All Kinds of Mysterious Craziness
Excerpted from “The Secret History of Bigfoot: Field Notes on a North American Monster”
By John O'Connor
Representations of Bigfoot footprints appear outside the Bigfoot Crossroads of America Museum that was once Harriett McFeely's wedding chapel in Hastings, a city in south-central Nebraska. Courtesy Library of Congress
“It is only that which is under your nose which seems inexplicable.”
—William Carlos Williams
Seventy miles past Whitesville, two hours west of the Old Frankfort Pike, roundabout the joint end of the chicken leg of the fifteenth state to enter the Union, I crossed into the thirty-seven parallel’s most hallowed Squatchin’ ground. The sky was a disappointment—low, gridlocked clouds, their edges drooping like an overhanging roof, and just past the county line, a wall of rain—but the road was flat, straight, plain sailing. I’d come here because Charlie Raymond, founder of the Kentucky Bigfoot Research Organization (KBRO), had asked if I wanted to join his fall expedition. A bunch of us would be camping out, taking long hikes through the woods, and comparing notes. I’d reached out to Charlie and explained how I hoped to chronicle Bigfooters in my third favorite state. He was keen to have me along, he said, given one proviso: any true Bigfooter, like any true fisherman, had proprietary feelings for the loci of his former success. “It’s like a fishing hole,” another Bigfooter had told me. “Once you find a place you like, why go anywhere else? Otherwise, you’ll wind up chasing unicorns and gnomes.” So to protect what Charlie called his “research area,” I’d withhold the exact location. I can tell you it was reminiscent, at first, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1980s: fallow fields bordered by goldenrod and autumn olive; mile after mile of wood fencing and rangy roadside weeds; pickup trucks of indeterminate vintage; a derelict gas station with broken fluorescent lightbulbs and Swisher butts and plastic Schnapps bottles strewn around the parking area, and above the toilet in a fetid men’s room, a handwritten sign: C’mon, Guys. —the Mgmt.
Probably most folks wouldn’t peg Kentucky as a Bigfoot hotbed. Until pretty recently, neither did Bigfooters. With the exception of John Green’s totemic Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us, Kentucky hadn’t been cited in any of the books I’d read. Green mentions it only in passing. But as Charlie Raymond liked to point out, this was merely an oversight. In a state with twelve million forested acres and a population density comparable to Washington’s, why not here? Intending to put the subject on the table, Charlie founded the KBRO in 1997 as a “non-kill research group which seeks to prove the existence of, and protect of [sic], these magnificent creatures,” according to its website. Sightings multiplied. Charlie, a web designer by trade, became a local expert, guide, investigator, and Bigfoot booster, despite never having seen one himself in three decades of searching (“I’m a believer, not a knower,” he’d told me). Of all the Bigfooters I’d met, Charlie was the most devout. It was largely because of him that Kentucky was now ranked fourteenth in the BFRO’s national sightings database, with 114 since 1995.
On the phone, Charlie exhibited what I’d come to know as a characteristic wit and irreverence. About his entry into Bigfooting, he’d said, “There were just too many people in gorilla suits crossing the highway to ignore.” I admired his good cheer, the way he seemed to find humor in almost everything, a sense of humor in Bigfooting being an elusive species. “Laughing and having fun,” he’d said, “that’s what attracts Bigfoot.” I also liked his backdoor conservationist credo: “We have to protect Bigfoots. In Kentucky they’ll be extinct in the next hundred years if we don’t protect their habitat and keep decimating our forests. It’s getting harder and harder to go very far without hitting another shopping center.” Even this had his affirming, can-do-it ring, as if suburban/industrial sprawl were a problem to be hashed out by lunch.
Bearing west, the landscape changed utterly. I went spinning down a river valley, over dams and along hogback hills. Leaves were just beginning to yellow. As I closed in on Charlie’s base camp, a red pickup swung into the road ahead of me, its quad duallys spitting a plume of shoulder gravel. The suspension was a good two feet off the ground, and the truck was festooned from bumper to bumper with confederate flags and Trump flags (talk about sore losers), that yellow Gadsden flag with a coiled rattlesnake above the words “Don’t Tread On Me,” and other peckerwood shibboleths. It was like a MAGA version of Immortan Joe’s Gigahorse from Mad Max: Fury Road. Among some acquaintances in my hometown of Kalamazoo, such excessive sloganeering, while not quite so aggro, wasn’t unprecedented. But then it happened again. Different truck. Same imaginary parade. I trailed it for a half mile before it fishtailed away.
