Bigfoot sightings have been reported in every state except Hawaii. Interest in this creature, which many believe to be as mythical as a leprechaun, is as strong today as ever, with the wildly popular show Finding Bigfoot persisting on the Animal Planet network and references to bigfoot appearing throughout popular culture. What is it about bigfoot that causes some people to devote a chunk of their lives to finding one?
In Monster Trek, Joe Gisondi brings to life the celebrities in bigfoot culture: people such as Matt Moneymaker, Jeff Meldrum, and Cliff Barackman, who explore remote wooded areas of the country for weeks at a time and spend thousands of dollars on infrared imagers, cameras, and high-end camping equipment. Pursuing the answer to why these seekers of bigfoot do what they do, Gisondi brings to the reader their most interesting—and in many cases, harrowing—expeditions.
Gisondi travels to eight locations across the country, trekking into swamps, mountains, state parks, and remote woods with people in search of bigfoot as well as fame, fortune, adventure, and shared camaraderie. Many of the people who look for bigfoot, however, go counter to stereotypes and include teachers, engineers, and bankers. Some are private and guarded about their explorations, seeking solitude during a deeply personal quest. While there are those who might arguably be labeled “crazy,” Gisondi discovers that the bigfoot research network is far bigger and more diverse than he ever imagined.
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About the Author
Joe Gisondi is a professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University and has worked as a journalist for more than twenty years.
Read an Excerpt
The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot
By Joe Gisondi
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Joe Gisondi
All rights reserved.
So I'm sitting in a dive, grease spattered everywhere, while Harold Benny chews away on his eggs and sausage and talks about bigfoot. Last night, Harold believes he heard a few sasquatches communicating to him through a process called wood knocks. A few other researchers sitting at Clancy's say they heard howls and yelps, although in southeastern Oklahoma those sounds could easily come from the hundreds of dogs that roam the countryside. The Native Americans who live in the area, mostly Okmulgees and Choctaws, do not believe in putting dogs on leashes, something I learned accidentally deep in the woods the night before. Harold listens to the others tell stories and nods. He scoffs, though, when big Ed talks about the tapes he played in the woods last night, hoping the sounds of house pets would attract a bigfoot. Unlike the other investigators at the table, Ed believes sasquatches eat dogs. To bigfoot, they're a delicacy, Ed tells me. Harold is not the only person who dismisses Ed as a crackpot.
Even among bigfoot hunters, Ed is unusual. He does not wear pricey boots, does not put on wraparound sunglasses, and does not dress in camouflage pants and shirts. Instead, Ed wears blue bib overalls and beat-up construction boots, and he smokes like the proverbial chimney. It's about 7:00 a.m. Five hours earlier, I had returned from my own trek through the Kiamichi Mountains, a night that had left me feeling like an outsider, inept, and a little uncomfortable.
I could tell Ed was an odd egg when we met outside Clancy's an hour earlier. He had leaned uncomfortably close to me and whispered, "Did you see anything last night?" I told him I thought I saw something staring at me through the night-vision goggles. But, I admitted, that was probably an overactive imagination.
"Just because it was your first time doesn't mean you didn't see anything." Ed pulled a tick from his arm, squeezed it, and tossed the bloodsucker into the dirt parking lot outside Clancy's Cabins. "Want to get something to eat?"
Not anymore, I thought, but my stomach rumbled as we walked to the entrance. I really did not want to test the food so far from a hospital, but I needed to escape these chilly winds outside so I could learn more about this expedition.
Inside, Ed quickly digs into the eggs and toast and bacon and coffee and tells me about a life spent as a dive driller for several oil companies off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Harold sits across from me. Ed would dive down about 190 feet for up to an hour at a time, welding and drilling and looking for oil, a skill, he says, he learned while serving in the U.S. Army. He even developed his own asbestos helmet, which must have been big enough to hold his thick mane. After he left diving, he drove a truck for three years. At the moment, Ed says he is unemployed ("But I'm not looking very hard," he says). Yet he has enough money to purchase sound-recording devices and he's currently bidding for a bionic ear on eBay. This lightweight device can be used to pick up distant animal sounds, but it's illegal to use the ear to overhear human voices that are normally undetectable.
Bigfoot hunters do not all seek evidence in the same manner. Some scout out areas to sit and wait, and some trek through the woods with night-vision goggles. Ed prefers to use sound recording to lure them closer to him so he can take some photos. "I spoke with a woman up a ways where there's some activity," Ed tells me. "While she was out in the barn, she said they were mimicking the animals inside. When I went up there, all I caught were some deer and possum and raccoons. Overnight, these people lost about twenty peaches off a tree. Most of them were pretty high up there. Who do you think took them?" There is no skepticism in his voice, nor science in his actions. He's just someone seeking some answers, not unlike me. Ed finishes his breakfast, sips coffee, and watches a few other bigfoot investigators walk in the cabin. He gets up to mingle with a few of them, exchanging stories from last night before heading back to his RV.
Harold and a few others watch Ed depart. I sit down across the small table from them. "Ed just told me that bigfoot and deer are friends," I say. "He said one night he saw a bigfoot with its arm draped over a deer as if it were his pet."
