Everything’s Bigfoot in Texas

I’ll go through it all again
Watch their doubtful smiles begin
But the visions that I see believe in me.
-John K. Samson
“Bigfoot”

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In a high school cafetorium, a small man in his mid-70s was lecturing to a rapt audience of several hundred people. His name is Dr. Henner Fahrenbach, a retired zoologist from Oregon and a self-proclaimed expert in the behavioral habits of a bipedal ape sometimes known as Sasquatch.

“Their top speed for running is between 42 and 45 miles per hour,” Fahrenbach told us in his thick German accent. “They can cover 90 feet in just three steps, or thirty feet per step. So obviously, they have immensely powerful thighs and legs in general.”

Fahrenbach was one of the featured speakers at the seventh annual Texas Bigfoot Conference, held every October in the north-eastern Texas town of Jefferson. Unlike his colleagues — a collective of authors, academics and independent Bigfoot researchers who’d shared their findings throughout the day — Fahrenbach made no secret of his beliefs. He didn’t speculate about the “possibility” of Bigfoot’s existence. He was not only convinced that Sasquatch is real, but also epic and chimerical, like a monster straight out of Greek mythology.

“Sasquatch has been observed walking with two 200-pound pigs under his arm through the countryside,” Fahrenbach continued. “On another occasion, he’s been witnessed grabbing three goats with one arm and walking over a five foot fence without breaking stride.”

The audience listened attentively, but it was difficult to tell if they were convinced by Fahrenbach. He seemed an odd choice for a conference that promised to “establish the legitimacy” of the Bigfoot research field. If anybody in the crowd was already dubious about Sasquatch, they probably weren’t swayed by his wild claims of hirsute giants snatching goats by the fistful.

Fahrenbach is elfish in stature and moon-faced, with a scampish grin and head of thinning white hair. He reminded me of a friendly grandfather character in a German fairy tale. With one hand in his front pocket and the other grasping a microphone, he recited his research from memory, rarely consulting his notes. The stories, based on his interviews with dozens of eye-witnesses, became increasingly bizarre. He explained that Bigfoot’s diet is rich in mussels, clams, peacocks, and the “hindquarter” of deer. He described how Bigfoot likes to “shake the daylights” out of mobile homes, and in one incident he personally investigated in Oregon, a Bigfoot shook a mobile home so hard that “all the sheathing around the bottom fell off. It was just this guy inside who got scared out of his wits and threw white bread out of the window, hoping to soothe the Sasquatch outside.”

When Bigfoot doesn’t get what he wants, Fahrenbach warned us, he has temper tantrums “just the same as a baby, throwing itself on the ground and screaming and rolling around.” He shared the details of a case in California where a Bigfoot disrupted a construction site by repeatedly turning over a diesel tractor, ostensibly because he was “trying to stop progress.” He also insisted that Bigfoots enjoy wrestling, throwing rocks “the size of watermelons”, and most surprisingly, tickle fights.

Fahrenbach went into great detail about the sexual habits of a Sasquatch. As it turns out, Bigfoot doesn’t just have a healthy libido, he’s also a filthy pervert. Fahrenbach claimed that the creature has been observed spying on human women in the shower, and would cry loudly if his view was obstructed. He also described their fondness for gangbangs, assuring us that even a horny Sasquatch has impeccably good manners when it comes to orgy etiquette.

“When an especially large male came onto the scene,” Fahrenbach said, describing a sexual pileup involving one willing female and lots of dudes, “he didn’t try to buck the line but simply stood there and took his turn in good time.”

Somewhere in the back row, a woman turned to her husband and whispered, “I can’t tell if he’s kidding.”

I could definitely sympathize. At least at first, I just assumed Fahrenbach was making some tongue-in-cheek point about the unfair stereotypes of Bigfoot research. His performance was so over the top and goofy, like a “mad scientist” caricature from a Mel Brooks film, that I could practically anticipate the punchlines. But he never broke character, never winked at the audience or said something telling like, “This is what the outside world thinks we talk about at these conferences.”

