I once bought a shirt at an outdoor market in New Orleans that I still wear pretty regularly. It’s red plaid flannel with a hand-stitched Sasquatch in classic mid-stride on each shoulder. It takes people a beat or two to see the figures, in brown thread against the crisscross background. They stare hard into the fabric covering my collarbone.
“Is that…Bigfoot?” they ask, as if they’ve discovered something that maybe even I wasn’t aware of—sighting, there on my shoulder, the myth given shape and substance.
I used to wear the shirt on nights when my roommate was out of town. I’d walk the two miles from our Mid-City apartment to the loud, dirty, shoulder-to-shoulder dance floors I liked on Saint Claude Avenue. Strangers would point at the little Sasquatches on my shirt. “You into that stuff?”
“I guess you could say that,” I’d reply, and with straws in their mouths they nodded knowingly.
Shouting to be heard above “Bennie and the Jets,” they’d tell me they’d seen a UFO once, an enormous blue light low over empty fields. They’d talk about some relation who’d been to Loch Ness years ago, and how the water had trembled against the shore as if something below were stirring in its sleep. For so many, these fraying patches of thread in the shape of Bigfoot became an excuse to talk about doubt and belief.
In some ways, Bigfoot is an easy currency for discussing meaning. On the one hand, he conjures curiosity, magic, and an avid desire for wonder. On the other hand, he stands for weariness, frustration, and the jaded disappointment when you realize, time and time again, that wonder is not easy to find and belief is difficult to maintain.
Whenever I move to a new place, I visit the website for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. Reading stories of encounters that took place close to my new home, I learn two things: the names of nearby wilderness areas, and the fact that a relatively high number of the people who live near me believe their immediate surroundings contain inexplicable strangeness.
The design of the BFRO website makes these encounters feel even closer. Clicking on a map of the United States, you hover the cursor over a state and an alphabetical list of counties appears. I click on the names of places I’m beginning to recognize, and read about people laying claim to mysteries that happen close by, the footprints left in their flowerbeds.
A few months after moving to Iowa, I read about two young men who volunteered at the Macbride Raptor Center, a wildlife research facility and sanctuary for injured birds of prey. I’d recently visited the Center with friends, so I could easily visualize the span of dense woods behind the network of cages with owls awake and hungry inside. The two men had driven out through the woods to feed the owls at one in the morning. There was a full moon, but it was covered over by a low haze. Jacket weather, they said. The owls were open-eyed and fidgety in their cages, gulping raw strips of meat. Then something stirred, a heavy shadow breaking free of a greater darkness. They could hear it walking: long strides, heavy footsteps, impossibly huge. The shadow moved away from them and they followed, down toward an inlet of the Coralville Reservoir. It turned back to look at the men just once before disappearing, the slow drift of two red eyes blinking out.
Belief is always a choice. That open stride surely could’ve been a bear lumbering upright, could’ve been a late-night rambler who’d lost the trail. But the two men wanted to believe it was something else, and so they did.
Reading their words, I think, why not choose wonder, if wonder is there to be chosen? Why not make this the story you tell one another, to maintain faith that the world is still unknowable, at least in part?
It’s difficult to now trace my interest in Bigfoot back to its root, but I think it begins with my father. My sister and I used to joke that we know Bigfoot isn’t real, because if he were, our dad would’ve seen him by now. He is a man to whom the world wants to show itself.
There are many stories: A rabbit grazing mere feet away from my dad in our backyard when a bald eagle clutched down on it, descending all at once with no sound. A bright red fox holding his gaze while it pissed into the ferns that line our woods. Once, my father came across a mountain lion crouched downwind and facing away from him, tail twitching like a housecat stalking a bug. In South Carolina, an alligator slithered toward him, then veered away at the last minute, its eyes in a stony squint. He said it was like being at a party when someone across the room seems to recognize you, starts to approach, then—realizing you aren’t who they thought you were—retreats back to their corner.
Once, riding his bike on trails that weren’t even particularly remote, he rounded a slight curve into a clearing. It was still early in the day; the sun was low, and bluish mists made every inch of the trail a surprise. In the clearing, the mist parted and a bleach-white stag appeared, head lifted, ears cocked to my father’s presence. They looked at each other, as if waiting politely for the other to depart. Finally the stag, a twelve-point buck with a rack of bone-colored antlers, shouldered its way back into the mist. My father watched the fog swallow the shape of him, and then rode on.
