I think I might have seen a Bigfoot one drizzly spring night at a ribs joint in Memphis, off the beaten path. I was heading to the men's room down a corridor papered with faded bingo cards, when I noticed a dull light glowing from the back of a cluttered storage room. At a makeshift table fashioned from cases of Bud-bustin' Barbecue Sauce sat what I at first glance took to be a tousled, thickly bearded gentleman in a liver-colored mohair sweater. His low brow was mired in shadows, cast by a single oil-lamp. When I saw the yellow gleam in his eyes, I stopped.

He had a sullen, rubbery face. The jaw was working, piston-like, as he studied an evangelical tract. This he held in liver-colored mittens, or so I assumed.

Just then a waitress brushed by me. The tray she carried bore a pitcher's worth of Bloody Marys. Two stalks of celery bobbed in the thick red liquid. Flanking the pitcher were an unopened quart of malt liquor and a heap of onion rings piled on a checked cardboard tray already soggy with grease. The waitress darted a look at me, then quickly drew the storeroom door shut. She leaned against it until I shrugged and sidled on down the hall.

I opened the men's room door, she at the same moment opened the storeroom door, and as she slipped inside to deliver the tray, I caught a distinct whiff of kerosene and wet dog.

Itss been a long time since I heard anybody use the word "foot" as an expletive--"Ah, foot!"--and never outside of the South. Imagining a Southern accent intoning that word that way, I can hear the subtle shading that draws the vowel out, so that the word has almost but not quite two syllables. Folks don't talk like that where I live now.

I had a roommate, in a North Carolina city, who would get phone calls from his family back home on a Tennessee farm. As soon as they connected, Jim's not immodest Southern accent would take on a slab or two of country, evocative of cornbread and sorghum. At the time, I thought this vocal quick-change was a little bit of a put-on to mask his fledgling urbanity. Not so. I know that now.

These days, when I call home (people in my current habitat don't "call," they "phone"), or home calls me, my voice sheds its sleeker coats right away, and gets down to something more wooly.

In Australia they call Bigfeet "Yowies." "Yeti" is the Himalayan variant, though that one, of course, is commonly referred to as the Abominable Snowman. In Florida, the Skunk Ape, according to at least one web site, could lay claim to being the "southernmost Bigfoot." The name we know second best in North America is "Sasquatch," an anglicized version of the Coast Salish word "sesquac," meaning "wild man." The Coast Salish Nation includes bands on Vancouver Island, in southwestern Canada, not too far northwest of Seattle. Vancouver Island in British Columbia is where I now reside.

James Brown, with his rasp and his choked howl, sang, "Get on the good foot," and you just know that's got to be so. I doubt I could precisely articulate what Soul Brother #1 intended when he exhorted us that way. (In JB's music, the bass guitar always had the best elocution.) Brown's title phrase calls to mind the notion of "getting off on the right foot" and of "putting one's best foot forward." Given the heavy syncopation that accompanies it, though, "Get on the good foot" smacks pretty hard of dancing, dancing, dancing--ungh!--all over what ails you. In James Brown's case, foot is foundation, pivot point for turning your self around.

Apparently there are over four hundred Bigfoot sightings in North America each year. These range across the continent. The heaviest concentration, though, is in the Great Northwest, in other words my current locale. Even a small sampling of Internet sites yields a wealth of investigations into "Cryptozoology," which has to be the coolest named of all the sciences.

I limited my research on the tales of Bigfoot sightings to those that occurred here in the Northwest or in the South where I grew up. The earliest report I found from British Columbia was an incident in 1864 when a fur trader and his party were attacked by "hairy humanoids." In Campbell River on northern Vancouver Island in 1901, a "man-beast" was spotted washing roots in the water and placing them in neat piles.

In 1937, Mrs. Jane Patterson, a B.C. resident, observed a Sasquatch sitting in an abandoned garden. Ten years later, some men driving along a logging road on Grouse Mountain near Vancouver came upon "two tall beings with a skin wrapped around them."

Down South now, in Tennessee in the spring of 1968 a seven-foot tall Bigfoot with "a nauseating odor" got within six feet of Brenda Ann Adkins and stared at her before walking away. In 1975 a farmer in Giles County watched a Bigfoot in a barn snuff out a calf by slamming it to the ground.

There was a rash of Bigfoot incidents in April 1976 near Flintville, Tennessee, where two teenagers saw the creature climbing a bank at night, presumably a dirt embankment, though I savor the image of a Bigfoot scaling a financial institution. Three days later a Bigfoot there tried to abduct a four-year old boy, only to be chased away by a six-man posse including Sheriff Homer Davis. Later that month, again near Flintville, Bigfoot, apparently uncowed by the likes of Davis and posse, jumped on a car roof and made off with the radio aerial. (All these incidents are derived indirectly from The Bigfoot Casebook by Janet and Colin Bord, 1982.) This terse summary might lead one to conclude that Pacific Northwest Sasquatches are on the whole a more mellowed breed than the Southern Skunk Apes. Would-be ethnocryptozoologists should note that such a conclusion might be merely a function of my selectiveness.