If there was any doubt about Fahrenbach’s intentions, he cleared it up at the very beginning. Despite how his lecture was described in the schedule, he told us, he wouldn’t be talking about “possible” Sasquatch behavior.

“That could include riding a Harley Davidson or something like that,” he said. “I am talking about real Sasquatch behavior.”

The most remarkable thing wasn’t that Fahrenbach was making these crazy allegations, creating a case-history for Bigfoot that was somewhere between Chupacabra and King Kong on the monster believability scale. What was remarkable was that nobody at the conference raised even a finger in protest. Bigfoot, like any unorthodox pseudo-science, has its fair share of crackpots. But there are usually at least a few rational Sasquatch enthusiasts ready to cry foul when one of their own starts yammering about “Robot Monster” fever dreams and calling it proof. Not so in this crowd.

There was some nervous giggling when Fahrenbach began his lecture. But the audience eventually grew silent, listening with stoic reticence, their expressions wooden and their eyes unblinking. There were no cries of “bullshit” or demands for more evidence than Fahrenbach’s aw-shucks smile. They didn’t drag him from the stage or chase him out of the building like an angry mob in a Frankenstein movie, brandishing pitchforks and torches. They just sat and stared, like mannequins arranged in contemplative poses.

I couldn’t tell if they were seriously considering what Fahrenbach had to say, or if they just didn’t have any fight left in them. Challenging his vision of Sasquatch — a Gorilla Grodd who would surely destroy us all — would’ve led to a very public argument, which would’ve attracted more attention and possibly turned into a messy media spectacle. Wouldn’t it be easier just to treat him like a predator, remaining motionless until the danger passed? If they closed their eyes and didn’t move a muscle, maybe he’d go away.

It’s been a rough year for the Bigfoot true believers. Last summer, a pair of hoaxers in Georgia tried to convince the world that they’d found a Sasquatch carcass, which turned out to be a cooler filled with animal entrails and a rubber gorilla costume. The Bigfoot legend has always been a hard sell, but after such a high-profile scandal, it hasn’t been easy to keep the faith when even casual cryptozoologists are portrayed as gullible or insane, and sometimes both.

At least during the first half of this year’s conference, the speakers tried to prove that all Bigfoot researchers aren’t con artists or rednecks who subscribe to the Weekly World News. Most of the morning was devoted to raw data, delivered in a grave monotone by Daryl Colyer, a member of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. He rarely used the word Bigfoot, opting instead for vague descriptions like “unlisted primate species” or “unknown, upright hair-covered species.”

Colyer numerated a staggering amount of minutiae from reported Bigfoot sightings, rattling off percentages for everything from witness gender (66% male), the duration of encounters (45% occur within just 11 seconds), reported Sasquatch hair color (31% of witnesses claim it’s red-brown), what witnesses were doing prior to their sighting (11% were fishing, 5% were biking, and just 2% were in the midst of a picnic), and a vast array of Bigfoot’s vocal sounds, from growls and screams to whoops, grunts, roars, howls, moans, and hoots.

“A hoot could be interpreted as being the same thing as a whoop,” Colyer admitted without cracking a smile.

The audience nodded appreciatively, and those clutching notebooks wrote down every detail, as if these observations directly affected their own research. And it’s possible it did. While discussing Bigfoot’s habitat (at least according to eye-witness reports), Colyer revealed that 2% of Bigfoots have been spotted in trees.

“I know a lot of you don’t look up in trees,” he told us. “Well, you might want to do that.”

Later, a wildlife biologist from Oklahoma named Alton Higgins talked about Bigfoot hoaxes, using a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate how costume frauds could be identified. There were the obvious clues — thick, tubular lower legs — and also more complicated hoax telltales, like irregular arm-leg symmetry and head/humerus proportions. At some point, he used the phrase “the length of the arm divided by the length of the leg multiplied by a hundred,” and I felt like a teenager again, nodding in algebra class and trying to pretend I knew what the fuck my teacher was talking about.

