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."