I think my father considers himself lucky, but feels, at times, that his luck is exhausting. The chance of an albino deer being born are close to one in 30,000, so the chances of seeing an adult male albino in the wild must be even slimmer. This constant barrage of wonder drives him back to the ease and safety of his model train sets, his bonsai trees, his easy-chair naps. My father has always been incredibly private. It’s not difficult to imagine him coming face to face with Bigfoot while splitting wood in the yard, and just deciding to keep the encounter to himself.
Where I grew up in Southern Illinois, our local version of Bigfoot is known as the “Big Muddy Monster.” He appears on t-shirts, and breweries name their beers after him. Most of the sightings occurred back in the ‘70s. Teenagers who parked down by the levee to kiss in the dark would catch sight of a seven-foot creature covered all over in grayish, mud-smeared hair. On the Fourth of July, 1973, just outside the town of Murphysboro, a group of traveling carnival workers saw the monster circling a pen full of Shetland ponies. The Murphysboro police chief made a formal statement to the press: “A lot of things in life are unexplained.”
My father spent twenty-odd years as an office technician, traveling over backroads between tiny Illinois towns to fix copy machines. He’s an expert on the most private and remote distances between outposts of civilization. If you ask him about the Big Muddy Monster, he’ll tell you the same stories other locals tell, but if you ask him outright what his take on it is, he’ll likely shrug and say something noncommittal like, “It’s a nice idea.”
That “nice idea” is this: it’s possible, even likely, that somehow all of us, even those among us who pay close attention, have missed something. That there are spaces in the world we can’t know, and those spaces are close—in our backyards and the backroads that circle outward into less- and less-familiar landscapes.
I think I have always been particularly susceptible to belief because I grew up in a household where Biblical miracles were accepted as fact. When I was still quite young, I decided that God must surely live above the lake that sprawled behind my parents’ house. My childhood home looked out over this lake, and it embodied, for me, both closeness and mystery: the two qualities I associated with God. As I gazed out at night from our back porch, the dense darkness above the waters echoed for me God’s pre-creation state, as described in the first chapter of Genesis: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
When, eventually, my faith in these things dried up, I was left with the remainders—a feeling of something Godlike that sometimes still descends when I park my station wagon down by the lakeshore, smoke a couple of cigarettes, and ask something to show itself to me. More often than not, what shows itself is a flock of geese, breaking their migratory journey to drift sleepily out toward the lonely center of the lake. Or the moon, just a glowing wisp of smoke building undercurrents of light beneath the clouds. But some nights, I can feel, in the closeness of the geese, in the distance of the moon, a convergence between what is near and what is unreachable—an overlap between familiarity and awe.
On these nights, I catch myself thinking of the story in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with the angel until daybreak, demanding a blessing, and finally receiving one. And how, when he is limping away from his encounter, he says, “I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.”
Combing through websites and books about Bigfoot, I’m not surprised to find language that echoes familiar church lingo from my childhood. Those who describe firsthand encounters are referred to on the BFRO website as “witnesses,” and these witnesses speak with a kind of reverent disbelief. They often report that they were somehow irreversibly changed by the event, crossing over from the realm of skepticism into belief. “I could not believe what was happening or what I was seeing,” one witness states in his account of a sighting that occurred a scant handful of miles from the house where I grew up. “My memory will never forget this spot on the lake, the scream, the creature,” he says. “This is true and it really does exist.” Echoing conversion stories in both form and content, the tellers of these tales always admit that they know their experience goes against logic, but that what they witnessed compels them into belief.
The vast “bulk of evidence to support belief in Bigfoot’s existence comes from personal accounts of people who claim they saw him,” folklore scholar Joyce Bynum points out. It does not escape me that the gospels are built on this same concept. I think of the words of Christ in red ink: “You are witnesses of these things,” he tells his disciples after his resurrection. The gospels are rampant with semantics of seeing and belief: “He came as a witness to testify…so that through him all might believe.”
Believing in Bigfoot is not the same thing as believing in God, but these parallels speak to the fundamental human instinct to resist uncertainty while embracing it. As anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski states in his essay “Magic, Science, and Religion,” “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range.” The human experience, rampant with chance and accident and hope and fear, admits and encourages a capacity for belief in the weird and wild, in that which defies easy explanation.
In Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s treatise on God, I and Thou, he argues that God resides in any sincere and holistic “encounter,” in which the pronoun “You” can be used in the fullness of its address. Whenever a real encounter occurs, any entity being addressed can no longer exist as an “It,” but arises into “You-ness” by having its entire nature fully acknowledged in an isolated brief moment of sincere recognition.
