. He wants to add a deck to the Palace in hopes of attracting "princesses and princes" and maybe more tourists -- and their wallets. Mary Jane and God willing, that is. "It was God that made them," he says of his masterpieces. "He already proved to me two or three times that he was making them, not me."
It all started with Buzzard George. During a break from farming and firefighting back in 1985, Bill Swets started building an exotic creature out of a mower guard, a bike fork and an old shovel. "It took an hour or so," he remembers, "and I thought, 'There ain't nothing to this.'"
Swets went on to build the other 170 sculptures that now inhabit his Swetsville Zoo, on Harmony Road just south of Fort Collins. "I was a fireman for 22 years," he says. "That's how a lot of them got built. I'd come home in the middle of the night, and after a suicide or something, you can't sleep."
His favorite is the dinosaur band called "Two and One Half," which plays what he calls "heavy-metal junk." But he's also partial to "Eggy," a hatching dinosaur, and a two-headed dragon known as "Puff." Gazing at Puff, Swets outlines one of his artistic predicaments: Theoretically, the dragon's wings aren't big enough to hold up the weight of its body. "I did a lot of research," he says. "Dragons breathe fire; everyone knows that. Well, since they breathe fire, their whole belly is full of hot air, so they float. They just use their wings for propulsion."
"There's a little bit of hot air that goes on around here," he notes, walking off.
Swets's sculptures have gone through several phases during the past two decades. He spent a few years creating musical instruments, built something for each of his grandsons, and is now concentrating on vehicles. Autosaurus, a thirty-foot-long violet dinosaur/automobile with power steering, power brakes and a Ford V8 engine, is his latest. Sitting in its mouth, a driver can rev the work up to 90 mph. But Swets, a stickler for safety, says he never takes it over 30.
Other vehicles include the Dinocruiser, which Swets says is for moving dinosaurs, and Cinderella's Carriage, which is pulled by an 8-horsepower mouse. "I thought I'd cover him with indoor/outdoor carpet because it looks like fur," he explains. "But it's all compound curves. I'll tell you, I had more trouble with him! The mechanical part was easy compared to the upholstering!"
Before he began creating sculptures, Swets built bicycles, including a ten-person unit that local firemen brought out for parades, and unicycles that his sons used to make pick-up basketball games particularly challenging. One inventive bike has two parallel seats, a huge set of handlebars and no way to turn. "If you pedal backwards," he points out, "that sucker'll cut doughnuts."
Wonder View Tower
"Guess what this is?" Jerry Chubbuck asks, holding what looks like an oddly shaped rock. "Here's a hint: A dinosaur is heading south; this comes out his north end."
The petrified poo is the first item in Chubbuck's "Guess What" game. If you get all of the answers right, he'll give you back your one-dollar admission. But since the rest of the questions involve a nasal douche, a chicken-killing tool, glove stretchers, a whip holder and Chubbuck's favorite, a magician's knife, he usually gets to keep his money.
Chubbuck's complete collection of odd items is housed in the Wonder View Tower, a sixty-foot-tall structure that was the highest point between Denver and New York City in 1934. At the time, Ripley's Believe It or Not also confirmed that from the top of the tower on clear days, you could see six states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico and South Dakota.
The tower was built in 1926 in Genoa, a town ninety miles east of Denver along what's now I-70, by Charles Gregory, who was known as the "P.T. Barnum of Colorado." (Never mind that Barnum himself had lived here decades earlier.) In addition to the highest point in 2,000 miles, he also constructed a dozen other rooms and created a popular dancehall/restaurant/roadside destination. "It was a really busy place back then," Chubbuck says.
Chubbuck, who was born in nearby Arriba, bought the complex in 1967, when his farming and ranching business took a turn for the worse. He added more rooms to hold the arrowheads he'd been collecting since he was a kid, and turned the entire place into a huge gift shop and repository of rare goods. His million-piece collection of artifacts, bottles, books, paintings, puzzles, old tools, rocks, picture frames, bullets, bowls and figurines stretches across 22 rooms, including five rooms in the tower. "If it ain't here...it don't exist," promises Wonder View's brochure -- and the place delivers.
Pointing to a 165-pound piece of purple quartz, Chubbuck says, "I'll give it to you if you can put it in your pocket." He doesn't make the same offer with the Civil War buttons -- "the kind they used in Dances With Wolves," the two-headed calf, the white rattlesnake or the one-eyed pig preserved in formaldehyde.
"I need to get more formaldehyde," he says, "but they won't sell it to me, because people use it in meth labs."
Wonder View Tower may once have been the highest point east of Denver, but Judy Messoline has set her sights a lot higher.
After moving from Golden to the San Luis Valley ten years ago to raise cattle, Messoline learned of the area's high concentration of UFO activity. "I always watched The X-Files, but before this I knew nothing about it," she says. And since she didn't have much success raising cattle, in May 2000 she built the UFO Watchtower outside of Hooper. Since then, there have been 31 UFO sightings in the area -- and Messoline's been in on twenty of them.
In one instance, witnesses claim to have seen two lights moving quickly until the one in front stopped to allow the second to catch up, and then they shot across the sky together. In another, a couple said they'd spotted some sort of aircraft go right into a nearby mountain. "I can't tell you if they're little green men, but it is bizarre," Messoline says.
The tower consists of a ten-foot-high metal observation deck above a geodesic dome that serves as a gift shop, stocked with alien paraphernalia and books including Messoline's own work, That Crazy Lady Down the Road. The facility also includes a camping area for people who come to spot UFOs, and a rock garden that Messoline says many people consider to be a healing place, where they can meditate about problems in their lives.
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When a pair of tourists look disbelieving, Messoline encourages them to walk through the garden and feel its energy. Their skepticism may be directed more at the two vortexes, or doors to parallel universes, that she says are also in the garden. Messoline discovered the vortexes when a man shone his high-powered flashlight into the sky above and light spiraled over two specific spots. Since that night, more than twenty psychics or particularly intuitive people have identified the vortexes, she says. The psychics also confirmed that two large beings protect the entrances.
"There have been phenomenal results from people just going in and asking for help," Messoline says. "I don't care if it's aliens, angels or God himself. If it helps people, it's good."
Tourists and psychics aren't the only ones who visit. "A lot of times people will come to talk about their abduction experience or UFO experience, or being an extraterrestrial," she says. "They just don't want people to make fun of them. I ask them why they're here, and they say they're here to help people get to the next dimension." While it might be easy to dismiss their claims, Messoline points out that it's harder to ignore the fact that some people who say they're ETs look so similar that they could be twins.
"Sometimes I'll lie awake at night just trying to figure this out," she adds. "You see this stuff, and there has to be an explanation. So far, nobody's been able to come up with one, but it's been fun."