Where the Wild Things Are
When you’re out in the wilderness any small gift is magic. Like right now I’m waiting for the two Steves to wake up and all I can think about is coffee. And when I get that coffee, I am not going to care if it is Jamaican Blue Mountain or Folgers freeze-dried crystals. Such is the nature of hunger. When want and need grow strong enough, any facsimile of the object desired can be fulfilling. Dogs like their Alpo, but they’ll eat the carpet if you forget to feed them. A man might want a woman but he’ll settle for the internet in a pinch. It’s close enough for the moment, and in this modern world, “close enough” is the predominant compromise that enables us to get through the day, the year, the life.
So I’m sitting on top of my sleeping bag in the back of a rented Dodge minivan parked at the snowline at the foot of the Cascade Mountains north of Mt. Rainier, dreaming about coffee. I could walk into the camp and start cooking it myself, but I’d wind up tripping a series of motion detectors that would then turn on the video monitors inside the van where the two Steves lay sleeping and an urgent computer voice would say, “alert zone one” and they would wake in a panic hoping that Sasquatch had finally come calling.
I’m surrounded by formidable mountain peaks covered in snow and pine trees. Next to the car there’s a bubbling river where a few weeks before, thousands of salmon had swam against the current towards whatever spot it was that instinct told them they should spawn and die. It’s early, and an Elysian mist hovers over the water. The ground outside is muddy and littered with empty beer cans, broken glass and thousands of shiny brass bullet casings. This spot has been host to many a hunting party, and though we are hunting and armed to the teeth, we have no desire to kill our prey. Some say that killing a Sasquatch and dragging its carcass in front of the cameras and the scientists is the only way anyone will prove to the skeptics that it exists. But the two Steves and I, our respect and awe for the beast is too great, and to slay one would be to stain our lives and our legacies indelibly with innocent blood.
On the drive here I was so convinced I was going to see Bigfoot I feared he was going to jump into the road and I’d mow him down like a common buck. Back in New York, I’d already been talking to The Washington Sasquatch Research Team over the phone when Steve Wilkens called one night to tell me they’d had a sighting. The other Steve, Steve Schauer, had seen “The Foot” cutting through the trees, but by the time they got the cameras working, he was gone.
About the two Steves—
Steve Wilkens is a 20-year Navy vet. Steve Schauer is an ex-Army Ranger and veteran of the wars in Grenada and Panama. To avoid confusion, I will from here on in refer to Wilkins, the younger of the two, by his surname.
It’s an odd but true fact of life that people who look the same generally have a similar character. Wilkins, tall and thin, in his mid-forties with a goatee, looks like my friend Paulie who I used to work with as a janitor in Long Island City High School back in the late eighties. He’s got Paulie’s bend-over-backwards-for-ya kind of kindness, and also Paulie’s penchant for cracking jokes all day long that suggested you were a homosexual. Schauer, on the other hand, looks like Francis Ford Coppola, and though I’ve never met the godfather of The Godfather, Steve was definitely the director of this expedition. That was cool with me, because it seems like the things that I’ve been in control of in my life—my career, my credit card, my first marriage—they all just end up fucked. I do have one thing going for me, and that’s that I am a very lucky man. I don’t have the room here to detail all the times in my life that, through no planning or effort on my part, something truly wonderful happened to me. So we’re a good crew—Steve S. in charge, Wilkens making sure everything is running while cracking a steady stream of you’re-a-fag jokes, and me, the lucky idiot who might just stumble upon the beast the next time I go to take a leak.
So the obvious question is: What am I doing here in the mountains of Washington state, looking for Sasquatch?
At the moment what I’m doing here is freezing my ass off and wondering if maybe a baby-hit of bear repellant might jump-start my system and chase away the chill. The sun is out, and so is the moon—a white crescent against the pale blue sky. A bald eagle cuts through the valley. The river bubbles on its way down the mountain. This part of America that is more earth than talk is the only America I will ever pledge allegiance to.
What am I doing here?
I’m waiting for a vision. I can feel it. Sasquatch is here.
“In our modern world of concrete and steel, we’re far removed from the Indian lore of Bigfoot. It’s hard to imagine any corner of our crowded world where a giant, manlike creature could roam free. Yet there’s persuasive evidence that Bigfoot is real, and that urban man may be close to his first meeting with this living legend.”