When you contemplate a tree, Buber argues, an encounter occurs when “whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars—all this in its entirety.” God exists, according to Buber, in these encounters.
On the BFRO website, I read the report of an Iowa turkey hunter who writes in a single breathless paragraph with childish misspellings scattered throughout. “I do not know what I saw,” he begins. “But I do know it was something that should not have been there and it will remain with me the rest of my life.” I think of John 3:32—“he testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony”—when the hunter continues, “I have never told my story due to I feel people will not believe me.”
Back when I was fully immersed in belief, I sought out spaces filled with like-minded seekers who seemed able to conjure up God’s presence like a spell. Just by gathering together—standing in a haze of unified silence with hands raised, palm-up, in a gesture of receiving—I could feel I was encountering God. I sought also the solitary and unexpected encounters—dusk in its damp glory, the lake holding mist. I felt this was proof enough. The world itself satisfied me that there was more beyond the world.
In those days, inviting encounter seemed easy and natural. Members of the church I attended with my parents all knew the failsafe recipe: keep the lights low, open yourself up along some invisible seam, give yourself over to possibility. God will reveal himself if you ask him to.
In a documentary from the mid-‘90s, the camera follows Bigfoot seeker Henry Franzoni as he drives out through remote forests and, in a clearing, sets up his full drum kit, complete with snares, bass, cymbals. He begins to play furiously, then pauses to explain to the camera, “I’m thinking that this drumming that I’m doing will, uh, possibly entertain Bigfoot. But if not, I’m hoping that it makes Bigfoot curious. And that Bigfoot comes and listens to me.”
When I saw this, I laughed heartily. The impulse to rock out in the woods in the hopes that Bigfoot will suddenly appear, possibly with his own bass guitar to join in, swerves into rich absurdity. But Franzoni goes on to justify his logic: “A lot of times Bigfoot is seen observing people operate heavy machinery in the woods. Lots of people search for Bigfoot. They never seem to find Bigfoot. The only time Bigfoot is actually seen is through accident and happenstance. People camping sometimes find that a Bigfoot is observing them. So what I’m doing is, I’m trying to make Bigfoot curious. I believe that Bigfoot finds you. You don’t find Bigfoot.”
God didn’t always reveal himself to me, and, of course, neither does Bigfoot to those who search for him. But the feeling of simultaneous accessibility and elusiveness convinces me further of the complexity of belief. Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, cryptozoology researchers and authors of The Unidentified and Creatures of the Outer Edge, might easily be writing about God when they say, “Whatever the source may be, its signals must be filtered through human consciousness and perception, which shape the manifestations to conform to certain archetypal forms that are both strange and yet oddly familiar to us. Strange because they appear supernatural, but familiar because, in a sense, we have created them.”
As Margaret Atwood writes in a poem about the creature, “Sasquatch can never be known: he can teach you only about yourself.”
We shape our beliefs to our own known selves. The opening line of Buber’s work I and Thou is this: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.” In God, in Bigfoot, we invent a divided nature because our own nature is divided, and so these figures come to embody closeness and unreachability, wonder and weariness, both a quest for truth and an acceptance that certain truths are unprovable.
Henry Franzoni invented his own method for creating (what he considers) the ideal conditions for Bigfoot to appear, understanding that Bigfoot can’t be sought but must be encountered. What he is doing is not so different from my gathering with fellow churchgoers, or driving down to the lakeshore in the hope that something will press forward, make itself indelibly known. Whether or not Bigfoot actually appears, Franzoni is creating a space where wonder can be experienced.
In October of 2015, I attended a Bigfoot convention in Hot Springs, Montana. I went with a group of friends who were curious or just bored, eager for an excuse to straggle out from the familiar boundaries of the small town where we’d situated ourselves.
On the drive, we drank beer in the close, contained air of an SUV, cranked the radio to the highest possible volume, and shouted over it if we felt we had something worth shouting. I was wearing the Sasquatch shirt. Its weight was straightforward and familiar, easily forgotten against my skin. I was trying to make sense, as we drove, of the role the shirt might play in a room full of true believers—masking my doubt or ratting me out as someone who regarded Bigfoot as kitsch, as a badge to be worn when convenient and removed at will.