Harold finishes chewing. "The first time I saw Ed," he says, "Matt was talking about that story." Matt Moneymaker is the founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which organized this expedition. "Matt said, 'Bigfoot's just carrying his lunch with him.'"
Moneymaker is fairly well known today thanks to his role as host for Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot, which, in its sixth season, has not conclusively found anything yet. Moneymaker created the BFRO in 1995, launching the website and popular database the following year. The BFRO's main goal is to find conclusive evidence, which is categorized as Class A (firsthand contact, like eyewitness accounts) and Class B (secondary proof, like footprints or collected hair samples.) "Experienced" members investigate these sightings, which does not always mean much. Some veteran members have experience in ballistics, anatomy, and chemistry. Sometimes, though, experience just means going on a few expeditions. Few have scientific experience in related fields. On the other hand, how can one actually study sasquatches except by going out in the woods?
Within the bigfoot community, Moneymaker has many detractors who scoff at his methods for collecting evidence. A few competitors claim Matt is really just collecting money from members. On an online forum for bigfoot enthusiasts, one angry researcher said, "He's really a money maker." Those participating in expeditions like this one in Oklahoma could pay a one-time fee of $300, which secured a lifetime BFRO membership. Members could then sign up for as many expeditions as they liked after paying this initial fee. (A year after the Oklahoma expedition the BFRO changed its policy, requiring everybody except its top researchers to pay an additional $100 per trip.) Patty Lee, an expedition leader, says this fee helps defray some costs. More importantly, she says, this fee limits the number of crazy thrill-seekers. The BFRO organizers say they prefer people who seriously want to search for the big guys. (But they really want people who seriously want to pony up some dough.) I'm not sure I would have been willing to pay had I not decided to write a book on this topic, although I was excited to head out and meet people. I'm just not sure I was $300 excited. Searching for bigfoot is not a cheap endeavor. Thermal binoculars cost about $9,000. Infrared cameras cost thousands of dollars. Digital recorders are at least fifty bucks a pop. Plus, add the cost for rental cars, plane tickets, and meals. We had about twenty-five people here in Oklahoma, which could mean as much as $7,500 had everybody been a new member — but that is not the case here. Matt is rumored to rely on Wally Hersom, a silent benefactor who purchased more than $100,000 of equipment. "There's a lot easier ways to make money than this, I'll tell you," Matt tells me.
That somebody is attacking Moneymaker, though, should not be a surprise, because conflict rules in a bigfoot community in which many are looking for fame and fortune. Ironically, that does not appear to be the case with the people who sign up for the BFRO expeditions, who are more interested in the adventure. I'm excited to go out later tonight for the same reason, even though I do not really expect to catch a bigfoot. But there could be a chance, I convince myself. Even a minuscule chance can keep us reading and watching mysteries.
Harold, though, is a believer. In his late fifties, he carries more weight than he should on a frame that goes about five feet nine. But he gets around well most of the time — although he would have struggles later that night when I would be forced to lay him by the side of the road before racing down a trail toward a terrified fellow bigfoot hunter. With thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like a professor. He also has the credentials, having earned a master's degree in zoology from Eastern Illinois University before working as a chemist. After being laid off, Harold taught science in high school for several years. Right now, he's struggling to make ends meet, working part-time jobs at a local factory and a photo business where he cleans up old pictures in Photoshop. He suspects he'll have to take additional shifts when he returns home to central Illinois.
Harold says his father, also a scientist, fostered his passion for science and mysteries. He would talk about stories he had heard or about the space race that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, each one hoping to send the first satellite into space. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, ten-year-old Harold sat with his father in the backyard and watched it slide across the horizon at night. "Did you ever see the movie October Sky?" he says. "They showed where they were watching that thing. It was not as clear but just like that. You'd see it go across the sky and see the light reflect off it. It was really neat. This is kind of like that kind of thing."
His father also introduced Harold to American Indian legends and news reports that were starting to emerge from all over the country. They read the first reports of the Fouke Monster, a creature in Arkansas that eats pigs and dogs and chases humans. This creature's mythical reputation was cemented in the 1970s when Charles B. Pierce produced a documentary called Legend of Boggy Creek that chronicled an attack on a family near Jonesville, Arkansas. In the summer of 1955, eight-year-old Harold probably discussed some of the reports regarding little gray men walking around a ranch in Edison, Georgia, or stories about the man in southern Georgia who fought off a bigfoot with a scythe. Later that summer, Mrs. Darwin Johnson said a creature with a furry palm grabbed her left leg as she swam across the Ohio River. (Remarkably, she did not die of a heart attack right there.) By the following year, the reports started to mount. An Alaskan fisheries boat claimed to have seen a bigfoot at a beach, while nearly a dozen hikers near Georgia reported seeing a seven-foot-tall creature along some roads. I'm not sure what happened to the two people in northern Michigan who claimed a sasquatch carried them off, but that certainly would have led to spirited discussions at dinner for Harold and his father. The next year, as the Russians were preparing to launch Sputnik, two hunters said a bigfoot stood near their hammocks, watching them with glowing eyes for what must have been the longest two minutes in their lives before it walked back into the Everglades at Big Cypress Swamp. And a few months later, in October 1957, when Harold and the world pulled out their telescopes to watch Sputnik glide across the sky, a hunter north of San Antonio, Texas, instead watched through his gun's telescope as an eight- to nine-foot creature moved tree limbs near a lake. Science grabbed the headlines despite the mythic reports across the country. Harold and his father debated both sets of stories.