—Leonard Nimoy, In Search Of Bigfoot
It’s these words that introduce the 1977 Bigfoot episode of the great documentary series In Search Of…, hosted by Leonard Nimoy. To my uncorrupted third-grade mind, this statement was an edict, a declaration of belief from no less of an authority than Mr. Spock himself. Around that same time there was also the famous Bigfoot episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, where Steve Austin faced off against the beast in a near-death brawl, only to find that Bigfoot was a bionic android much like himself. You can’t be that young and bear witness to the one-two punch of Spock and the Bionic Man tangling with the existential ramifications of an eight-foot tall mythical man-beast and not carry it with you for the rest of your life. That which you love first, you love always.
After my first marriage broke up and it looked like I was going to get fired from my job, I used to search the internet for Bigfoot stories. Inevitably I would end up at the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization site, clicking on the audio files of Bigfoot calls recorded in the wild and it would make me laugh, and for a moment I was able to forget my troubles. Squatch was there for me. He wasn’t the answer to my problems, but he was close enough.
“Wild man” myths exist in nearly every culture on the globe. Perhaps man, recognizing his own inner beast, needs a greater monster to point at and say, “at least I’m not that crude.” Stories of the Yeti, the “abominable snowman” that haunts the mountain peaks of India, China and Nepal, were popular from the turn of the century through the ‘50s. Some have hypothesized that the Sasquatch is a relative of the Yeti, crossing over the land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska and working its way south through Canada to the Pacific Northwest down to California, where it spread to points east.
The Indians of the Washington state region were seeing wild men long before the pale-faced hordes invaded their land. In 1929 a reporter for a Canadian magazine collected stories from Indians of the First Nations in British Colombia about a wild man known in their dialect as “sesquc,” which he simplified to “Sasquatch.” These were fearful beasts with supernatural powers that abducted women and children. One woman told the reporter that she’d been kidnapped by a Sasquatcch, and had lived with him and his parents for 12 months. Finally able to get away, she returned home and gave birth to a Sasquatch child that died a few hours later.
In the mid-fifties a retired logger named Albert Ostman came forward with a story he claimed to have been keeping secret for 30 years. In 1924, while prospecting for gold in British Colombia, he was abducted by a Sasquatch while he slept and carried to a camp. His abductor, it turned out, was the patriarch of a family unit that included an adult female and two children, one male and one female. Ostman described in detail the anatomy of the Sasquatches—the drooping breasts and wide hips of the mother, the small penis of the father. Held for several days, he was only able to escape after the adult male ate the contents of his snuffbox in one gulp and grew violently ill.
In 1958 a catskinner named Jerry Crew, in the employ of the Wallace Brothers Logging Company, found an imprint of a gigantic foot on a worksite at Bluff Creek in Humboldt County, California. Talking with the rest of his crew—the foreman, Wilbur “Shorty” Wallace, who along with his brother Ray, oversaw the construction site—Crew found that many of his co-workers had had similar finds. Various acts of vandalism were attributed to the beast—a 450-pound drum of diesel fuel was found at the bottom of a ravine, as was a 750-pound tire for one of the road-grading machines. They called the elusive beast “Big Foot.” Crew made a plaster cast of the imprint and brought it to a journalist for the Humboldt Times, which printed a photo of Crew next to this 16-inch-long print. Eliminating the space between the two words, the paper dubbed it “Bigfoot,” and the modern version of the legend was born.
After Ray Wallace died in a nursing home in 2002 at the age of 84, his son Michael produced a pair of wooden feat that he said his father used to create the hoax. Was Michael trying to create a hoax of his own? Footers dismiss his claim, pointing to a study at Ohio State University that came to the conclusion that one could not fabricate tracks with the same depth of the Bluff Creek imprints with a simple pair of prosthetic feet.