But this time, being the dumbest person in the room was exhilarating. I’d come to this conference ready to be disappointed (or, worst-case scenario, get enough fodder for a snarky essay). But this lecture, dripping with science-nerd agnosticism, was refreshingly unexpected. And, in some ways, it was the only logical response to a post-Georgia hoax world. To avoid being belittled and dismissed, the Bigfoot community had to become more critical of their research than their worst critics. To make the rest of us believe, they had to be more skeptical than the skeptics. They had to be the first ones to sneer, looking for the bad stitching in a gorilla suit before the cynics beat them to the punch.

“Most of us that work in this field are skeptical when it comes to evidence,” Higgins told the audience. “If somebody comes up with some lame picture, we don’t start giving each other high-fives and say, ‘Here’s another picture of a Sasquatch.’ You have to analyze it.”

It was easy to believe Higgins. He was mad as hell, and like Howard Beale in Network, he wasn’t going to take it anymore. But sometimes, even he couldn’t keep his inner Bigfoot fanboy in check. While examining the differences between a Bigfoot scam and a bear photo, Higgins couldn’t help but comment on how a wrinkle in the bear’s upper back could be mistaken for a zipper, a not-so-subtle reference to the legendary Patterson footage, where supposed zipper-sightings have been a subject of heated debate for over forty years.

The audience laughed at the zipper line, and some of them even clapped appreciatively. You don’t need to be an expert in psychology to know that was exactly what they needed to hear. Nobody came to this conference to find out what isn’t Bigfoot. They were well-acquainted with false alarms. They’d been disappointed every time that strange growling sound out in the back yard turned out to be something perfectly explainable. They’d come here, to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere Texas, to have their beliefs rekindled. Explaining to them that Bigfoot was just a thinly-veiled deception was unfair and cruel — like ending a campfire story by saying, “And that’s why rumors of an escaped mental patient with a meat cleaver turned out to be nothing.”

You could pinpoint the crowd’s loyalties by watching the way they leaned forward in their seats whenever one of the speakers shared a juicy revelation, something nebulous enough to send a shiver up their spines. You could taste it in the air; the audience wanted to be freaked out. They wanted goosebumps, not scientific stolidity.

Among the sea of grey beards and plaid jackets, my favorite audience member was a middle-aged man with a bad toupee and thick glasses, wearing a t-shirt that read “I Want To Believe”. I never exchanged a single word with him, but just by watching him from afar and studying his reactions, I could tell that the emphasis wasn’t on “Believe” but “Want”. This entire conference was about wanting, so desperately, to believe.

During the lunch break — we’re served cold-cut sandwiches and chips — I met Michael Cathey, a Bigfoot hobbyist from Oklahoma who runs his own canoeing business, called Bigfoot Floats. He told me how he’s visited the conference every year since its inception, and this time his wife even joined him, although she decided to go antiquing with their daughter rather than attend the actual event.

“I remember doing reports on Bigfoot in Junior High,” he told me. “That’s what I wanted to do someday, go out and find Bigfoot. But you know, the older I get, I kinda don’t want him to be found anymore. It’s better as a mystery.”

“Mystery” was the one word that kept popping up throughout the conference. Whether in private conversations or public lectures, their voices crackled with excitement — mystery, mystery, mystery. You could almost hear the baritone narrator in their subconscious, sounding not unlike Leonard Nimoy from that “In Search Of” special from the late 70s (which, not coincidentally, was played in its entirety for guests prior to the conference), muttering about the elusive hunt for this creature we call… Bigfoot!

