“The next pandemic, I’m making full body armor,” says Jim Bishop, the king of Bishop Castle, a 160-foot-high stone-and-metal structure in Wetmore, just outside the San Isabel National Forest, that could be this state’s largest piece of folk art and definitely qualifies as one of its most unusual attractions.
Bishop’s been adding to his magnificent obsession since 1969, give or take a few days and $20,000 in legal fees after a former friend tried to seize the title to the property, and he’s been there through the coronavirus pandemic, tinkering with his castle and chatting with the few brave visitors who’ve ventured to the remote spot, mask or no mask. “I’ve got no running water here,” he warns. “I clean up in Pueblo.”
But still, Bishop Castle is open for business. “I need all the publicity I can get,” says Bishop.
“You talked to Jim Bishop?” marvels Erin K. Barnes. While she’s poked into most nooks and crannies around the state, including Bishop Castle (she learned the hard way that you shouldn’t wear a skirt while exploring that towering edifice), she’s never interviewed the eccentric artist who created it. But she did use Bishop Castle as the focal point of a book proposal. “It’s so Colorado to me,” she says. “I’m a weirdo, and I was trying to write this travel book, and I was trying to balance my own weird interest with others. And I wondered, what is the most Colorado thing?”
Bishop Castle, she decided. Bishop is “so purely devoted to creating his own space,” Barnes says.
And these days, who isn’t?
Embrace the Chaos
While the stay-at-home order has been lifted through much of the state, Governor Jared Polis has advised Coloradans to stay within ten miles of home, if possible, when they go out to recreate. Which means that all of the “easy weekend getaways” touted in Barnes’s new book, Easy Weekend Getaways from Denver & Boulder, aren't all that easy this weekend.
Or over many weekends to come, as hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions (other than Bishop Castle) and other businesses that cater to tourists slowly come back to life, but with occupancy limitations and social-distancing rules to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some may never reopen at all.
The unfortunate timing of her travel book isn’t lost on Barnes, but with all the tragedy created by the coronavirus pandemic, she realized that she couldn’t feel sorry for herself, and instead decided to appreciate the weird irony. A native Coloradan, she’s written for years (her first piece was published in Westword), has taught writing and has written other books, but “my first published book is a travel book based on travel and hospitality, the two industries hit the hardest,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Even so, Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, went ahead with a publication date of May 19, and the marketing department is pushing the book as part of its Countryman Weekend series, which includes Easy Weekend Getaways from Seattle and Easy Weekend Getaways from Washington, D.C., most of those even more difficult these days.
In a way, though, Barnes finds the odd timing of her book gives it added power. “It’s poignant to think about these places,” she says.
There’s plenty of poignant food for thought in the chapter titled “Foodie Paradise in Boulder,” since Colorado restaurants don’t know when they’ll be able to reopen, and “Nostalgic Americana in Estes Park,” the gateway to the still-closed Rocky Mountain National Park. Her favorite area of the state, the “magical and weird” San Luis Valley, is the focus of “Spiritual Stargazing in Southern Colorado,” where attractions as varied as the UFO Watchtower and the Great Sand Dunes remain off limits. But there's also some of the best star-gazing in the state, at the first certified International Dark Skies Community in Colorado.
You can’t shut down the stars.
Barnes has been reaching out to all of the people who operate places cited in her book, checking to see how they’re doing; so far, she’s talked with about a hundred. “They’re all so sweet,” she says. “They’re all altering the way they do business. They’re just focusing on what they can do now.”
A creative writer, Barnes didn’t set out to write a non-fiction travel book. “I’m used to being able to solicit the muse and let something come through me,” she explains. But Nat Kimber, one of the students from her writing academy days, had gone on to New York and become a literary agent, and when Countrymen was looking for a Denver author for a getaway guide, Kimber thought of Barnes. And together, they thought about using Bishop Castle to pitch the book.
"Hanging off turrets and toiling away every day to achieve the pinnacle of that gloriously American brand of independence, Bishop worked with an almost cantankerous ambition," Barnes writes. "No one can disagree, because the greatest triumph of a self-made man is his homemade castle."
The book sold, and then the real work began. For all of her weird interests, there were weirder things to discover. “I’ve never done this level of research,” Barnes admits. She might not have been hanging off turrets, but she definitely toiled away. A working mother of two, she wrote on evenings and weekends — “My husband is a saint,” she says — and finished it in nine months.
Along the way, she discovered sagas like the story behind the Carousel of Happiness in Nederland — the vision of a Coloradan serving in World War II who returned to Nederland after the war and created a carousel full of hand-carved figures, despite the fact that he’d never done anything like that before. She explored Pueblo, and fell in love with the hotel that used to be a jail. Never a skier, she dug into the eccentricities of the individual ski towns for a special chapter. She quizzed her brother and his wife, who’d traveled around the state just about every weekend...up until the last two months. “I talked to everybody that I knew,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much word of mouth would go into it.”
And she had to remember that even if something seemed obvious to her, such as Eldorado Springs, that it belonged in the book, too.
“It’s so hard to take an entire state and organize it,” she recalls. “That was very overwhelming.”
But she had a vision that guided her through the process. “I wanted to say what I wanted people to do in the ultimate Colorado,” she explains. She wanted to “embrace the chaos” and the “stubborn, weird dreams,” to capture all the contradictions in this state’s history.
“To an outsider, Coloradans are a walking contradiction,” Barnes writes at the start of the book’s introduction. “Are we among the healthiest, least obese in the country, or is our capital the drunkest city in one of the drunkest states in America? Is the Queen City of the Plains the breeding ground for musical luminaries — think Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Esme Patterson, or Tennis — or are we an unsophisticated cow town?”
All of the above, she determined.
An Unprecedented Time
Turning in the finished manuscript last August was “the best feeling in the world,” Barnes says. “It was like turning in the biggest term paper ever.”
She just hopes that it doesn’t become a history thesis, on places that were doing well last August but may not be around this August...or ever again. “Maybe my book will be like a relic from the old times,” she acknowledges.
Still, she continues, “I can’t even be completely pessimistic. I am heartbroken that a lot of the places won’t be there. But I’m optimistic, too. It’s a confusing cocktail of feelings...we’re living through such an unprecedented time.“
A time that will provide an amazing chapter for the person who writes an “easy weekend getaways” book a few decades from now.
“Denver’s vivid concentrate of the American dream is what drives startups, investors, vape bros, and Californians alike to consider settling down in one of those modern cube homes the natives disdainfully label ‘Nu Denver,’” Barnes writes at the conclusion of the book’s intro before taking readers on a weird ride through Colorado. “It’s also what makes residents, old and new, jubilantly explore the wilder parts of the state.
“It’s hard to say what Denver will look like in 10 years. But one thing’s for certain: This new frontier makes for an unforgettable adventure.”
Find out more about Erin Barnes on her website, erinkbarnes.com.