*Originally published: Bainbridge Island Review, Aug. 2018 

Beyond the cling and clang of slot machines, past the large central bar, sports-slathered TV screens ablaze (if you reach the bathrooms you’ve gone too far) the exclamations of those both flush and bust faded and gave way to talk of a phenomenon much less certain than the house’s advantage.

There in the event center of The Point Casino & Hotel in Kingston, the reportedly first-ever Kitsap Sasquatch Symposium was both a more and simultaneously less serious affair than I expected.

The inaugural cryptid conference, held on Aug. 5, saw a nearly full house of attendees and featured six speakers of various backgrounds and expertises.

It was a professionally run operation all around, but a weirdly mixed bag mood-wise.

On the one hand, there were serious, academic discussions about Washington’s most elusive hominid. Some were clearly true believers come to congregate with their fellow faithful, others there for a lark (or perhaps drug along by a more excited acquaintance) — but nearly all were attentive and respectful.

On the other hand, there were goofy souvenirs and collectibles for sale, the predictable parade of silly shirts (though one man was rocking a seriously stylish Bigfoot-print cardigan sweater), a twangy lunchtime concert by the Live Night Crawlers (who even sang a Bigfoot hunting song) and a cocktail bar in the back, lest anyone forget we were in a casino.

Presentations ran the gamut science-wise as well.

Noted periodontist and longtime amateur Bigfoot researcher Judy Carroll recounted the evolution of a months-long “discussion” she’d been having with a supposed tribe of Sasquatch near a favorite hiking area, conducted with a kind of fluid symbolic glyph-based “language” of rock, stick and food arrangements.

Jeff Meldrum, a professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University, dissected key frames of the famous 1967 Patterson–Gimlin film, espousing at length and in great detail the specific scientific observations made possible by the contentious short and its importance in the history and lore of Bigfoot research.

Rich Germeau, a former sheriff’s deputy in La Push, recounted a dramatic personal Bigfoot interaction and discussed the possibility that the creatures may be able to “project” psychological power somehow, even manipulate humans for their own ends.

At one point, apparently frustrated by the scholarly tone of the gathering, a young man with female companion in tow walked out. He shouted, “Boring!” before letting the door slam shut behind him — gathering glares from several nearby note-taking members of the primarily enrapt audience.

We truly are a nation divided.

Though interest in the furry galoot so synonymous with the Evergreen State has never truly waned, and the tribe of believers count among them many true professional researchers of impeccable credentials, it’s an especially good time to be a contrarian in America these days, with Bigfoot believers just one of a growing roster of suddenly less-fringy factions.

In an article recounting his experiences at a recent conference devoted to “Ancient Aliens” (the incredibly popular History Channel “documentary” series) New York Times writer Steven Kurutz wrote that it is perhaps not unreasonable that, “Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas.”

Behind the recent resurgence of the flat-earth theory, concern over chemtrails, continued insistence by many that global warming is a hoax and survivors of mass shootings being called crisis actors, and the appeal of the “Ancient Aliens” version of human evolution is a maddening tidbit of truth: History as we know it is far from complete.

“We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor),” Kurutz wrote. “What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low. And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.”

Likewise, about 200 people ponied up to secure a seat at the Sasquatch Symposium. But, be they skeptic or be they zealot, grizzled expert or fresh-faced nube, the desire that brings many to such gatherings has very little to do with the creature in question, said event organizer Patrick Lauerman.

“I think camaraderie and an exchange of ideas,” he said, when asked what he thought most guests hope to get out of the symposium.

“Most of these speakers … they have such incredible stories to tell because they’re so organic, they live and work in the Ho [Rain Forest] area. They’ve been exposed to what most of us buzz through or spend a day at. These people live there.

“If there’s going to be anybody exposed to a Bigfoot, it would be these guys.”

Lauerman was reportedly the booking agent for The Three Stooges for a number of years. He also repped Gumby and Pokey for two decades. Upon retiring, he made the acquaintance

of several prominent members of the Bigfoot community in Washington and, working closely with them, approached the casino about six months ago, he said, about holding a symposium in Kitsap.

He claims to be both an interested spectator and true believer.

“I’ve become more of a true believer, but the culture and the history … I’ve always been fascinated by history generally, so the history of this kind of just fit into my own mindset. I enjoy it.”

Maybe that’s all that matters.

I bought a book at the symposium: “Edges of Science” by Thom Powell. It’s a sequel to his oft-praised “The Locals,” described as a kind of Bigfoot primer for those looking to immerse themselves in the lore and culture. “Edges of Science” is supposedly the advanced course. It features a cover illustration depicting Bigfoot and a small extraterrestrial on a cliff, gazing at a flying saucer. I giddily laid my money down.

In the introduction, Powell writes: “It may be impossible to scientifically investigate paranormal events, but that does not mean paranormal events cannot or should not be scientifically investigated.”

That may not be quite as Kafkaesque as it sounds. I like the spirit of it. I like what the search for Bigfoot says about us as a people. It’s optimistic in a time when there seem to be few things worth being optimistic about — and even fewer true mysteries left to solve.

Full disclosure: In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must divulge that I’m a Sasquatch optimist. I’m Fox Mulder, people — I want to believe. But I just cannot shut down the Scully side of my brain. I suppose that’s for the best. Unwavering belief can be toxic. Truly unwavering belief finds you planting bombs in abortion clinics, or in line at a dirty commune in Guyana waiting for your cup of Flavor Aid.

However, from the relative safety of your own home (or the event center at the Point Casino) and sans sunglasses-sporting doom messiah, I’m with Mulder: The truth is out there. Why not look for it? Why not seek Sasquatch? How many of today’s givens would have been unthinkable not long ago?

In a world where there is water on Mars, our celebrity president is calling for an entirely new branch of government, driverless cars have claimed the first victim of the imminent A.I. war, and Roseanne got a reboot before Frasier, honestly, would “Bigfoot Proved Real” even crack the top 10 craziest headlines this month?

As I said, I like what the search for Bigfoot says about our culture.

Recently, I got to chat with Robert Michael Pyle, one of the foremost experts on, if not the actual creature, certainly the culture around Bigfoot. His seminal book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” was brought back into print last year in a new, expanded second edition. I asked him about the seemingly eternal appeal of Bigfoot, and the perseverance in the face of doubt and skepticism that seems to fuel the searchers.

“Americans seem to have a fascination with wildness,” he said. “That comes from manifest destiny and constantly pushing westward. And when you get to the edge of the West, where do you go? Well, you push into other forms of the wild, which might be outer space and UFOs and that sort of thing, it might be virtual reality and computer realms, it might be supernatural and the paranormal for some people. Or, for many people it is the actual deeper wilds, wilderness areas.”

Right on.

Maybe the truth isn’t out there, but we’ll never know if we don’t look.

So I say go on and search, Sasquatch seekers. Go on, while there are still a few trees left and not every square inch of this cynical country gets perfect cell phone reception. There are still places even Amazon’s best drones can’t deliver to, after all. There are still places where the GPS won’t work. and a traveler needs a good map, a clear head and a solid pair of boots.

Way out there where the Ubers won’t go, the way can be rough.

And even if we never find the hairy hide-and-seek champ — even if the robots rise up and take over, or the sun burns out before our interest in the hunt does — we will at least end The Great Experiment knowing that America was still just a little bit wild.

Thankfully.

Advertisements