Those who’ve devoted their careers to studying Bigfoot, however, aren’t quite so willing to let it remain mythology. And they certainly don’t like being dismissed by the media as fools and charlatans. David Paulides, a speaker at the Texas conference and a Bigfoot researcher from Northern California, complained to me that “the biggest headlines are for the hoaxes and the people who probably aren’t doing the best kind of research. The guys in the background, who are sitting in the woods and doing the hard work, they aren’t getting the press they deserve.

“Like Dr. Meldrum,” he continued, pointing to a man sitting behind a table and selling plaster cast Bigfoot footprints for $40 a pop. “He put his entire career on the line by coming out and saying, ‘Hey, these things are real.’ And he’s still ridiculed about it. There’s a hero for you to write about.”

He may have a point that the media can be too quick to judge, but he and his peers need to share at least some of the blame. It was impossible not to smile during the conference when a lecturer was introduced as “the foremost expert and collector of Sasquatch hair”, or a speaker discussed Bigfoot’s criminal history (according to Native American legend) of kidnapping young boys and eating human flesh, or the disturbing revelation (made by Paulides) that Bigfoot might be drawn to menstruating women, and has been observed digging though garbage cans, looking for used tampons.

If they don’t want to be ridiculed by the media, then they should try a little harder not to make it so easy.

Bigfooters haven’t exactly received a warm reception from mainstream science, either. Dr. Henry Gee, a Senior Editor for Nature Magazine, told me that “the scientific community at large regards ‘Bigfoot’ as either a figment of peoples’ imagination or a hoax.” Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t subscribe to his own special brand of crazy. “That’s not to deny the possibility, even if remote, that unknown human-like creatures might await discovery in some part of the world,” he said. “The discovery of fossils of Homo floresiensis, otherwise known as ‘The Hobbit’, a strange humanoid creature that lived in Indonesia until at least 14,000 years ago, increases that possibility.”

In other words, Sasquatch is probably fictional. But Hobbits running around in a prehistoric Middle Earth? Totally real!

“Some day a good picture’s going to come out,” said Robert Swain, the author of an unsyndicated comic strip called “Laughsquatch”, in one of the most heartfelt speeches of the day. “And it’s not going to be the Georgia hoax that we’ve all cringed about. It’s going to be something that you can really put stock in, and people are going to start looking at this community as something that’s really credible and something they need to take seriously. We probably have an endangered species that’s a very important scientific find, right here under our noses. We need to help science because science doesn’t know what to look for. It’s going to be up to us to find it.

“I appreciate everybody that’s out there looking for Bigfoot,” he went on. “Because I think it’s only a matter of time before we bring him home.”

That’s the kind of sentence that can resonate with you for days. “Bring him home?” It seemed a peculiar way to talk about a creature that, according to anybody with even a shaky grasp on reality, hadn’t yet been proven to exist. Swain sounded like an anxious parent asking for help in finding his missing child. Did he — and for that matter, everybody else at this conference — think that Bigfoot was lost, maybe waiting for a volunteer search party to find him and airlift him to safety with helicopters?

Out in the hallway, among the many Bigfoot books and DVDs for sale, Dr. Paulides was displaying an array of police sketches, all purportedly of Bigfoot. Depending on which sketch you believe, Bigfoot is either scowling and feral, like an escaped prison convict with psychopathic tendencies, or jovial and huggable, like a bearded uncle with an armful of Christmas presents.

A middle-aged mother escorted her young daughter — probably no older than four or five — over to Paulides’ table, trying to show her the less threatening portraits of Sasquatch. But the girl was having none of it.

“No, no, no,” she whimpered, hiding her face in her mother’s shoulder.

Paulides, his smile so calm and nonthreatening that he could’ve mediated a hostage negotiation, assured the skittish girl that there was nothing to fear. “They look different from you,” he told her, “but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Bigfoot is our friend.”

The girl wasn’t convinced, but the adults standing nearby grinned from ear to ear. They nodded furiously, like kids who’d just been reminded that Santa Claus really did exist and he loved them all unconditionally. It seemed that even Bigfoot researchers, with their empirical and “only-the-facts-ma’am” dispositions, have a weakness for Harry & the Henderson fantasies.

