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Left in the Garden | 2014 | High Strangeness about Bigfoot and UFOs


I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic--and six times divorced--if I weren't writing.  

-Anne Tyler


What Big Feet You Have

"This adventure has about ten minutes to happen or I am turning around and taking a nap," I assure Amber. We had gone to a bait shop in town, because it did not occur to me that Red Hook was the sort of rural town that could sustain two sellers of worms and minnows. Fortunately, the man there knew who we sought-bait shop owners must run in similar circles-and gave us directions, though with a wary eye.

Across from an algae green pond, over a small bridge, we come to what I know in my stomach is the right place. There are chickens wandering about, eager to greet Amber when we exit my car. The bait shop is the first floor, the windows covered in posters and advertisements I don't get a chance to look at more closely, since Gayle, our hostess and the head of the Bigfoot Researchers of the Hudson Valley, appears. She greets us with a handshake and leads us to the back porch, beside a large above ground pool. Ten yards away, I spy a pond that no doubt feeds into the one below and justifies her presence as bait shop owner. Beyond that is forest, which I will later learn is reputed to be rife with Bigfoots.

Already present on the porch, in mid-conversation, is a woman with white, curly-to-frizzle hair (Dr. Carol, since I did not get the spelling of her preferred name and she is speaking in an academic capacity rather than as a shaman), who I suspect has a PhD in anthropology or the like given the tenor of her comments.

Beside her is Peter, middle-aged and avuncular, so long as your uncle is the sort to have tried the same three magic tricks on you since you were a toddler, still imagining you are delighted to have a coin pulled from behind your ear. He is most directly the reason I am here now. Weeks ago on a lark (and because there was almost no way I could manage to avoid the pull of the strange for long), I attended a meeting of these Bigfoot researchers and a local paranormal author with his own independent experiences with local sasquatches. An awkward self-promoter, I mentioned to the group that I had done a bit of meddling with the United Friends Observer Society in Pine Bush, New York, while preparing the manuscript that would become Artificial Gods. Peter seemed interested after the meeting and I gave him my card, half hoping that this might result in a sale (though I do not necessarily imagine that Peter is in my target demographic, I would be remiss if I didn't try). A week later, I had a nervous but impassioned voicemail from him, telling me that he was trying to organize a talk at the town hall about Bigfoot. I could not tell if he were inviting me to be an audience member or presenter, so, after fretting about my house and asking Amber why she lets me give my card to people, I called back and assured him I was interested. I then spoke to Gayle and further cemented that I wanted to have a bigger role in this than seat-filler by asking if she had alerted local paranormal group and authors, as well as the media. She hadn't and gave me her blessing to spread the news. Within a couple of days, I had written to every public ghost hunter, UFO spotter, or writer thereof, as well as the filmmaker who was unable to film my reading at the Pine Bush UFO Fair (because I was locked out of the venue, so it never happened).

Seated across from Dr. Carol, on a lawn chair, is Johnny Angel. Johnny is bright-eyed, soft-spoken, and purportedly in contact with angels/ghosts/the other side. He is a bit older than me and supplements his income by doing monthly "Psychic Dinners" at a local cafe, where people pay fifty dollars to eat and have him relay messages from their deceased loved ones. He is here largely because there is no real separation in the paranormal between the psychic, the occult, and the cryptozoological. He had gone on hunts with Gayle and crew and, he says, he has psychically detected the beasts watching them from the trees.

Then there is Gayle, offering to get us bottled ice tea and pointing toward the center of the table, where she has cut medallions of thin Italian bread to go with hummus, wheat crackers and sliced cheese. Even meeting her for the first time, one is given the feeling that she is unquestionably good-hearted, quick to remind that she is someone's grandmother. She is quick to defer to the academic achievements of others ("I didn't even go to college"), though these can have little to do with hunting Bigfoots-"squatching" in the parlance of Bigfoot researchers. Until fairly recently, she did not give much thought to the potential existence of Bigfoots. Then, she began to see Bigfoots wandering on her many acres. Contradictory to my expectations and her present fascination with the subject, these encounters terrified her enough that she would refuse to go near the woods for months.

I ease myself back in a chair, thank her for an ice tea, and stuff my mouth with bread to push down my anxiety. I don't really know any of these people, though I know of them a bit. Whenever I would mention Gayle in reference to the town hall meeting, someone would come out with a story about her. Bluntly, they seem to regard her as a loon, but a well-meaning one. I have no interest in making such judgments, especially of someone who provided me with hummus so I could have a reason to not speak.

Where Gayle lives and sees Bigfoots is only a few miles from my apartment and the center of Red Hook. I could walk here on a good day and I could certainly bike here within a few minutes. It is startling to think that the habitation site of these massive creatures is so close, within a mile of an elementary, middle school, and high school, only a couple of miles from Bard College. I have not heard any students spying these creatures in the wilderness-and Red Hook has quite a lot of wilderness to choose from-but I acknowledge I have not been listening.

