“I guess we’re really doing this,” I said, and squinted into the late morning sunlight. Mark, my partner, and I exited the car just outside the Lakeland, Florida convention center. It was mid-July 2021, and we were about to attend our first “Great Florida Bigfoot Conference.” Neither one of us had ever experienced a Bigfoot encounter. But for the last several years, our late-night YouTube watching sometimes drifted into channels such as the well-produced Mountain Beast Mysteries, along with Survivorman: Bigfoot, among others. After dozens of hours of scrutinizing shaky, out-of-focus footage, I wasn’t sure exactly what I believed about the Sasquatch. Yet I’ve had a handful of inexplicable and seemingly paranormal experiences myself and remain open to possibilities. Moreover, I fervently believe that reality is far more mysterious and complex than we perceive it to be.
Our decision to commit was also motivated by where we’d found ourselves less than a month prior: on Northern California’s Bigfoot Scenic Highway. We’d just finished exploring the Redwoods and were plotting our path back up to Crater Lake National Park when I realized how close we were to the legendary Willow Creek, the town nearest to where the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage was taken in 1967 — I could still recall as a kid back in the 1980s watching the 30-second clip of a supposed female Sasquatch in stride, arms swinging, on Unsolved Mysteries, narrated by Robert Stack. Who could pass up a visit to the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum and Bigfoot Collection, with its displays of footprint casts, newspaper clippings, and other evidence? We took the route, spent an hour or two posing in front of every quirky Bigfoot statue in town, read the dusty displays, and finally, bought a few souvenir T-shirts and mugs. From Willow Creek, we took Route 96 along the Klamath River and through a vast wilderness of National Forests. The June 2021 heat dome was descending over the Pacific Northwest, the air outside the rental car was 95 degrees and so hot and dry you didn’t dare to light a match. We wound our way through remote valleys and sparse towns to where our route finally ended in Happy Camp, then headed back up into Oregon — eyes peeled, but never once spotting a Bigfoot.
After traveling cross-country to the hallowed ground of Sasquatch sighting, how could we resist a conference less than an hour from our hometown? At $20 a ticket the event also fit our budget, much depleted following our Pacific Northwest roadtrip through five national parks. The conference promised to focus more on our region, Florida, and its many Swamp Ape/Skunk Ape encounters — the third highest locale for reported sightings in the United States. Perhaps we would learn something new in person, that we hadn’t from following YouTube channels.
We checked in at nearly noon, having missed the morning panels, bypassed the vendor area, and headed straight for the auditorium where attendees had been invited to share their stories live onstage; a line of about a dozen individuals trailed down the steps, waiting to share their firsthand accounts. A scattered but attentive audience filled the auditorium; between the vendor area and the main stage, I estimated that we were among about 500 attendees. One by one, each took the mic and shared his or her story — from a former military member who was camping alone and heard unusual sounds to a state park employee who had seen strange sightings followed by peculiar road closures by authorities in her jurisdiction down by Lake Okeechobee. Both the camper and the park employee spoke earnestly as they shared details, visibly wracked with nerves, as did others — these witnesses had experienced something, but what? I still hadn’t heard anything that would entirely convince me that what they’d encountered was a Skunk Ape.
Next up was a long-haired young man who described a harrowing nighttime run-in with a supposed Bigfoot when camping with his father in Torreya State Park, on the Florida panhandle. I’d previously heard his story on a YouTube documentary, one of the more convincing accounts. By now we’d become familiar with the oft-used term, “out squatching” — referring to those who go out with the intention of searching for Bigfoot. Having listened to our fill for the moment, we decided to explore the vendor area for a while — probably our best bet at Sasquatch-sighting while inside the convention center.
At least one person in a Bigfoot costume strolled around for picture-taking, but more curious were some of the vendor displays. I paused for a few moments at a woman’s table which featured her handmade stuffed Sasquatch dolls for sale. The hair came in various shades, from grey to dark brown to reddish-brown, and I toyed with the idea of getting one for my nephew, but then relented. He was only a toddler, and the more time I spent with the stuffed Bigfoot, the more its beady black eyes and long “Cousin It” type hair gave me a creepy — rather than cuddly — feeling. I put back the doll. “And these here, the ones I’ve sewn the hearts on, are dedicated to my son,” the woman said, and thrust one before me. She added, “He died of an overdose a few years ago.” I told her how sorry I was to hear that, and after a moment, gently replaced the Sasquatch with the red felt heart on the table and told her I’d walk around and think about it. For how many of the people here did the mystery of Sasquatch fill some kind of void in their lives — and perhaps, as for this woman, making the dolls gave her a sense of purpose? “I’m not sure that Bigfoot exists, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the possibility,” Mark said. Our lives so often overwhelm us with heartache and confusion — is it any wonder that we yearn for mystery, perhaps even more than truth?
