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Bigfoot : The Life and Times of a Legend
Last August, two men in rural Georgia announced that they had killed Bigfoot. The claim drew instant, feverish attention, leading to more than 1,000 news stories worldwide--despite the fact that nearly everyone knew it was a hoax. Though Bigfoot may not exist, there's no denying Bigfoot mania.
With Bigfoot, Joshua Blu Buhs traces the wild and wooly story of America's favorite homegrown monster. He begins with nineteenth-century accounts of wildmen roaming the forests of America, treks to the Himalayas to reckon with the Abominable Snowman, then takes us to northern California in 1958, when reports of a hairy hominid loping through remote woodlands marked Bigfoot's emergence as a modern marvel. Buhs delves deeply into the trove of lore and misinformation that has sprung up around Bigfoot in the ensuing half century. We meet charlatans, pseudo-scientists, and dedicated hunters of the beast--and with Buhs as our guide, the focus is always less on evaluating their claims than on understanding why Bigfoot has inspired all this drama and devotion in the first place. What does our fascination with this monster say about our modern relationship to wilderness, individuality, class, consumerism, and the media?
Writing with a scientist's skepticism but an enthusiast's deep engagement, Buhs invests the story of Bigfoot with the detail and power of a novel, offering the definitive take on this elusive beast.
This sprightly, if sometimes overblown, study finds the elusive hairy wildman of the Pacific Northwest lurking everywhere. Independent scholar Buhs (The Fire Ant Wars) skeptically but affectionately surveys the evidentiary traces of bigfoot and his yeti and Sasquatch kin in sightings, tracks, sideshow exhibits and film, but his focus is on the megapod as cultural signifier. To the white working-class men who are his biggest fans, Buhs contends, bigfoot is an icon of untamed masculinity, a populist rebel against scientific elites, the last champion of authentic reality against a plastic, image-driven, effeminate consumer society. (Ironically, Buhs notes, bigfoot's career as advertising mascot and tabloid teaser also makes him a touchstone of consumerism.) Buhs's rote application of race-class-gender theory--By imagining themselves into the body of Sasquatch, white working-class men could imagine themselves as black, as women, could come in contact with... repressed and forbidden desires--yields more academic cant than insight; his oft-invoked white proles feel almost as legendary and stereotyped as the creature itself. Buhs is at his amused best when following the exploits of bigfoot's human handlers--the colorful band of true believers, hoaxers and pseudo-documentarists who constructed this greatest of all shaggy-hominid stories. 35 b&w photos. (May)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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University of Chicago Press
May 14, 2009
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Excerpt from Bigfoot by Joshua Blu Buhs
On Monday, August 27, 1958, Jerry Crew left his home in the northern California hamlet of Salyer. Pictures of Crew taken six weeks later show a broad-chested, short-haired man with big glasses, a strong chin, and prominent ears. By all accounts, he was an earnest and sober individual. Crew drove west along California State Highway 299, the chief artery through this montane region, running some 150 miles between Eureka on the Pacific and Redding in the Central Valley. Crew was a catskinner for the Granite Logging Company and the Wallace Brothers Logging Company. The lumber industry employed about one out of every two workers in the county, generating more revenue than the rest of the economy combined.
A few miles on, Highway 299 intersected with Highway 96 at Willow Creek, a gold rush town once known as China Flats and, by 1958, a regional hub that provided services for lumbermen that small towns such as Salyer could not, although by most standards Willow Creek was itself a small town. Like much of the area, Willow Creek was doing fairly well. Since 1949 lumber production in Humboldt County had almost doubled in response to the post-World War II housing boom. Per capita income in the county was on par with the rest of California, and above the national average.
Crew turned north. State Highway 96 followed the Klamath River into the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, crossing into Del Norte County and continuing on to Yreka. Along the highway, strung out between Willow Creek and Yreka like beads on a string, were a number of small towns, Weitchpec and Orleans and Happy Camp. Highway 96 was the main road servicing them, but it was not paved its entire length; Crew's ride was bumpy and slow. On one side of Highway 96 was a steep drop down to the river, on the other, a rocky cliff face. "Geological maps of the region," noted nature writer David Raines Wallace, "look ... like the results of a jammed conveyor belt.... The ridges [are] not particularly high or craggy, rather a succession of steep, pyramidal shapes" that stretch "almost geometrically into blue distance." Thick stands of pine, spruce, and fir covered the mountains, ranging down to the water's edge.
As he drove, Crew passed through the Hoopa Indian Reservation. The bucolic setting and current prosperity masked an ugly history of violence against Native Americans. In February 1860, a group of Eureka men, armed only with hatchets, clubs, and knives, slaughtered the native Wiyots while they were in the midst of a festival, killing women, children, infants, and the elderly. Unapologetic, the Humboldt Times, the local paper, defended the massacre. The U.S. Army gathered the remaining members of the tribe and moved them to the Hoopa reservation, and the region went about trying to forget the horrors of that night.