We arrived three beers deep, a little sloshy and lightheaded. The town, we noted, was hideous. All the buildings were a brown and grimy brick, except the hotel where the conference was held. It rose out of the surrounding landscape, garish coral orange and built in a lumpy pueblo revival style, surrounded by pools of mineral water and hot tubs with cracking tile. Tourists used to come here, but they don’t anymore. Everything had the slow dirty look of abandonment.
Inside the lobby, folding tables were spread with crystals, Sasquatch beer koozies, Sasquatch baseball caps, books with titles like Flying Saucers: Serious Business or UFOS? Yes! On one table, an amateur Bigfoot researcher had brought plaster casts of footprints, and a photo album full of pictures of the insides of caves.
A crackly microphoned voice spilled out from a room adjoining the lobby, and we filed in. The room was packed wall-to-wall with people sitting on metal folding chairs; a few stood leaning against the back wall, or sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor. They all seemed rapt, and a few were taking notes. We hovered in the doorway, swaying slightly. I felt distinctly other. Not as a skeptic, but simply as someone who didn’t have an encounter to share, who didn’t fully understand why I was there. I tried to make sense of what I was doing there, and why I was so drawn to these narratives of belief. I wasn’t seeking a conviction of my own, but I wanted to participate in one. I wanted to stand outside of belief, but I wanted to remain proximal to it.
At the front of the room, a woman gave her testimony and the room nodded. The woman who spoke was tall and heavy. She held the microphone close to her mouth. Between sentences her breathing sounded labored. Behind her, photos scrolled on a screen—stills from the famous 1967 Patterson footage taken at Bluff Creek, crayon drawings done by children who’d claimed they’d seen a huge hairy ape-man. She’d seen a lot, she said, and felt compelled to collect and chronicle the sightings of others.
She’d lived for several years on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, where she said a nearby community of Sasquatch would regularly come down from the hills, and leave offerings of bark and roots on the outskirts. “Tokens of peace,” she called them. There was a deep gentleness to her, as if she were inviting the room to enter into her certainty, but understanding, also, why we’d want to hang back, why we’d choose doubt.
During the Q&A that followed her talk, a woman raised her hand to ask if the speaker had ever seen a baby Sasquatch.
“Never an infant,” she replied without pause. “I’ve seen adolescents. They’re beautiful. They look more human than the adults do, because, you know, they’re still small.” She went on to tell a story she’d heard about a woman who’d fled the reservation, disappearing to live in the woods for a year. When she returned, she was pregnant, and eventually gave birth to a child covered all over in reddish hair. The child quickly grew to six feet and lived to thirteen, before dying of “health complications.” But, she said, he was always “slow,” never learned speech.
What she described pushed further and further from the realm of possibility, and yet she reported it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I felt myself resenting the speaker; her reconciliation of the impossible with the possible seemed far too breezy. I felt myself pushing hard against this strange and naked display of belief, telling myself, reassuringly, these people don’t know what’s real.
But there was something remarkable in the fact that this story even existed, that someone had invented it. I found myself searching for an explanation, caught between a desire to believe and resistance. Perhaps this woman had imagined it herself, in order to test the limits of her own belief, and the belief of those gathered here. Or perhaps the original storyteller was a woman who’d fled the known world in search of wildness, and had come back bearing a remnant of it.
My friends, beside me in the doorway, had opened another beer and were passing it between them. They were snickering behind their hands. One gestured to the woman on stage, and mouthed the word to me: “Nutcase.”
A part of me wanted to ask them, “Couldn’t we make room for a little uncertainty? Couldn’t we decide that the unknowable is, in itself, worthwhile?”
And, equally strong, a part of me wanted to laugh with them. To dismiss this woman, dismiss all of it, remain in the reassurance of what is logical and verifiable.
I sometimes miss believing, and look toward the days when I was satisfied by testimony—by the feeling that there were encounters everywhere, all seeming to attest to some great mystery.
My own belief began to crack at seventeen, when I confided to a youth leader in the church that I was skeptical about “witnessing,” Christians forcing their beliefs on “nonbelievers”—the implication was that if you didn’t believe in Christianity, you didn’t believe in anything. The youth leader informed me that there were vast numbers of people in the world who would suffer eternally in hell because of me if I didn’t share my faith with them. I snapped back impulsively, “I don’t believe in hell.” And as soon as the words left me, I knew they were true.
I eventually broke with the church, continued to seek an understanding of God in private, but everything I’d greeted with such certainty only drifted farther and farther away from me. Eventually, all that remained were those rare flashes of encounter that Buber writes of in I and Thou—instants that briefly align to show a fleeting glimpse that something rare and holy and benign might exist beyond the known world. And, growing older, those encounters became more and more rare, ever-threatening to dry up entirely.
