Car Camping with Bigfoot

I take it as evidence of the intrinsic joy most children take in wild nature that one of the first words our daughter has learned is “backpack,” for the child carrier I got to take her with me on morning walks. Saturday morning we took it out shortly after she woke. Thursday we finally got the good soaking we needed, storms that blew in from the northwest after a week of waiting for the hurricane to deliver a deluge that never came, and two days later the foliage along the water was lush and green.

There are a lot more people on this stretch of river this summer than I have ever seen, even in the early morning. When August arrives in Texas, if you want to do anything outdoors, especially after the sun comes up, it better involve getting in the water. It’s nice to see more folks discovering the joys of this place as refuge during pandemic, even as the traces of the afternoon revelers make you wonder what impact the off-leash dogs and the noise may have on the wildlife. Budweiser may have abandoned the branding campaign where they labeled their beer America, but the connection has stuck in my head ever since.

There are still some stretches where people don’t go, because the foliage is too thick and the water too deep, so that’s where we walked. Bushwhacking with a baby backpack is a little tricky, but we manage. When we got to the wide shallows by the bridge, we found a nice-sized group of black-bellied whistling ducks chilling in the shoals, to the immense entertainment of baby. Those ducks have a funny energy and a raucous, silly gab, and baby got really carried away trying to talk to them. In the background a couple combed the dry channel for antiquities, the dude’s vape pen clouding up in the muggy morning air every few seconds.

We walked back along a stretch where low aquatic brush grows super thick this time of year, fed by the dam releases and the summer sun. The birds love that cover, and the food it harbors. We came upon a green heron, just young enough to still be a little unwary, or maybe it was the good medicine of baby energy. It was there in the green just at the waterline, kind of slowly bopping around taking bugs from the air. We watched it for a good while in each spot as it hopped ahead of us every thirty feet or so all the way back to home, admiring how its feathered coat of many colors, its long lean form and its capacity for stillness of motion let it disappear against that background. It took her a while before baby saw the bird in this shady spot where the invasives are trying to dominate:

As we stood there a flock of cormorants flew right by us in a big V formation, headed downriver, close enough to hear their wingbeats. Baby liked that, too.

Earlier in the week we had seen the first nighthawks of summer. I had been thinking about how strange it was that I hadn’t seen any yet this year, and then there they were. Just a couple, not the more prodigious numbers we usually see. It’s been a season remarkably light on mosquitoes this year, a phenomenon you enjoy even as you worry what kind of an ecological indicator it could be.

Nighthawks are one of those birds I never really noticed until I started living here near the river, where I suspect the quantity of airborne insects is greater and provides a happier hunting ground. They are not really a hawk, and they are not really nocturnal. They are hunters of the liminal hours between day and night, flying in a dim light against which they seem like jagged shadows, but for the exclamatory band of white under each wing. They have a distinctive flying style that mirrors the bats, a series of wingbeats followed by a dive or glide as they take in flying bugs. Their common name is an easy mnemonic for me, having also been used as the name of a minor Marvel superhero I was keen on as a boy in the 70s (kind of a stealth parody of Batman, now that I think about it), and of a local diner that had been around since the mid-20th century until the last location finally closed a couple of years ago.

It was reassuring to spot a couple of nighthawks dancing through the air above our green roof this week, even if it made me think they have probably been around, and I just missed them or wasn’t paying attention. Maybe warmer days are pushing them and the bats into the hours after sundown. The more you experience wild nature inside the city, the more you wonder how much is going on that you don’t see. The enigmatic glimpses of movement at the periphery of your perception, of an animal evading your gaze. The lupine trot through the trees. The takeoff from upper branches into shadow. The bug that flies off before you can see what it was. The things you have never seen at all, but know are out there.

Squatchin’

Fourteen years ago this weekend, I went on a Bigfoot hunt.