Just beyond the Weitchpec Bridge, near the confluence of Bluff Creek and the Klamath, Crew turned onto Bluff Creek Road, a timber access route that the Wallace brothers were building on subcontract from the government. Crew had been on this job for two years. About thirty men worked here, whites from surrounding small towns and Hoopa Indians from the reservation. Some women and children were around, too. The commute from Salyer usually took two and a half hours. Many of the other men working on the road moved their families from Happy Camp and Salyer and the other small towns into the forests and lived in trailers during the construction season. Crew, however, returned home each weekend because he was so deeply involved in community and church affairs.
Most of what happened next is recorded only in Marian Place's On the Trail of Bigfoot. Place was a children's author and a believer in Bigfoot--sometimes credulously so. She wrote her book almost twenty years after the events of August 27. But she was a diligent researcher and what she reported is as trustworthy as anything else written on Bigfoot--indeed, decidedly more trustworthy than much else. According to Place, Crew saw the foreman, Wilbur "Shorty" Wallace, at the construction site's main camp and honked his horn lightly. Wallace waved him on. Crew worked at the far end of the road, a quarter mile beyond the camp (about twenty miles from the highway), bulldozing brush and stumps left behind by the loggers who were clearing the path, and roughly grading the land.
Crew parked near his bulldozer, traded his moccasins for work boots, and put on his aluminum hardhat. He noticed a few footprints in the leveled earth but thought nothing of them until he climbed onto his tractor and looked down upon them. The prints were big and manlike. They pressed deeply into the earth. Was someone pulling a prank? he wondered. Crew drove back to tell Shorty what he had seen.
The Folkloric Origins of Bigfoot
Some of the other men working on Bluff Creek Road gathered around and listened to Crew talk with Shorty. They had their own gossip about giant, humanlike tracks to pass on. One man mentioned that similar tracks had been found on another Wallace worksite along the Mad River. Twenty-five workers claimed to have seen those. More tracks had been found in Trinidad, up the coast. It's unknown whether anyone mentioned it--although it seems likely--but only a few months before the Redding Record-Searchlight had run a story about giant footprints found along a Pacific Gas and Electric Company right-of-way back in 1947.
Shorty suggested that whatever had made the tracks around Crew's workstation also might be responsible for other ... disturbances. The summer before, he said, on a lower section of the road, a 450-pound drum of diesel fuel had gone missing; only its impression and large footprints had been left in the dust. The drum had been found a little while later at the bottom of a gully--into which it must have been tossed, since the foliage on the hillside was unbroken. Not unlike the 700-pound spare tire for the road-grading machine that had somehow found its way into a ditch, Wallace reminded the workers. The men had rescued the tire, and were told that vandals had pushed it. But maybe not. Maybe the tire, like the drum, had been tossed by some thing. Some thing that left immense tracks. Something big and strong. But what?
According to Place, the men debated the possible culprit for a time. There was no consensus about what had made the various tracks, no coherent legend of a mysterious track maker, no Sherpa to tell Crew and the rest what they had seen. Finally, Shorty "winked broadly" and interrupted the debate, telling the men "to be sure to let him know if they saw any apes skedaddling through the timber. Meantime, he'd sure appreciate it if they got to work."
The men did return to work; they also continued to discuss those tracks and their maker. They called him (and no one doubted that the owner of those large feet was a he) Big Foot, two words. Journalist Betty Allen, who visited the camp in late September, found a bevy of stories about Big Foot. The men accused Big Foot of vandalism, and if something went missing he was the presumed thief. Some of the stories, Allen said, were "hair raisers." For example, some time in October four dogs were lost, and Big Foot was accused of killing them. Supposedly, a few of the workers and their families did take the tales seriously. Allen reported that some of the men kept "their guns handy at night" because a creature that could toss drums of diesel fuel was something to be feared. But the worriers seem to have been the exception. "A lot" of the tales, Allen said, were "quite fictitious." They had a "legendary flavor." When Jess Bemis, another Salyer resident, took a job clearing land on Bluff Creek around this time, he and his wife Coralie joined the fun and, in Coralie's words, "added fuel to the story by passing on bits of information," although at the time neither believed Big Foot was real.
Lumberjacks, hunters, trappers, and other working-class men had long told stories of such prodigies. For decades, seasoned veterans had funned greenhorns with tales of sidehill dodgers and mosquitoes so big that they sucked cows dry and by having them fetch the equally legendary left-handed wrench. Or they sent them to hunt snipes. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Eugene Shepard, a Wisconsin lumberjack, raconteur, and prankster, announced that he had caught a hodag, the rhino of America's north woods. Shepard photographed a group of friends killing the beast with picks and axes. The picture was made into a postcard; hundreds of thousands were sold; tourists flocked to Rhinelander, Wisconsin; reportedly, the Smithsonian even expressed interest. Seeing is believing. But the hodag was just a woodcarving. It was all a humbug. American history is rife with such practical jokes, stories of giant turtles and panthers, jackalopes and sea serpents, agropelters and snow wassetts--an entire bestiary of legendary animals. The tradition continued long after the frontier closed. In 1950, for example, the men's adventure magazine Saga introduced a feature called "Sowing the Wild Hoax" and encouraged the blue-collar men reading it to send in examples of "particularly fiendish" and "unusually funny" practical jokes.