I’d seen the voter maps. I knew Trump had won this county by nearly eighty percent in the past two elections and that Biden had taken just a pair of the state’s 120 counties, the blue islands encompassing Louisville and Lexington. I also knew it was a bad time to be a Kentuckian and had been for a while. The state ranked near the bottom in almost every livability metric: health care quality and outcomes, median income and fiscal stability, education level, life expectancy, and air and water quality. It had the nation’s highest cancer death rate and was dead last in jobs. According to a 2019 index of the worst twenty-five counties in the United States to live in, based on average life expectancy at birth, education, and employment, ten were in Kentucky. Manufacturing had evaporated. Coal was on life support. Even thoroughbred racing was in decline. That, of course, was before the pandemic. The hope that someone had noticed and had not dismissed Kentuckians’ grievances as the petty resentments of a “privileged” underclass appeared to be visceral and all-consuming. Even if that someone was a self-mythologizing male gorgon of the lowest order who himself never wanted for anything. That a bigoted, narcissistic, morally and fiscally bankrupt, lying sponger had channeled the legitimate anxieties of Kentuckians into a narrative of righteous indignation, though it charred my mutton, also made a twisted kind of sense. Myths, as someone once said, are as important as reality.
Cover image courtesy Sourcebooks
The rain let up. I found the campground and parked. I’d been told the site itself was lovely, and it was. Potentially memorable, I remember thinking. A floating mist encircled the trunks of young oaks and black walnuts and a few tulip trees. It was warm but not too warm, with birdsong being piped in from offstage and late-summer light adding a burgundy substratum. Two-, three-, and four-person tents, some with elaborate nylon porches and sunscreens, others attached to pimped-out mini trailers and campers, filled up the dewy grass between the road and a forest that grew down to the river.
As I was assembling my tent, I was nearly brained by a falling walnut. All weekend, black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts rained down around us, sailing past our heads, bouncing off tents, catching a few folks plumb on the noggin. The walnuts were a special menace. They were the size of tennis balls but as hard as apples. The meagerest rustle of wind sent them flying and bursting apart on the road or on the hoods of our Dodge Rams and F-250s, where they left egg-size dents. Every so often, someone would holler “Watch it!” and we’d cower with our hands over our heads until the danger passed.
There were about thirty-five of us, including a dozen women. Many were friends from previous expeditions. Except for an African American man from Georgia named Mike Gamble, everyone was white. We sat around a firepit chatting and drinking pop. Almost every man present was named Mike or John. Still, we wore name tags on lanyards clipped to our clothing, which injected an air of unearned intimacy. A Michigander, for instance, might find himself subjected to ribbings about his accent and a long-suffering NFL franchise. The vibe was slaphappy, pregame. “There are a lot of nuts out here, and not just us,” someone said, making everybody laugh. As the sun set, we ate supper by lantern light.
Charlie Raymond materialized. He was a powerfully built man, about five-eleven, fiftyish, with a short dark beard and bright, canny eyes. He delivered a brief lecture on the history of Bigfoot sightings in the area. They went all the way back to the Woodland Indians who’d lived here five thousand years ago, he said, and came forward to the present, to as recently as last night, in fact, when some early arrivers had spotted a Bigfoot strolling past the restrooms not thirty yards from where we sat. It was large and hairy and vanished into the tall grass that ran through the middle of the campground. A few expeditions ago, a white-gray-colored Bigfoot had been seen crossing the road and entering the same grassy median. “This place is red-hot,” Charlie said, his fingers laced before him. Two or three Bigfoot couples, plus two juveniles, lived in these woods, of that he was certain. “I’ve had many, many amazing experiences out here. I’m a researcher. This is where I research.”
He explained that we’d split into three teams, fanning out in pursuit of nighttime encounters. “Please respect peoples’ experiences,” Charlie said. “Respect their research.” I took this to mean that if you had reason to doubt somebody’s claims of a sighting, don’t miss the opportunity to shut up. Sound advice for any occasion.
By now it was pitch-black. We all clumped together, our headlamp beams roaming about like searchlights, throwing Blair Witch shadows among the trees. It reminded me of a line from Walden that has always stuck with me: “I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.” James Attlee, in his memoir-cum-history Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, elaborates on Thoreau: “This fear, this shunning of the night, is by no means a new phenomenon. It is possible that man evolved the habit of sleeping in safe, secluded places as a response to the danger of attack from wild animals… In Jewish and Christian theology, God separated light from darkness shortly after creation and human beings have been attempting to extend light’s dominion ever since.” It also comes in handy when you drop your car keys in the grass.