One thing I came to understand at the Bigfoot convention was this: the community of Bigfoot believers is keenly aware of all the world’s reasons for disbelief. They know that, in spite of the fact that hair and fecal samples have been found in the Pacific Northwest that don’t match any known species in the area, and in spite of a few fairly convincing casts of footprints, it is still fairly probable that the evidence acquired is the result of a hoax.
But, they’ll be quick to tell you, if it is a hoax, it’s one of the most beautiful and elaborate hoaxes of all time.
The rest of the day unspooled quickly. We listened to another speaker give tips on maintaining your cool long enough to snap a decent photo, should the creature appear. We practiced breathing exercises together that were supposed to keep our adrenaline under control, practiced holding an imaginary camera steady in spite of the inevitable shaking of our hands. The evening culminated in a “Bigfoot lookalike contest” where two or three tall men stood on stage wearing cheap gorilla suits. One of them was given a prize: a t-shirt with a traffic sign that said “Bigfoot Crossing.”
A couple of people complimented my shirt; it even earned me a high-five. In a damp, crusty bathhouse locker room, I hung the shirt on a little hook, changed into a bathing suit, and slapped barefoot with my friends out to the pools. We sank into the warm hot-spring water where women sat in clusters around the rim of the pool, speaking in a hush. One of them was telling her companions that her husband had been scared to leave the house “afterward.”
“He thinks he saw something. He’s been sort of shook up about it.”
And this woman, still on the threshold of belief, tried to describe what it was her husband had seen. The way her mouth trembled around that word “creature” gave away her doubt.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know what to believe.”
It was a plain-faced woman who spoke, her hair parted in the center like the line that rises in a loaf of baking bread, as if it’s trying to split from itself. She told the women gathered around her that her husband had gone duck-hunting one morning and come home with a new stutter. His speech was labored, as if language had shed itself back in the woods, where he saw something moving between the tree trunks, looming and gray. Its hair was soft silver, and harbored the half-light so that it almost seemed to disappear when it stood still. It walked upright, sometimes stopping beside trees and fingering the leaves as if examining them, as if seeking evidence of something.
The bread-haired woman shook her head, and her voice tried for an even lower register when she said, “He’s convinced he saw Bigfoot. That’s why we’re here.”
I watched the woman’s face. She seemed to be trying very hard not to blink.
“You don’t believe him?” one of her companions said finally, and she half-reached a hand out toward the other woman’s shoulder, as if the story had momentarily struck her blind.
“I don’t know. I half-believe that Rick had some sort of stroke out there. The stutter went away as soon as he got the story out, but he’s still not quite the same. Not himself. I just don’t know what to think.”
I found myself envious of the husband, envious of anyone who’d seen something that convinced them fully. Just as I was envious of my father for his encounter with the white stag, envious of the turkey hunter who’d locked eyes with this thing, envious of people who found God easily and everywhere and without compromise. But I knew, listening to this woman, that I’d continue to exist in the realm between belief and doubt. I’d have to learn to navigate there.
I felt my body go still in the warm water of the hot spring. I had left my shirt on its hook in the locker room, and so felt stripped of the disguise it provided: the mask of someone comfortable with mystery, someone who could leave a path open between conflicting voices, lend an ear to each in turn. I felt naked without it, but no more or less exposed than this woman who wanted proof, but also wanted to blindly trust her husband’s story.
I thought of the thick air of the church I grew up in, how the smells of believer and skeptic bled together. Within the gently churning water, I breathed in chlorine and unfamiliar shampoos, and felt the ancient assurance that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” My friends were splashing at each other, an empty beer can bobbed toward me, and I felt a sense of communion. The woman who’d just made her confession wiped beads of sweat from her forehead, dipped her hands into the water to slick back her hair.
I thought, then, of my father, who always seemed to see things that neatly closed themselves off from the sight of others. Always, he was trying to point out falling stars to me—these quick, white sweeps—an urgency undercutting his voice while I stood beside him, watching my own feet furrow the gravel.
“Look! Look!” There was never more desperation in my dad’s voice than when he thought his loved ones might miss the sight of something wondrous. Pointing up, his arm extending such a very small length to try to direct my eye to the tiny space of sky where something distant had shifted. I would look up in time to see only the blank space it had left, the sky closing back up like a tightened fist out of which something had escaped.