Just a few hours into the event, many of the best T-shirts were gone (“Florida Man Believes Sasquatch is His Soulmate” etc.) Finally, I found one that I liked enough to buy — black, with a white Bigfoot silhouette on the back, framed by the moniker, “Independent Sasquatch Research Team” — and made a mental note not to arrive so late should I return next year. Other vendor tables veered into crossover conspiracy territory: Area 51, aliens, the Truth about 9/11 (that seems a far stretch, but who am I to say?). Books, DVDs, all types of paraphernalia abounded. Some of the Bigfoot culture authors and celebrities were famous from their own channels or TV shows I wasn’t familiar with, and attendees lined up to buy books and get their copies signed. Turnout was robust. I considered that perhaps I should write more on the subject.
Back inside the auditorium, a star from the hit reality show series, “Finding Bigfoot,” took center stage as the afternoon’s keynote, sharing some of his audio recordings with the audience and comparing them with the cries of other primates. Intriguing — yet I still couldn’t say that his presentation had nudged me one way or another as to the existence of Bigfoot.
What the live testimonials did convince me of, beyond a doubt, was that these individuals had experienced something very real — what that something is, I cannot say. The peculiar details they described — foul smells, tree knocks, a hairy, long-fingered but nonhuman, hand that reached inside a door—along with the trembling in their voices convinced me that each was telling the truth, best as that person could recall. I couldn’t vouch for the credibility of their stories but found it difficult to dismiss their sincerity. Some believe Bigfoot or Sasquatch is a supernatural or paranormal being. Perhaps so. I remain convinced that humans are only able to perceive a slim portion of what we deem “reality” with our given senses, and what phenomena might exist within that reality may be vast and beyond our comprehension, indeed.
One of the most haunting firsthand stories of Bigfoot I’ve ever heard happened not at the conference or on YouTube, but a few years ago, around my parents’ dinner table. My cousin and her husband were visiting from Louisiana; he’s a Cajun through-and-through, an avid outdoorsman who has spent decades in the swamps and woods. Someone, likely either me or Mark, made a joke about Bigfoot. My cousin’s husband instantly grew sober. “I’ve had a run-in with those,” he said quietly, and added that he didn’t like to talk about it. But we pressed him. “Well,” he said. “Two things. Once my daddy was out back on his porch and heard this scream in the woods — he ain’t never heard no scream like that before. We know those woods inside and out, and every creature that lives in there. And that didn’t belong to any living thing we’d ever heard — it made your blood run cold.”
Everyone at the table had fallen to silence, listening. He went on. Another time they were boar-hunting, he said. They shot an enormous boar but had to hike back out to get the ATV to haul it back. “Now I tell you that thing was dead,” he said, “Stone-cold dead. And big — you’re talking a couple of grown men to lift a boar that size. So, we came back to that exact spot, and it’s gone. Just gone, as if someone or something just picked it up and carried it off. No drag marks in the brush. No blood, no sign of predators. Now what could pick up a several hundred-pound boar and carry it off like that?”
I had stopped eating, left my fork on my plate. The hair along my arms and the back of my neck stood up. Mark, too, leaned forward, listening intently.
“Aw, I think someone had a few too many beers out with his buddies,” my dad joked from the far end of the table. Some laughter erupted. “You guys forgot the darned spot where you left it!”
But my cousin’s husband didn’t laugh. He leaned forward, arms crossed, and slowly shook his head to himself. “Nope, don’t drink when we’re out hunting,” he said. “That was the spot, the exact spot. Makes no sense. I’m telling you, it’s got to be that same creature — whatever creature that was that let out that great scream that my daddy and us all heard on his back porch up in north Louisiana, near Arkansas, that’s the creature that picked up and ran off with that huge boar. That’s where we go hunting. It wasn’t a wildcat, wasn’t a bear — and if it had been another group of hunters come upon it, we’d see tracks of some kind. But not a trace. So, tell me what else could it be, but Bigfoot?”
Mark chimed in and said he believed the story.
“I believe you, too,” I added. And I did. But more than that, I have known the loneliness of having an inexplicable experience that only happens to you, and how the isolation you feel from not being able to share what happened for the fear of ridicule is often worse than the terror and confusion of the event itself. When people summon the courage to tell you their strangest, most disturbing, stories, listen to them — because whatever the truth may be, the experience was real to them and often frightening, having shattered that person’s entire worldview.
We thanked him for sharing his story and returned to our meal, although I kept thinking that if a Sasquatch had come upon the big boar, picked it up, and hauled it off, then where were his footprints? How could both the boar and the Bigfoot have disappeared, into the thin air of the Southern woods?
In the weeks following the conference, it occurred to me there were two types of people: those who desperately wanted to have a Bigfoot encounter, and those who believed they had and often wished they hadn’t. I didn’t belong to either — yet there I was, my “Great Florida Bigfoot Conference” lanyard still dangling from the gearshift of my car. Perhaps Bigfoot’s greatest power and mystique lies in a primal human fear of what lurks in the wilderness and monsters unseen — one of the last remaining unsolved mysteries. But beyond the T-shirts, coffee mugs, and stuffed memorabilia, the search for Sasquatch provides a sense of community, increasingly rare in our digital age. And that remains unquestionably real.•