Craig Woolheater, the conference’s director and founder, was unwilling to pigeonhole the beliefs of his fellow Bigfoot devotees. “There’s probably somebody here who thinks Bigfoot pilots UFOs,” he told me. “Or that Bigfoot is a dimensional shape-shifter. There’s such a wide spectrum of beliefs. The problem is, it’s all speculation. Everybody has a theory but nothing is fact.”

Scientific certainty has never been at the core of Bigfoot research, especially in a field where the “facts” are so nebulous. It’s about personal experience. Midway through the conference, an MC asked the crowd, “How many of you have had a Bigfoot encounter?” There was a show of hands, roughly half the crowd. A woman in the row ahead of me let her gaze drift around the room, doing a quick head count. Her jaw dropped and her eyes bulged, and like a kid during her first trip to Disney World, she muttered, “Awwwwesome.”

A guy sitting next to me noticed my notebook and craned his neck for a closer look. He had delicate features and the whisper of a mustache. A backpack was nestled between his legs, and he was dressed entirely in fleece. It was a curious outfit for an afternoon of lectures. I wondered if he was expecting more, anticipating that at any moment somebody would blow a horn and announce the beginning of the Sasquatch hunt.

“Had any luck in the field?” he asked me.

I just shrugged, quickly covering my notes (a few of which contained some less than flattering observations about the audience) and asked him the same question. He was more than happy to tell me everything, sharing the intimate details of his Bigfoot research like I was a potential investor. He lived in Dallas, he told me, and had made several expeditions to Paris, Texas, where he’d had at least one Bigfoot sighting.

“What did it look like?” I asked, genuinely excited.

“Long, gray and skinny,” he said, whispering to me like he suspected somebody might be eavesdropping. “I saw it climb up a tree with only its hind legs.”

We talked for several minutes, and he eventually admitted that his story wasn’t entirely accurate. When he claimed to have “seen” Bigfoot, what he meant was “on the Internet”. He’d seen and even touched the footprint casts taken from a Bigfoot hotspot in Texas, and he’d visited the Paris swamps where Bigfoot purportedly called home, and he’d sat in the dark on countless nights in countless Texas forests, listening for the snap of twig or the echo of a growl or anything that might give him reason to believe. But as for his sighting, the Bigfoot close encounter he’d been bragging about from the moment I met him was, well… funny story… he actually saw it on YouTube. And he was almost 98% positive it was the real deal.

Confusing reality with a viral video might seem like a symptom of insanity. But I didn’t tell my new friend that he was a delusional idiot. He went on to explain that he’d recently lost his job at a helicopter factory in Dallas, and how he and his girlfriend had slept in their cars last night because they couldn’t afford a hotel. It didn’t take a huge leap of deduction to realize this guy lived with a walnut of worry and anxiety buried in his chest, and Bigfoot was his outlet.

For some people — many of them at this conference — the debate over whether Bigfoot is real or fictional isn’t the point. It’s just a metaphor. Fifty years ago, when Bigfoot first entered the pop culture lexicon, it just so happened to coincide with the Cold War and atomic paranoia. It makes a weird sort of sense why monsters would be making a comeback in the late ‘aughts, just our country is in the midst of a crippling recession and a seemingly never-ending war in Iraq. Just walking out of your home means confronting a never-ending deluge of intangible threats. We can’t get on a plane without studying the other passengers and trying to identify potential terrorists. We can’t walk into a high school or a church or a mall or a fast-food restaurant without anticipating that some disaffected kid might storm in with a shotgun and kill everybody. We can’t walk into a bank without wondering if our entire life savings has disappeared in the blink of Sarah Palin’s eyes. We need monsters when the world gets scary, because it brings our fears into focus. Bigfoot is a big, hairy, lumbering behemoth that we can point to and say, “There! That’s it! That’s the thing I’m afraid of! Let’s form an angry mob and chase it out of town with pitchforks and torches!”