"In 1957, we didn't have information like this — all you had was Indian legends and old books and stories about a creature here and there," Harold says. "It was about '58 or so when it all started happening. And my dad would run across something and bring it home. I don't even know where it all came from. My dad was a real smart guy and he had an open mind about everything. He believed that such an animal could be there. And why not? Some people don't know the kind of countryside you have all over the country. Patches of wild areas that are scary, like down here [in Oklahoma] — especially at night. He'd believe in the possibility. And I guess he raised me that way. He had a scientific orientation. He worked as a chemist, which I did for several years, too. He read constantly — anything he could pick up, even a label on a soup can to see what was in it. Some people are raised not to believe in anything, and I was raised just the opposite: to take a good look at it all."
In late 1958 bigfoot burst on the national scene thanks to a newspaper report in a California paper. A road crew, bulldozing a new road through the mountainous dense backwoods near Willows Creek, said a large creature continually walked through their camp at night. The crew's chief, Jerry Crew, originally believed pranksters made the footprints through camp, until he traced them to a steep, seventy-five-degree incline where the stride, remarkably, did not change. So he bought some materials and made plaster of Paris casts of the prints to prove what they all saw. A reporter in Eureka (who probably yelled "Eureka!" when he saw he had a front-page story) jumped on these reports, running them in the Humboldt Times a few days later. The story (and a picture of Jerry Crew holding the casts) ran in newspapers across the country, prompting people like Harold and his father to discuss the existence of an American Abominable Snowman. Some pondered: is this the missing link?
Meanwhile, people all over the country got caught up in the frenzy. Two boys claimed they shot at a creature near Roseburg, Oregon; two hunters insisted they ran from a creature watching them in British Columbia; two men fired on what they said was a bigfoot that came up to their house near Knoxville, Tennessee; and a police officer in Carroll County, Maryland, reported shooting at a bigfoot that walked toward him. Sheriff's deputies in Washington, game guides in Montana, and Native Americans in Kansas also reported seeing similar creatures. Bigfoot ran beside cars in Oregon, banged on houses in Pennsylvania, and peered at a crowd in West Virginia with eyes like big balls of fire. And an eleven-foot, one-thousand-pound creature called Orange Eyes stalked teenagers in central Ohio. How could young Harold not be intrigued?
An article in True magazine also stoked interest in bigfoot. The magazine, which catered to men interested in adventure and the outdoors, featured high-drama stories like one about men working deep undersea, offered advice on ways to start a hunting lodge, and told readers where to find the perfect beer. (Is there an imperfect beer?) True, which had the largest circulation of these so-called men's magazines, also did not mind investigating more bizarre topics, like whether aliens were flying saucers across the skies — or whether the creature purportedly lurking around construction equipment in the northern California woods was real. Thousands of young (and older) men were captivated when a respected naturalist, Ivan Sanderson, wrote in True's 1959 issue, "Somewhere in the wilds of California there is a gigantic creature which walks on its hind legs, leaves huge tracks, and is scaring hell out of everybody. What is it? Nobody knows — yet." (More than fifty years later, this is still the case, much to the chagrin of researchers and to weekend investigators like Harold.)
Sanderson believed a humanoid creature existed, which is not a surprise considering his other investigations of giant penguins, sea serpents, and modern dinosaurs in Africa. Sanderson also coined the term "cryptozoology," which, translated from Greek, means the study of hidden animals — or animals not currently cataloged by science. Still, the fact that a respected, well-known zoologist believed in bigfoot shocked people across the country. This popular magazine probably helped jumpstart the modern fascination with bigfoot.
Clearly that fascination is evident here this weekend in southeastern Oklahoma, where at least twenty others are eating breakfast in a run-down cabin, sleeping in tents, and living on caffeine after walking through the woods most of the night. But what do they expect to find? And how do they propose to find it without specialized training?
Harold, who has more training than most, earned his master's degree by studying cytology (cellular biology), histology (microscopic anatomy), and histochemistry, which is a hybrid branch of science that focuses on the chemical composition of the cells and tissues in the body. Compared to Harold, I felt poorly equipped for the weekend — although my friend Brian, a nonbeliever, put this expedition in perspective one afternoon. "What training do you need to hunt down a mythical creature?" Brian said. "You know what would be funny? As you guys are walking through the woods, you should point and say, 'Hey, there's a leprechaun!'"
Excerpted from Monster Trek by Joe Gisondi. Copyright © 2016 Joe Gisondi. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Ouachita Mountains, Oklahoma
2. Uwharrie Mountains, North Carolina
3. Southern Illinois
4. Green Swamp, Florida
5. Northern Wisconsin
6. Eastern Kentucky
7. Salt Fork State Park, Ohio
8. Wind River Mountains, Wyoming