At Peter's word, it seems I have been put forward as the resident UFO expert. I start shaking my head-How can I be an expert if I don't confidently believe I've ever seen one?-but, through talk and at Johnny's prodding, it does come out that I have internalized a great deal of the research I have done recreationally and in order to better write my novels. But, just because I speak their language, it doesn't mean I am a native of this county. If nothing else, I have a keen skill in connecting disparate factions of the paranormal and historical world in my fiction, which is precisely what they hope for me to do for their consortium. I have been advertising and fluffing this event, so I am not about to back down. As long as I don't have to declare a firm position on the issues, I think I can do a good job discussing what I do know of the folklore, mythology, and my own research. I would disagree that I am a UFO expert, but I know much more than a random person off the street.

Amber is largely silent as they unfurl their theories and talk of the scheduling of the talk, who will speak first and on what subject. They seem to take almost no notice of her, which is fine by her. She drinks her ice tea (and much of mine) and just listens, though she eventually toddles away to inspect the livestock, including, we are promised, former governor Eliot Spitzer's former duck. Gayle offers to let Amber and me ride in her boats and fish on her property when we would like, which I know endears her to Amber.

Peter talks casually of something named "Moo." I assume for half an hour that Moo must be a pet everyone else knows that hides in the house when there are sasquatches about, a dog or maybe a cat. When Peter mentions mating season, it dawns on me that Moo is a Sasquatch himself. Later, Peter mentions that Moo has pointed wings, like a bat, though Amber is fairly certain that Peter did not outright say that Moo could fly.

At this talk of potentially flying sasquatches, I want to mention the Silver Bridge disaster in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and the Mothman, but I do not know yet how deeply I ought to entrench myself in their mythology. I know the story enough to have spoken about it at No Such Convention and I have done some research, since John Keel's book helped guide Artificial Gods, but I don't know what to make of it and don't want to pretend ownership of an experience that resulted in dozen of deaths.

In the course of discussion, they begin to present the evidence they intend to share at the talk on Monday. Most of the pictures passed my way could be written off as pareidolia. The human mind has evolved to detect faces lurking in the underbrush, as that skill could keep us from being pounced upon by ravening wolves or enemy tribesman. It is, after all, safer to overreact to mistaken sightings than to underreact to something that wants to kill us. Though one is much less likely to have to employ the practical aspects of pareidolia now (instead, you think some cars have sad faces), the pattern recognizing programming is deeply embedded in our organic hardware.

This is not to say that I do not see faces. Johnny's "Green Man" picture does look, upon inflation and at his direction, like a puckish Pagan god nestled among leaves, almost as though it were playing hide-and-seek. Likewise, their "robot" picture seems to feature the square head and blank eyes of a toy robot among the grass. However, my mind demands more compelling evidence than potential optical illusions and something that may well by a child's abandoned Christmas present. (I also cannot figure out what a sci-fi robot has to do with a furry hominid.) Other pictures are too difficult to call other than shadows in the brush, especially as they are inflated for "clarity." None are pictures of something I can recognize unaided. When we go upstairs, we are shown two pictures which we are primed to see as juvenile sasquatch in the tree, raising his forearm to mask his face (though we are left to speculate why the beast would sit so far up and exposed to engage in this fairly unnatural motion; perhaps to show off a bitchin' forearm tattoo?). I can see the described motion, though I doubt I would pick it out if it were not explained to me. Among the branches, the wind has moved many things. If given the time, I do not doubt I could find other blurry shapes apparently moving with intelligence.

Amber plays with two galumphing sort of dogs, who take to us as though there is no one else around, as Dr. Carol guides us through her PowerPoint, where she mentions skinwalkers and wendigoes. As an autodidact of the paranormal, as well as a fan of Supernatural, I know a fair bit about these creatures and fully expect Sam and Dean Winchester to be along shortly to warn us off. Her suggestion, though more a hypothesis than a theory, is that some mentions of sasquatches may in fact been these cannibalistic monsters. If nothing else, certainly those recounting that involve the Sasquatch behaving violently. She details how the Native American tribes saw these creatures frequently, though they seem to have cautioned their members from having much to do with them.

It has been years since I fully felt in the grips of a mystery beyond my ken, bandying about theories with friends with the implicit knowledge that I did not have the answer and that none would likely be forthcoming. I admit that it is not always easy to keep the skepticism from my face as they speak, but I understand that this is not my role. I am here to observe and detail, to weave together the stories with what I have read and, hopefully, arrive at something that looks from a distance like a cohesive whole.