Not everybody at the conference had exaggerated their Bigfoot sightings. Craig Woolheater, a co-founder of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, had a tale that read like a superhero origin story. In 1994, he was driving through Louisiana with his girlfriend, on a two-lane and unlit highway. At some point around 11:30 at night, they saw something on the road that looked… Sasquatchian.

“As soon as we passed it, we looked at each other,” Woolheater told me. “She said, ‘I think I saw a Bigfoot.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to turn around.’ And she said ‘Hell no!’ I regret to this day that we didn’t stop.”

That lingering regret inspired Woolheater to create the Texas Bigfoot Conference in 2001. Listening to him talk about that fateful day when he almost, kinda saw Bigfoot, he sounds like Daniel Johnston, but instead of writing songs about the girl who broke his heart in high school, he’s devoted his life to the bipedal ape that got away. The conference, in its weird way, is his way of turning around and driving back.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I had another chance,” he said, in the reflective voice of somebody who’s pondered this question many, many times before. “I don’t even know if it would’ve been there if I’d stopped the car and backed up. But I wanted — I still want — a closer look.”

The most telling moment of the conference occurred during the panel discussion. Every speaker gathered on the stage to field questions from the audience, which ranged from the Georgia hoax (“an anomaly,” Dr. Meldrum insisted) to Bigfoot’s poop. Asked if they thought it was ethical to shoot and kill a Bigfoot — if only to collect DNA samples for research — the entire panel, without hesitation, said no.

“It doesn’t have to be killed,” said Woolheater. “Somebody could be hiking in the woods of north Georgia, for instance, and actually find a Sasquatch body. But until that happens, we’ll stick with documenting it with video and photographic evidence.”

Kathy Strain, the author of a collection of Bigfoot lore called Giants, Cannibals & Monsters, just shrugged and said, “I don’t know that DNA is necessarily going to make or break this case.”

It’s unlikely that Bigfoot research will ever gain the credibility its proponents crave, at least while they consider DNA overrated. Real science requires more than blurry photos and first-person accounts from jittery hikers. But maybe scientific legitimacy isn’t as important to them as they claim. After all, gathering too much information might backfire, accidentally disproving the creature they’ve come to love and need. Better to keep Bigfoot at a safe distance, where it can remain mythical and larger than life, leaping over canyons and kidnapping women and hosting forest gangbangs.

The last word on Bigfoot hunting went to Dr. Fahrenbach. The question of whether to shoot Sasquatch was moot, he told us, because such a plot would never succeed. “Time and time again, you read about the idiots with .22s, shooting at a Sasquatch,” Fahrenbach said with a smirk. “The Sasquatch doesn’t even speed up. It swats at the bullets as if a bee had stung them. They’ll probably have festering wounds and it certainly will decrease their mobility, but it doesn’t bring them down.”

I wanted to stand up and applaud. It was such an amazing display of verbal choreography. Fahrenbach had taken the original question and reshaped it, sending it spiraling in a new direction. And it was as simple as changing one little word. It went from “should Bigfoot be killed” to “could Bigfoot be killed”. The difference between the two was vast. Should was an ethical question, and on a deeper level, exposed their collective fear that Bigfoot might turn out to be imaginary. But there was no ambiguity to could, no uncertainty as to whether Bigfoot existed. Not only was he real, but unstoppable! Shoot at him all you want, it’ll only make him angry. And if he gets angry, he’ll steal our blonde women and carry them to the tops of skyscrapers. Asking whether Bigfoot could be killed was the intellectual equivalent of looking to the sky and shaking your fists and screaming, “We’ll get you one day, Bigfoot! Mark our words! Your reign of terror will come to an end!”

The audience laughed at Fahrenbach, but it wasn’t a derisive or mocking laugh. It almost sounded like a sigh of relief.

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)