A last word of caution from Charlie—“Watch out for snakes! Copperheads have been spotted all over the roads!”—and we were off. I joined a team with Charlie, his wife, Lyndsey, and their terrier Chihuahua mix, Whiskey Rose. We were also Marge Gates, fifty-six, an events coordinator from suburban Chicago; her friend Barbara Mueller, a retired sheriff from Illinois in her early seventies; Jason Grainger, forty-one, an ex-Marine who managed a Lowe’s in Willisburg; Victoria Haydon, Jason’s girlfriend, a real estate agent, also in her forties; and Mason, a burly and bearded Kentuckian about whom I could learn nothing else.
Leaves rustled underfoot. With our headlamps switched off for stealth, it was so dark that if you stopped without warning, the person behind would walk right into you. I got to talking with Lyndsey Raymond. She was a sweet blond woman from Yorkshire, England, in her forties. A retired police officer, she wore a white T-shirt with gray pants and carried a cotton sack like a mailbag for Whiskey Rose to rest in when she got tired. Lyndsey had recently left the force to devote more time to Bigfooting. She helped run a motel in Clay City that she and Charlie had just bought and planned to turn into a Bigfoot Inn & Museum. Lyndsey’s accent stood out even more than mine. Speaking to her, I felt suddenly that my own English was rather coarse and nasally, that my flattened vowels were especially offensive to the ear. In England, she said, there wasn’t much Bigfoot culture to speak of, owing to a lack of Bigfoots, and that if you expressed an interest in it, people thought you were insane.
We reached a trail junction Charlie called “the Crossroads.” The wind was up. Acorns and walnuts were dropping everywhere. People leaned against trees or sat on the ground. Charlie asked if someone would play music on their phone, music being a Bigfoot attractant. I fetched mine from my pocket and put on Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got A Name.” No one seemed impressed. I tried again with “Fork” by 2 Chainz but was politely voted down. Someone then played an unlistenable dance track. Musically, we never recovered.
From his backpack, Charlie produced a wooden club resembling an axe handle, like what Clint Eastwood thrashes the prospectors with in Pale Rider (“There’s nothing like a nice piece of hickory!”). Lots of Bigfooters carry these, not for self-defense but for “wood knocks.” The idea, Charlie explained, was to draw out Bigfoots by knocking on trees—their preferred style of communication during nocturnal hunts. “Sometimes they’ll think you’re another Squatch and they’ll knock back,” he said.
Charlie found a tree and beat it three times with his club. Leaves rained down around us. “Three knocks are best,” he said. “Squatches use one knock to call to each other, two or three to echolocate.”
We waited for a reply. Acorns plonked and kerplunked. Bigfooting, like deer hunting, requires patience. Much of your time is spent waiting around in undistinguished stretches of wood, twirling your thumbs.
“It’s rare to get a knock back,” Charlie whispered. Just then, three knocks came back to us—Knock! Knock! Knock! Everybody froze. If it’s possible for something unseen to make a dramatic entrance, that was what happened. The atmosphere became electric. Our headlamp beams skittered across the brush, extending for ten feet or so, illuminating the fracture lines of tree bark and little else. Had I been alone, the knocks probably would’ve passed without notice. The impression I had was of falling acorns or walnuts. But there was no way to say for sure what it was. Which, I supposed, was the point.
Charlie radioed another team positioned a few miles away. “Did you guys just do three knocks?”
“They like watching us,” someone offered. “We’re their TV.”
And for a moment it was like a scene in a movie or an H. P. Lovecraft story, a scene in which we were active participants rather than passive viewers. In this way, Bigfooting was a little like wilderness LARPing, pursued in often abstract terms, with an endgame that was hardly more real than Quidditch.
Charlie knocked three more times. Nothing.
“What I’m trying to figure out is if it was acorns falling,” he said. “My gut tells me it was three acorns.”
Earlier, Charlie had mentioned that Bigfoots can become aggressive. “We’ve had them bluff charge us, breaking branches and grunting. What else does that? What else knocks and whistles and bluff charges you?”