Friday, October 20, 1967 is perhaps the most important date in the history of Footdom, as that is the day that the Patterson/Gimlin film was made. Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were both rodeo men from Yakima, Washington. Intrigued by the Bigfoot phenomena, Patterson invited his friend Gimlin, to travel to the area around Bluff Creek with a camera and see what they could find. Gimlin, part Chirokowa Apache, was a well-respected horse whisperer and Patterson wanted to make a low-budget documentary on the subject. Traveling on horseback the morning of October 20, they had the shock of their lives when they spotted a female standing by the creek. The horses went nuts, spooking the creature. Patterson managed to get his camera working and caught 53 seconds of the thing shooting a cryptic over-the-shoulder glance at the intruders while walking away. Some have described Patterson as a hoaxer and a conman. Patterson died of cancer in 1972, claiming on his deathbed that he saw a true Sasquatch in the woods on that day in 1967. Gimlin refused to give an interview for thirty years, but when an acquaintance of his named Bob Hieronomous claimed to be the man in the ape suit, he emerged to call Hieronomous a liar (as did Patterson’s widow) and attest to the veracity of the film.
In 2008, Bigfoot was in the news when two idiots from Georgia stuffed an ape suit with animal guts, froze it in ice and got coverage from media outlets as far and wide as CNN, BBC, ABC and Fox News before the hoax was revealed.
Who is lying and who is telling the truth? Is there any way to know? Too many times I’ve seen men who were sworn to tell the truth lie like Cory Haim at an NA meeting. I watched Colin Powell stand in front of the United Nations and testify that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program. I watched Bill Clinton wag his finger in the face of America and claim that he was not a chubby-chaser. I don’t know who to believe anymore. I’ve come to the conclusion that that truth is just one man’s word shouted louder than the rest.
The first thing Steve did after we arrived at our base camp was open up a dozen cans of cat food and several packages of bacon and spread them around the perimeter. I asked him if that was really such a great idea, considering this was bear country, and black bears especially are known to attack campers. He told me not to worry, that Bigfoot was king here and that Bigfoots and bears don’t share the same turf.
Steve was pretty fearless. As an Army Ranger he did some special ops in Panama and Grenada in the ‘80s and caught a few bullets for his efforts. In the summer, Steve sleeps out on the ground, beneath the stars, surrounded by his Bigfoot-bait. When I asked him why he said, “I want to look at one of these creatures dead in the eyes. Like they say, it’s the window to your soul. It will tell me, ‘Are you an animal or more human? Do you have feelings? Do you have the love and the hate and everything else going on in there and you just want to stay away from people basically?’ So to have that close look, just to look in their eyes. It’s one of those things that I want.”
I made the mistake of mentioning that some people thought Bigfoot was a vegetarian, and he grew annoyed at my ignorance.
“Vegetarian my ass! Bigfoot is an apex predator, man! He’ll take a deer, grab him by the legs and bash his head against the rocks!”
Steve has set eyes upon the beast before. In addition to the indistinct sighting from a few weeks earlier, Steve had a brief, full-on encounter with a Sasquatch back in 1985. He’d been intrigued by the thing since he was a kid and the movie, The Legend of Boggy Creek scared the heck out of him. When he got back from Panama he started actively hunting The Foot, diving his truck around the mountains at night, sleeping on the side of the road, and then driving around some more.
“I was in these woods with a group of friends and a girlfriend of mine,” he recalled. “My girlfriend was in my vehicle when we left. I was headed down in the valley; it was dark out, I hit my high beams and just lit up the whole area in front of me. Seconds after that, it stepped out onto the middle of the road. In two steps it crossed a two-lane highway without effort, just swinging, and it looked at me. And its face was that of what you would see in old, old, photographs of Indians—real old Indians, they have flatter noses. It was about 8 to 9 foot tall, it was a male, no breasts. It had hair on its arms, on its legs, and it crossed with zero effort. Man would have had to take five, six, steps to get across the road, it did it in two.”
Over the years he found himself alone on his hunts more often than not. A couple years ago he started surfing the Bigfoot chat sites on the Internet and found Wilkins.
When I asked Wilkins why he hunted The Foot, I got the impression that he was out to prove a whole lot of people wrong about something.
“I hear these people with the Ph.D.’s after their name on these Bigfoot shows with the opinion that it doesn’t exist, and it’s almost like they don’t want it to exist. It doesn’t fit into their little mold of evolution; it will send Darwin’s theory of evolution into a tailspin. I just think it evolved separate from man, like maybe Bigfoot is a branch from the Cro-Magnon Man family tree that still exists in the wilderness. But you could have a Bigfoot sitting on the Oprah Winfrey show being interviewed, and there’s still gonna be people in the audience saying, “That’s a man in a monkey suit.’”
