Essay: In Search of Sasquatch

Why does a hulking, shaggy, smelly beast captivate us so? We’re not sure, but maybe humans need Bigfoot more than Bigfoot needs us.

Bigfoot as imagined by an artist, image

Artist Peter Oberdorf imagined Bigfoot in Stare Down, from which this detail is taken.

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Bigfoot, it seems, has a bit of a B.O. problem.

You don’t often read this in the tabloids, but people who’ve found themselves downwind from the big fella report being nearly brought to their knees by a disturbingly pungent stench variously described as “dirty diapers,” “rotten fish,” “ammonia,” “a cross between a skunk and a wet dog,” and, perhaps worst of all, “loggers’ socks.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Willow Creek, Calif., the Siskiyou mountain hamlet that calls itself the “Bigfoot Capital of the World,” and I’ve never talked to anyone who claims they’ve gotten so much as a glimpse of the creature. But I’ve met lots of people who say they’ve gotten a whiff.

Hang around Willow Creek for a while and you’ll come to the conclusion that (olfactory factors aside) if Bigfoot didn’t—or doesn’t—exist, we’d have to invent him.

It’s not just that the hulking, ill-kempt, apelike beast keeps cash registers ringing, although that’s a big reason. In the Bigfoot exhibit at the Willow Creek–China Flat Museum, once you’ve finished inspecting the plaster casts of Bigfoot footprints, the yellowed newspaper clippings, the few strands of alleged Bigfoot hair, and a tiny cast mold of what is purportedly Bigfoot’s Achilles tendon—allow at least five minutes for this—all that’s left is to break out your wallet for Bigfoot shot glasses, Bigfoot action figures, Bigfoot crossing signs, Bigfoot plaster-cast footprints, Bigfoot Live Capture permits, the Bigfoot Observer’s Field Manual, Bigfoot timepieces (the “Sasqwatch”), Bigfoot Christmas ornaments, and . . . well, you get the idea.

We also need Bigfoot—along with the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot’s Himalayan cousin, the Abominable Snowman—because creatures like him make our world a more interesting place: They allow us to cling to a tiny remnant of childhood wonder. It would be profoundly depressing to think that we’ve solved every last one of our planet’s mysteries, that there are no surprises left.

And there’s good reason to hope that astounding discoveries still await us. In the early 20th century, tales of an African ape-man who sounds an awful lot like Bigfoot were ridiculed in Europe until explorer Captain Robert von Beringe brought home a giant mountain gorilla he’d killed in the Virunga Mountains of what is now Rwanda.

The coelacanth, a strikingly ugly fish considered the “missing link” of the undersea world, was thought to have been extinct for approximately 80 million years—until a living one turned up in a fisherman’s net in South Africa in 1938.

Ancient legends from the Indonesian island of Flores about a mysterious race of tiny people called the Ebu Gogo started to sound a lot less mythlike in 2004 with the discovery there of the hobbit-size remains of what may constitute a new humanoid species, one that lived alongside homo sapiens thousands of years ago.

Beyond his capacity to instill wonder, though, there’s a more fundamental reason humans need Bigfoot: We’re lonely.

It’s the same impulse that compels us to search the night sky for signals sent by intelligent beings on distant planets. And it’s why the notion of Bigfoot excites us in ways that discovering a previously unknown species of bear or sloth does not: That secretive creature in the Siskiyou Mountains could turn out to be a distant cousin who branched off the evolutionary tree many millennia ago.

As mountaineer Reinhold Messner put it, we have “a longing for some mirror to our prehistoric past, a mirror into which we can look and shudder in awe and horror.”

Cultures the world over have folktales of wild ape-men. In the Himalayas, of course, they have the Yeti. (I’m crestfallen to report that its resplendent English name, the Abominable Snowman, is a mistranslation.) In the backwoods of Quebec they call their ape-man a Windigo. In the Australian Outback it’s known as a Yowie; in Brazil it’s a Mapinguary; in Siberia it’s a Chuchunaa. (More than a few of these creatures, we feel compelled to point out, are said to have a serious problem with body odor.)

We may think of our own Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, as he’s also known) as a denizen of the deep and tangled forests of far northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which bills itself as “the oldest and largest organization of its kind,” reports sightings in every U.S. state except Hawaii.

Considering how much Bigfoot and his brood seem to get around, you wonder why one has never been hit by a car, or been caught in a bear trap, or appeared before anyone with a steady, focused camera. Or why some backwoods hunter has never stumbled upon a sick or injured Bigfoot, or the remains of one recently deceased. (The latter, say its most fervent believers, is because Bigfoot buries its dead.)

The most dramatic cinematic proof of the creature’s existence, the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film of him strolling along a gravelly riverbank in the Siskiyou Mountains, is a Rorschach test for Bigfoot believers and skeptics alike: In it you can see whatever you want, definitive proof or cheesy hoax.

The 53-second movie is the Zapruder film of cryptozoology. Investigators have digitally enhanced and microscopically scrutinized each of its 952 frames, poring over it for clues the way conspiracy buffs analyze the famous home movie of JFK’s assassination. Depending upon which expert you consult, the creature’s jaunty, arm-swinging gait is either impossible for a human to reproduce or quite easy.

I’ve watched it a hundred times, and as much as I want to believe, all I can see is a guy in a gorilla costume.

Nevertheless, count me as a Bigfoot agnostic. I truly don’t know if the creature exists, and I hope we never find out. We don’t need Bigfoot as much as we need our belief in Bigfoot.

Still, next time I’m out walking in the Siskiyous, I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open. My nostrils, too.

Illustration by Peter Oberdorf

This article was published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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