Technically, it was a search. No weapons allowed, except for the baseball bats that were recommended—for self-defense against the subject of the investigation, we assumed. It started with a group email from my then-brother-in-law, who wants to believe, but wasn’t going unless he could recruit some friends. “It’s like backpacking with benefits,” he said. He only had two takers: me and one of his childhood buddies. The $400 fee for each participant may have been a deterrent.

The trip was organized by an outfit called the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. To participate, you had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It’s been long enough now that the secrets can be told.  Especially since the guy in charge of the deal has long since revealed all the secrets on his reality TV show. What photos I took were lost in a hard drive failure. But I still have the patch.

The three of us met in Seattle. The confidential location, revealed to us only days before the trip, was a lake east of Mt. Rainier. A reservoir, really. The tension built as we left the interstate, then the two-lane highway, then the dirt road into the backwoods. What we found was a campsite full of cars and trucks and a few RVs, like a Cub Scout campout where only the dads have shown up.

We checked in and met our leader: a Colonel in the Army Reserves whose day job was as the head of security at the Hanford nuclear weapons plant. Because we wanted some actual backpacking out of the deal, and because we were properly skeptical about seeing Bigfoot or any other wildlife in a campout of fifty people, we told him we wanted to volunteer to be sent out into the deeper woods and higher altitudes. The Colonel liked the idea, and had some spots he wanted reconned. We liked the idea of being sent on Bigfoot-hunting missions by the Colonel.

First, we needed a tutorial, and a tour.

The Colonel asked us if we had ever encountered Bigfoot, and none of us had. He told us his own stories, first as a child in Washington state, seeing Bigfoot outside his home, an experience that set him on a lifelong mission to repeat the experience. And then on a recent expedition, waking up in his tent to see Bigfoot looming over him, looking in.

The expedition had a mix of BFRO regulars and newbies like us, but we were the only ones who seemed to be having trouble keeping a straight face. There was an information desk with maps, videos, books, and photos. One guy had several photo albums filled with 3x5 glossies of what he said were examples of Bigfoot nests and excrement.

We learned some of the basic techniques for summoning Bigfoot. Wood knocking—the real reason we were encouraged to bring baseball bats—involved just what it sounds like: making a loud knock on a tree trunk and waiting for a response from the woods. If you wait long enough, you will hear something.

We got a demonstration in how to call a Bigfoot, from a young dude who was like the Spicoli of Bigfoot hunters. It sounded like a cross between a guy trying to imitate a gorilla and Toshiro Mifune yelling in a samurai film. In the late afternoon, just before we were to head out on our mission, some guys drove a pickup with a psyops-grade megaphone in the bed up to the top of a nearby high point and blasted such calls out over the valley.

We learned that Bigfoot sightings often occur near creeks at night. Bigfoot, we were told, like to eat freshwater bivalves and amphibians.

There was one chubby bald guy who spent the day sitting in camp with a big pair of Koss headphones on. He had set up audio recording devices throughout the woods, and would spend the waking hours listening to the results. He had not heard any direct evidence of Bigfoot yet, but believed that the creature communicated with him through the other animals. His car was a little import sedan with out-of-state plates that had been converted into a mobile Bigfoot listening station, with several external antennas, a back seat crammed with electronics, and a dashboard that looked like a 1950s starship.

Back behind the info desk were a group of guys gathered around a laptop, crunching data. The leader of that entourage was the real head guy, we were told, a lawyer turned professional Bigfoot hunter whose last name was Moneymaker. Nearby were a group of empty camp chairs. The Colonel pointed at one, and explained that it was the only one we could not sit in. 

“Nobody sits in the Gimlin chair but Bob Gimlin,” he said. “He’s going to be here Saturday.”

Bob Gimlin, we learned, was the guy who was with Roger Patterson when he took the famous 1967 footage.

A little while later, after we got our gear in order, the Colonel gave us a ride in his old Suburban to the trailhead from which we would hike to our mission site. His truck was full of loose camcorder batteries and tapes that bounced on the rocky road. As we drove, the Colonel explained to us that Bigfoot is telepathic.