I confess I've never gone in much for Bigfoot lore. Only when offered the assignment to write about the beast, or if you'd rather, the myth, was my Memphis encounter jarred loose from the fogs of my memories of the 1970's down home.

Southern people often cultivate a complicated attitude towards refinement or "couth." When we're aware that outsiders are trying to come to grips with our Southernness, we might take added pains to help them know that we're not backwoods rubes. An alternate strategy is to ungild the lily, deliberately aim for that vague roughneck aura or that off-kilter mobile home park vibe. I'll grant the existence of more mature approaches.There's a grand Southern tradition, though, of Pulling Leg. And the easiest marks for leg pulling are those who are most likely to stick their variously sized feet into their invariably big mouths.

After Ray Wallace's death last November, his kinfolks disclosed his long-kept secret: he, they say, was Bigfoot. He'd perpetrated the hoax starting back in 1958 when he strapped on a pair of huge alder-wood feet and left oversized tracks in Humboldt County California.
Other Bigfoot pranks followed, culminating in his 1967 grand coup, the so-called Patterson film, depicting a furry man-ape sauntering away from the camera and, eventually, into American pop-consciousness.

I was raking the campfire, about to pack it in for the night, when my hound lifted his nose off the ground. I figured it was just a 'coon or a fox rustling back there in the pines. When that thing come out, though, Blue sprung to his feet and bent forward, all quivering. Funny enough, he didn't bark. Instead he whimpered, just the one time. Hush, Blue. And I noticed my voice was trembling too. Finally I slipped a leash on him and hauled the both of us back to the truck. Even a good half-hour later he was still right worked up, panting and slobbering on the upholstery.

If Bigfoot isn't real, then the pervasiveness of the myth speaks to some shadowy human longing. Sometimes we crave sudden feral forces to shake us up, just as an especially polite boy might pine for an unbridled woman.

Imagine Ray Wallace's inner glee when he strapped on those carved wooden feet and went tromping around making those outsized tracks. Picture Ray’s unvoiced mirth later, when he steered Roger Patterson armed with an 8 mm camera, towards the site where someone, perhaps Mrs. Wallace, was decked out in an ape suit, all cued up to lumber by. Ray Wallace probably knew that the real fun would come, not when everybody got so stirred up about it, but as he kept his own inner counsel over the years. Imagine sitting tight for decades. Imagine acting tame about pretending to be wild.

That mysterious apparition I saw in Memphis in the early 80's, indeed the bulk of all the sightings of Bigfoot, Yeti, Yowie, Skunk Ape, and Sasquatch are not called into question by the posthumous revelation of Ray Wallace's hand in the Bigfoot hoax. Cryptozoology will keep trudging in and out of the woods, occasionally basking in the rays of respect from scientists such as Jane Goodall who, unless she was misquoted on the Internet (stranger things have happened), is among the camp who believe there's some as yet unidentified primate out there. I'm not sure why the stranger in the Memphis restaurant storage room would be wearing fuzzy mittens in May, or why the waitress seemed so protective of him. I do recall finding a stack of those religious tracts on the edge of the bathroom sink. It was a part of that series which featured the crude cartoons of the unrepentant being shoveled into the fiery lake.

"Do you know where you’re going to spend eternity?" was ever the salient question.

I remember that in my boyhood in South Carolina, students from nearby ultraconservative Bob Jones University would sometimes stake out the downtown street corners of my hometown. One Friday night as I was walking there, aged ten or eleven, and had strayed a half block or so ahead of my family, I was accosted by a pair of these proselytizers. They always wore white shirts and dark ties. Almost always one or both sported horn-rimmed glasses.

"If you were to die tonight," this young man said to me, right off the bat, "do you know whether you’d go to heaven?" The only way I knew how to answer was to turn around and bolt straight back to my parents.

Later a friend of mine told me that one of his friends had made a point of approaching a pair of the Bob Jones street crew. "Can you save a wild wild woman?" the teenager asked them.


"Well can you save me one for Saturday night?"

Lately it hit me that I may seem something of a Sasquatch, wandering out of the forests of the Great Northwest, making the odd appearance Down South, before slipping back into the mist. Writing all this has been my version of washing roots in the water, placing them in neat piles.

Almost always I feel at ease in my skin. I try to get on the good foot, though surely no human can stay there. I don't go out of my way to leave tracks nor do I take special mind to avoid such. But sometimes when I think about back home, I feel like I've scaled up a bank, and wandered into unfamiliar terrain. And now here I sit, quietly, in an abandoned garden.


©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.