In the opening moments of the second episode of A&E’s Strange Days with Bob Saget, a man wearing a headlamp and a soul patch brings his hands to his mouth and lets out a bellow. “Wyowwwoooooooooooooooo.” Long and monotonal, it has the pitch of a wolf howl and the drone of an air-raid siren.
This caterwaul, Bigfoot researchers say, is the call of Sasquatch.
The man replicating it for a television audience is my second cousin, Paul Graves.
It's been a big month for Bigfoot, both locally and nationally. First, in late May, an iPhone video purported to show a Sasquatch strolling through Spokane’s Downriver Park. Around the same time, PEMCO, the insurance company, released a poll of oddities declaring that 40 percent of Washingtonians believe in the possibility of Bigfoot. Thirteen percent claim to have seen one.
Then, last week, the results of a DNA study of the hair and tissue samples of several suspected Sasquatch were leaked by a former associate of Dr. Melba Ketchum, who owns DNA Diagnostics, of Texas City, Texas. The man claims the DNA is virtually human, meaning Bigfoot is at least as close to us, genetically, as Neanderthal Man was. Ketchum doesn’t deny the data is real, but she disputes the man’s conclusions.
Indeed, even Bigfoot researchers admit there is a shortage of proof. No one has ever caught a live one. No one has ever produced a body that wasn’t later proven to be a fake. There have been countless clumps of hair found and countless molds taken of massive feet, but this is evidence, not proof, and only serves to bolster believers and dissuade skeptics.
When I first blogged about the Spokane River Sasquatch on Inlander.com on May 24, the video had just over 100 views. The next day, after being reblogged by cryptid sites, it had about 1,000. (It now has over a million.) The video caught on in Bigfoot circles before it caught on anywhere else. The next day, I received a voicemail. “Hey Luke, this is your cousin Paul. I saw your article...”
I only recall speaking to Paul once before last week. We talked about Bigfoot then, too. Before returning his call, I asked a few family members questions about him. No one could recall what he did for a living (he has a concrete business), but everyone knew he hunted Sasquatch. At 50, Paul’s biggest dream would be to take up the hunt full time. “I’m trying to get some grant money and get out into the field for months at a time,” he says. “Really do it right.”
A Bigfoot gave Paul a silk flower once. That’s his best explanation, at least, for one of the strangest moments of his life. He was alone in the William O. Douglas Wilderness in the Cascades, in a one-man tent in an old elk camp. He had spent the evening playing his flute for Sasquatch. Music attracts them, he says, as do encampments of happy families. There were hunters in the other camps shooting off guns, but “I just kept playing my flute and flute and flute.” He went to sleep about 1 am. When he awoke the next morning and unzipped his tent, “Right there, right outside, right by my tent is this big old white-looking flower. One of those silk, fake ones.”
I ask if he still has it. “I do,” he says. “It’s got a big, dirty thumb print on it.”
He recognizes that this single-minded pursuit is not something most people will understand. He says, “Becky, my wife, says I got a big brow ridge and I look Sasquatch.”
Nearly every culture has its Bigfoot, a hairy, apelike man who is docile and hard to locate. Those scientists and scholars who acknowledge the power of the myth believe it is a story we wrote when we found civilization and cast off our bestial selves. Others think it is a real cultural memory, passed through oral tradition, from a time when early man shared his environment with Neanderthals and other hominids. In either case, Bigfoot is a powerful symbol of our wild selves.
Bigfoot believers say it’s more than myth. Previous analysis of DNA in hair and tissue thought to be Sasquatch has returned inconclusive “animal and human” DNA signatures. This leads them to call Bigfoot a relict hominid — a onceabundant species that’s been whittled down to a few isolated members. It leads skeptics to call the samples tainted.
Various Native American traditions say Bigfoot is actually a man. The Lakota Sioux call him “elder brother.” This is close to how Paul feels. He sees in Bigfoot a great kindness and harmony that has been lost in many humans. “The way people are, the way we fight and kill each other,” Paul says. “Maybe they just branched off a million years ago and said, ‘I don’t need weapons, I don’t need any of that stuff.’” Even if a Bigfoot comes wandering into Wenatchee, where it can be photographed and documented and poked and prodded, Paul says he’ll still go out at night, deep into the wilderness around his home, searching. If we prove they exist, he says, it becomes our duty to protect them, to learn about them and to attempt, in a systematic way, to learn from them.
There is an aspirational aspect to this drive. Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, Gigantopithecus. These are beings that were. Whatever his origin, Bigfoot is a being that may still be. “I really care for them,” Paul says. “I feel if they are here, sharing our earth, then they’re the teachers and I’m the student.”
His hunt for Bigfoot isn’t just a search for evidence, but a search for hope. The hope that, in learning about them, we might also learn something about ourselves.