“He uses Thoughtform,” explained the Colonel. “Thought projection. Intuitive thinking. He can read right through fabric.”

We spent the night by a small river deep in the woods, watching and waiting. When you are looking for Bigfoot as the sun goes down, at a spot where you are told there have been sightings, you hear every sound the forest makes.

We never saw Bigfoot. Maybe our smirking skepticism cursed us. The believer in our group thought he had found a nest, a depression under an old pine that was lined with dead branches. The Colonel was impressed when we reported that, and it went into the logbook.

In the daytime we would hang out in the camp and hear the stories. On Friday afternoon people were getting worried as rumors spread through the group that Bob Gimlin would not show, and that’s when we realized we were living in the cryptozoological version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Friday night we camped above the treeline, and as we drank our hooch we listened to the insanity over the walkie talkies as the regular weekend campers had run-ins with the Bigfoot hunters out there tromping around doing what Bigfoot hunters do.

When we got back to camp Saturday, Bob Gimlin was there. He looked like a tough but tired old cowboy, the way the Marlboro man looks after his first round of open heart surgery. He was soaking up the adulation, and you couldn’t help but wonder if he had decided to play the role in his retirement years, for love or money. Maybe he really did see Bigfoot that afternoon in 1967 helping a buddy film an indie Western.

Gimlin’s cameo made the weekend for the expeditioners, and that afternoon they all gathered in a circle of camp chairs and told stories. One guy wearing shooting glasses started ranting about how how Bigfoot had kept him up all night by using Thoughtform to blast messages at him through crickets, “triangulating on me like a bunch of motherfucking velociraptors,” and then making the sound. We spent an hour talking to a mustached middle school shop teacher from rural Minnesota who was there as a the representative of MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. Over the course of an hour, he told us a story that started with submarines and ended with the image of three Bigfoot piloting a UFO.

We decided to leave early that night, and camp closer to Rainier.

I’ve never written anything about that trip before, partly because those guys were all so nice and clearly earnest in their beliefs, and it’s hard not to talk about the experience without laughing. But I often think about it, and wonder what it is those guys were really looking for, and why they explained the absence of actual Bigfoot sightings with the idea of their own telepathic connection to this anthropic spirit of the woods at the edge of town.

The figure of the wild man (and wild woman) persists throughout the folklore of cultures around the world and across history, and much has been written about it. The wild man is real, because the wild man is us, or at least is in us. A mirror of our primeval selves. When I walk the dogs in the tall grass and my bipedal vantage lets me see antlered prey they cannot, I feel the connection to that past. So I don’t really laugh at the Bigfoot hunters, because the wonder is real, even if the way popular culture expresses it loses the truth in spectacle.

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Further reading (and viewing)

Working on this post, I learned that the famed novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen was a Bigfoot nut. He spent thirty years working on a book about the subject, but apparently could never wrestle the material to the ground. It was the manuscript in progress they found when he died. There’s a great piece about it by his nephew at the Yale Review:

“The Wild Man Within: Peter Matthiessen’s Bigfoot,” by Jeff Wheelwright, at the Yale Review

In 1980 The Cloisters did an important show about the figure of the wild man in medieval art, and the excellent catalog by Timothy Husband is available online as a PDF:

The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism, by Timothy Husband

And if you want to see the BFRO hunters in action yourself, you can check out Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet. I have never watched the show, so can’t vouch for the content, but the main guy is the same one who put together the expedition I went on.

Upcoming appearances

A reminder that Austin’s BookPeople is hosting a virtual launch for my new novel Failed State on Wednesday, August 12, where I will be in conversation with my friend and colleague Cory Doctorow (and with the audience). The store is taking preorders for signed copies of the book, and can also sell you anything you have on your quarantine reading list.

Also, if you’re Redditor, on Friday, August 14, I’ll be doing an AMA. And questions about this newsletter and the things I cover here are fair game.

Have a great week.