Everything in the camp was run on batteries: Wilkins had two 12-volt deep cell RV batteries, and Steve had some gigantic thing that used to be part of a tugboat. With them they ran all the lights, DVD recorders, monitors and laptops. Starting with the idea that Bigfoot is naturally curious when it comes to man, the Washington Sasquatch Research Team had four cameras connected to passive infra-red motion detectors (because standard infra red, the Steves feared, was visible in the dark to Bigfoots) all hardwired to the batteries and aimed towards the camp from about 30 feet away. Once the motion detectors were tripped a signal would be sent to the walkie-talkies that would indicate the zone that the intruder had entered. At that point, everything would turn on—the floodlights, the cameras, the monitors—and then it would be: Smile, Sasquatch, you’re on Candid Camera.
The two Steves believe that the Bigfoot who hangs out in this neck of the woods is an adolescent, more curious than an adult, which is why they were able to get that fleeting glimpse of him a month before. They call him “Stinky” because of the malodorous funk he emits when he’s in the proximity. One universally excepted fact amongst Footers is that Sasquatch smells like a gangrenous dog that ate a bunch of rotten fish and then rolled around in its own vomit.
That first night it started to sleet and we were all huddled beneath a tarp, eating hot dogs and watching TV shows and movies that Steve had downloaded from the Internet—12 O’clock High and, of course, The Legend of Boggy Creek.
The night passed without event and I retired to the back of my rented van where I could at least fire up the engine, roll up the windows, crank the heat and hope there wasn’t enough carbon monoxide in the air to kill me in my sleep.
Alone in the dark I wondered if Sasquatch was watching us like the two Steves suggested he might be. I was well aware of the fact that most people think that anyone who believes in Bigfoot is an idiot—but what is belief anyway, but the bastard son of hope and desire? I’ve reached a point where I believe that what we see out of the corner of our eyes is more real than that which confronts us face to face.
So I drank my coffee finally and the sun is out, but I’m feeling a little restless, so I start in on the beer. The Steves sense my boredom and suggest I pop off a few rounds. We’re well-armed with two pistols—a Springfield .45 and a Ruger .357 magnum—and also a M483 Bushmaster rifle, the same one that the DC Sniper used for his reign of terror back in 2002. I fire them all until the tree stump I’m aiming at is as dead as it pretends to be, then we break for lunch.
Wilkins burns us a few grilled cheeses that are really not up to either mine or Steve’s standard, and we tell him so. Wilkins has a whole lot of dietary restrictions. He won’t eat beans, he hates mushrooms, and the very thought of mayonnaise makes him wince. As far as I can tell his favorite food is Red Bull, which he drinks all day and late into the night.
I ask Steve what the Washington Sasquatch Research Team hopes to accomplish in these cold woods.
“We’re in a race against people who want to kill Sasquatches for fame, greed, money, fortune,” he says. “I’m not some kind of tree-hugger, but I believe these things have to be protected. Before you know it, this species, this apex predator, is gone. You don’t do that to the boss of the woods, and he is the boss of the woods – a regal creature that is probably closer to man than any other creature that is walking the earth.”
“When you say that, I think of King Kong,” I tell him. “They take the beast out of the jungle, shine the lights on him, and then all hell breaks loose.”
“All hell breaks loose—and then they have to kill him,” Steve agrees. “We brought him out of his environment, and now he’s free and we can’t deal with it. It’s the same thing when you hear about a rogue elephant breaking loose and killing its trainer. Why didn’t you just leave it in the forest or the jungle where it belongs? It doesn’t belong balancing on a fucking ball, or a bear riding a fucking bike—what the hell is that shit?”
So we’re choking down our food when a vicious stink wafts through the camp, like a German shepherd just went nuts at an all-you-can-eat ass buffet and then burped in our faces.
“He’s here!” Steve shouts, and we’re all out of our seats, scrambling for the cameras.
