Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bigfoot at Fifty

Legend of apelike forest dweller has spawned a cottage industry in Northern California.
The San Francisco Chronicle

Somewhere in the wilds of the Siskiyou Mountains, a hulking, ill-kempt, apelike creature should be on the lookout for that dreaded letter from the AARP Yes, it's true: Bigfoot is about to turn 50.

Or, to put it more precisely (if less fancifully), the phenomenon of Bigfoot is hitting the half-century mark.

In 1958, a man from Willow Creek in Humboldt County discovered the first size-15 footprints in the mud. Wildlife biologists, scoop-hungry reporters, cryptozoologists, psychics, new age shamans and even big-game hunters have been combing the wooded mountains ever since. They've turned up more footprints – lots and lots of footprints – and a few other intriguing bits of evidence, but no one has been able to produce definitive, unassailable proof that the creature exists.

Still, several communities claim Bigfoot as their native son – none with a louder voice than Willow Creek, a tiny town overlooking the Trinity River on Highway 299, 40 minutes east of Arcata. It's home to the Bigfoot Museum, the Bigfoot Motel and the Bigfoot Golf & Country Club, and was the site of the 2003 International Bigfoot Symposium.

Stories of a big, apelike beast called Sasquatch circulated in the Pacific Northwest long before white settlers arrived. Then, on Aug. 27, 1958, a bulldozer operator named Jerry Crew stumbled upon a set of eerily large footprints next to a U.S. Forest Service road he was building near Bluff Creek. Andrew Genzoli, a columnist for the Humboldt Times, coined the name Bigfoot, and suddenly Northern California had its own version of the Loch Ness monster.

Nine years later, two other men from Willow Creek, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, were searching in the same area and shot the famous home movie that depicts, depending on your point of view, either Bigfoot or a person in a cheesy Bigfoot costume. The 53-second clip has been analyzed nearly as thoroughly as the Zapruder film, and whatever your conclusion, there are dozens of "experts" who will back you up.

In the decades that followed, there have been recurrent whispers in Willow Creek of Bigfoot sightings. But 84-year-old Al Hodgson, retired owner of the town's variety store, says encounters are more common than is publicly known.

"If you say you've seen Bigfoot, people make fun of you," he said. "A lot of people hold back, keep it to themselves."

He's never encountered the big beast himself, but Hodgson has found several sets of footprints, which he preserved with plaster casts. They're now on display at the town's Bigfoot Museum.

Checking in

In a town where a funky 1950s motel used to be the best you could hope for, Coho Cottages offer handsomely luxe lodging at reasonable prices. Built by local rafting guides Marc and Londa Rowley on a bluff above the river, the large, stylish, brand-new, freestanding cottages have screened-in porches with Adirondack chairs and gas grills; large walk-in showers with rain showerheads; whirlpool tubs; fluffy pillow-top beds with high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets; gas fireplaces with sitting areas; and larger-than-normal kitchenettes. The photos on the Web site don't come close to doing this place justice.

Spend your day

You might start by shopping for delectable fruits and vegetables at Trinity River Farm, a '70s commune now being managed as a traditional farm by Molly O'Gorman, the founder's daughter. Then head over to the Bigfoot Museum, also known as the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum. The Bigfoot wing is in the back, and there you'll find lots of plaster footprints, a few strands of alleged Bigfoot hair, a tiny chunk of Bigfoot's alleged Achilles tendon, lots of newspaper clippings and a couple of films. On the way out, stop at the front desk to buy Bigfoot cookies, "Bigfoot crossing" signs, Bigfoot shot glasses, Bigfoot coffee mugs, Bigfoot jelly, Bigfoot T-shirts and ... well, you get the idea. In the afternoon, go for a whitewater rafting trip on the Trinity River, keeping an eye out, of course, for Bigfoot lounging on the riverbank.

Many of those who've encountered Bigfoot say the creature stinks like rotting garbage. So don't just look; use your nose, too.

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