I had in my bag a sheet of folded laminate called “Sasquatch Field Guide: Identifying, Tracking and Sighting North America’s Relict Hominoid,” by Jeff Meldrum. Designed to look like a pocket naturalist guide, it included primers on Bigfoot habitat and distribution, language, and diet and how-tos on casting tracks, recording vocalizations, and handling scat for DNA analysis (“Use a stick or wear gloves”). It was a clever stroke of Bigfoot monetizing by Meldrum that also neatly summarized his thinking. It came with a warning: “While there have been no substantiated reports of unprovoked attacks on humans, sasquatch are nevertheless large and very powerful creatures demonstrating feats of considerable strength and should be accorded the same caution as a bear, moose, or any other potentially dangerous wild animal.”
Lyndsey heard movement in the trees. “There’s something out there,” she said.
Mason heard it too. “Sounded like someone trying to move quietly, taking two steps.”
Then a whoop like a police siren reached us from far away. I thought it was a blackbird or a barred owl, the latter being liberally distributed here, though a part of me struggled to grasp exactly what we were hearing. Coyotes too, Charlie pointed out, made similar cries.
“You just don’t know if it’s a Bigfoot or a coyote,” he said.
With everyone on edge—except for Whiskey Rose, who was asleep, or pretending to sleep, in her sack—three of us volunteered to push farther into the dark. A recon mission of sorts, the point of which I didn’t grasp but had something to do with triangulating the noise being made—by us, by Bigfoots, by falling acorns, and/or by the other team—while flushing a Squatch in the process. Jason, the ex-Marine, walked point with Mason close behind, while I brought up the rear.
We walked for an eternity, my alliterative companions and I, into the shapeless night. Actually it was probably five minutes, but five minutes marked by confusion and awe at finding ourselves in subterranean gloom. The woods were all around, teeming with possibility. Our headlamps were basically useless, reflecting the dimmest impressions back to us.
“Man, I love this!” Jason announced. “It’s so exciting. It seems like something we shouldn’t be allowed to do.” The comment was striking coming from someone who’d served four tours in Iraq. He said it so sweetly, with a big grin, that I felt compelled to reply. “Yeah, man!” I said stupidly.
Jason had faded blue eyes and a graying buzz cut, and he smoked a lot. He’d told me earlier he didn’t care much for Bigfoot. He was here on account of Victoria, who did. But he’d thrown himself into the spirit of it. And I had to confess, it was exciting. This was what Bigfooters love: the collateral kick of adrenaline that comes from doing what feels mischievous but is, in fact, good wholesome fun, excitement at a higher rate of return than life normally offered. Unless, of course, you’d served four tours in Iraq, in which case, well, it was still exciting, just absent IEDs and ambush points.
Mason, it seemed, was in a graver mood. With the acorns going completely bananas, crashing fore and aft, his head was on a swivel. He clutched tightly at the Louisville Slugger he carried for wood knocks. When I pointed out the staggering abundance of acorns, he growled, “That’s not fucking acorns!”
We came upon a pile of saplings lying across the trail. Jason thought they’d been placed there to block our progress. By Bigfoot? He didn’t say. “All I know is trees don’t fall that way.” Next, we found impressions in the mud resembling hoofprints. We had a long look at them. You couldn’t really make out what they were. I guessed they were horse prints and said as much. Neither Jason nor Mason was convinced. Next, we caught a whiff of cucumber, though slightly sweeter, like a Pimm’s Cup…
“Copperheads,” Jason announced. The snakes emitted a cucumber-y odor when cornered, he said. This explained the nebulous rustling in the ferns. Though usually diurnal, Jason went on, copperheads love nothing more than a warm, humid Kentucky eve such as this. And in case we were wondering, why yes, copperheads are venomous. Very much so. They also happened to be at the end of their birthing season, meaning not only were there venomous copperheads out here, but venomous baby copperheads. Lots of venomous baby copperheads. And the venomous baby copperheads slithering trailside? They’re more dangerous than adult copperheads because they lack “bite control” and therefore tend to excrete more venom. (I didn’t know it then, but this last part turns out not to be true.)
“If you don’t get an antivenom fast enough, you can die,” Jason finished. (This part, however, is true.)
We decided to hurry back to the Crossroads. But not before a few wood knocks. Jason radioed Charlie a heads-up. Mason located a defenseless oak, positioned his Louisville Slugger along its trunk, and swung for the bleachers. Three massive blows ricocheted up and away. The ensuing quiet was tremendous. A feeling of communal magic tightened its grip. Jason, taking a drag from his cigarette, smiled and said, “All kinds of mysterious craziness.”
From The Secret History of Bigfoot: Field Notes on a North American Monster. Used with permission of Sourcebooks. Copyright © 2024 by John O’Connor.