The woods are littered with a hundred years’ worth of logging debris—bits of heavy metal cable, corroded machine parts and 50-gallon oil drums rusted to the point of disintegration. I climb over felled trees covered with emerald moss, past regal stumps five feet in diameter cut flat across the top two feet off the ground. There are empty beer cans and Dorito bags where someone (Squatch?) got their party on.
We huddle together, whispering, trying to divine the direction that the stench is coming from.
“Something’s going on in these woods here,” Steve says. “I keep hearing movement, but I can’t see anything. They’re probably over there saying, ‘You smell that? It smells like man.’”
“‘One of them smells like he’s from New York,’” I say.
“‘One of them smells Irish,’” Steve says.
“‘They all smell gay,’” Wilkins laughs.
We decide to pan out in the hopes of flushing Sasquatch out of the brush. Steve circles around to the east, Wilkins cuts straight through the center, and I follow the bank of the river to the west.
“If he comes at you, Chris, don’t be afraid,” Steve instructs. “Just fall down to the ground in a fetal position.”
On the bank overlooking the river, I encounter something oddly out of place. There are several half-eaten salmon carcasses too far from the river to have been deposited there by the high tide of the recent spawning season. Their hollow eyes stare up at me as if they have a story to tell. Something with hands had carried them to higher ground.
I run into Wilkins, and he agrees with my assessment.
“It’s one of those things,” he says. “Inconclusive, but interesting.”
After about half an hour, the smell disappears and we head back to the camp. As we walk, Steve’s a little apologetic that this is probably as close to Sasquatch as I’m likely to get on this outing.
“I’ve always said, ‘You don’t go looking for Sasquatch; Sasquatch will come looking for you.’ That’s the way it is, and if you mix that in with a whole lot of luck and you’re ready, you’re going to get that sighting. You’re going to get what you want.”
If we assume that Bigfoot is real and that men are closing in on this seemingly gentle monster, then we must prepare for that first meeting. To have eluded us for so long, Bigfoot must understand men very well. The burden will be on us to understand it. Bigfoot may well be waiting for some sign that we are ready.
—Leonard Nimoy, In Search of Bigfoot
Moses was kicking it with a herd of sheep when he saw the burning bush. The angel Moroni came to Joseph Smith in the upstate town of Palmyra, NY, and told him where to find a lost book of the Bible that described Jesus’ travels through America. In February of 1974, Philip K. Dick, author of 44 science-fiction novels, answered the front door of his Los Angeles apartment, expecting to receive a delivery of the narcotic Darvon to help alleviate the pain from a recent wisdom-tooth removal. The woman who brought the package was wearing an amulet of a fish, the Christian symbol that you sometimes see on bumper stickers. The sight of her set off two months of visions that came to Dick mostly in the form of a pink laser beam boring into his brain.
All of these visitations irrevocably altered the lives of those who received them. Often cruel and always unexpected, the impossible, when it comes calling on a person, is a burdensome gift.
Steve Schauer saw Bigfoot cross the road in front of his truck on a dark night in 1985, and of that I am a little bit jealous. I do not know what he was like before this happened, but I know that today Steve is a good man. When you meet a person who believes in something, and that something is not evil, not venal, not corruptive, but a thing of joy, you can’t help but notice the way they shine.
We all had our reasons for being here – I wanted a vision, Wilkins wanted to prove a bunch of pencil-neck scientists wrong, and Steve wanted to spare something that he thought was beautiful from extinction. But there was something deeper as well, a drive that I believe has to do with the fact that we were all born into a fully mapped world, a place where mystery exists in dwindling supply. Man is drawn to the unexplained. Anyone who has ever contemplated the nature of God, any guy who has ever had a crazy girlfriend will tell you: That which confounds begs to be adored.
As I pack my gear into my rented Dodge van and hug the two Steves good-bye, yes, I’m a little disappointed that I only got a whiff of Sasquatch, and that he did not choose to reveal himself to me fully on this particular outing. Maybe, as Mr. Spock suggests, I’m not ready for it. Anyway, I still have my whole life ahead of me, a dozen years at least. On my drive back to Sea-Tac, out my Jet Blue window as I fly across the country, during my cab ride on the Van Wyck Expressway en route to my bed, I will still be looking for Bigfoot—out of the corner of my eyes, naturally, because that’s where he lives.