Peter plays an audio recording through a few times. As he tells it, he heard a sound, turned on his trusty audio recorder, and opened the door to see a Sasquatch cradling a baby coyote in his arms. There is certainly the sound of a mewling pup fairly close to the microphone, then a slight growl before the recording ends. The growl does not sound like any animal I recognize from thirty-plus years living in the Hudson Valley, distinct from the sound of the pup and potentially from above it. I don't understand why a Sasquatch would have the slightest interest in a coyote pup and certainly not why the creature would be carrying it in his arms so close to a human home, but that is the account he gives.

Johnny seems unconvinced by many of these recordings and suggests that they not be included in the presentation so as to not give ammunition to naysayers. In all this, Johnny has the strongest impulse toward protecting the group from derision borne of weak evidence.

"You don't want to blow people away with our evidence," Peter says when Johnny presses for the inclusion of an honestly unnerving clip of moaning and pounding in the distance. "It would be too much for them."

On another recording, Peter is heard talking with a psychic-given her voice on the recording, I would guess a woman in her fifties, possible of Hispanic descent-who feels she is getting messages from the sasquatches to not come any closer, or to look in a certain direction in order to just miss seeing them run by. (Sasquatches are apparently exceptionally fast, much faster than one might suspect of a creature of their girth.)

In my childhood and adolescent reading, sasquatches were something organic and physical, some off-shoot of our family tree that had managed to survive the eons largely undiscovered (given that homo floresiensis was alive only 12,000 years ago, it isn't utterly farfetched). It is certainly improbable, but improbable isn't impossible. In all I read prior to this, there was nothing magic about Bigfoots, nothing that could excuse the lack of physical evidence of a large land mammal living in our forests in the era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and detailed radar maps at the touch of a button.

The Bigfoot researchers, however, mention the Bigfoots melting into the ground, fading until they are nothing but awkwardly places eyes gazing up from the ground, being able to read minds. These are not primitive apes, however much they apparently communicate with sticks and rocks when not resorting to telepathy.

I tell them that I had read about Bigfoots in connection with UFOs before, that a member of MUFON once told me that people who are inclined to see UFOs are also likely to see ghosts and Bigfoots because they are open to the experience. Some abductees even feel that alien visitation intentionally primes them for exposure to other planes of existence.

A problem for the Bigfooters is that the sasquatches seem to be aware of the presence of electronic devices. If you keep your camera and audio recorder well-holstered, the beasts will come frighteningly close. If you do not, they will stay far away, skunking one's attempt to get compelling evidence and leading all presented pictures of the creatures to be fuzzy and difficult to make out. They have no interest in being proven, only debated ad infinitum. This leads me to silently wonder if the prevalence of cell phones keeps paranormal creatures at bay. All this time, the van Helsings of the world infested their faith in crosses and garlic when they really ought to be concerned with Androids and iPhones.

As an author, I am almost impressed how these few additions to the mythology create a more satisfying narrative, though they may also amount to "fan-wanking," where fans of a show or book create theories to spackle over plot holes.

Dr. Ellen Crystall in Silent Invasion spoke of the Bigfoots seeming to guard woods where the Grays did not want her, usually throwing rocks near her, stomping, or banging trees-all behaviors these researchers find consistent with their experiences. Likewise, I have listened to people in Pine Bush mention quietly that they see lemurs and monkeys swinging from power lines or running across the street. And what is a lemur but a juvenile Bigfoot that has bucked his parents for a moment?

Peter posits that maybe what we call aliens are really humanity many millennia in the future-not a new idea among ufologists and I am grateful he doesn't claim the Grays are hyper-evolved dolphins-who have nearly perfected time travel and who use the sasquatches in much the same way we once used chimpanzees in our space program, i.e. "Let's send this unfortunate beast into the unknown and hope for the best." I don't find this satisfying because people certainly do see aliens from time to time, even when they are not just waking up or on a mind-expanding substance. Once we started sending people to the international space station, we stopped wasting resources finding inventive ways to blow up monkeys.

And yet, these theories are not without their problems. Why send these beasts here to shove sticks into mud and bang on rocks? A creature that evolved at our side may find use of these techniques for communication, especially a fellow primate, but I may be forgiven for cocking an eyebrow when one tells me that a transdimensional psychic being does the same. Any being capable of telepathy and mind-reading should at least leave a polite note. (These Bigfooters, as well as those I have read about recently, do mention Bigfoots leaving presents on people's doorsteps like overgrown cats, i.e. fresh kills.)

There is mention of the sasquatches being under the control of something else, something domesticating or guiding them. Sasquatches liberated of this influences (How? Why?) behave quite differently, though they didn't explain how. They do talk about the notorious white Bigfoots, who are invariably trouble and tend toward aggression.

Peter draws my attention to suggest what a good book this would all make, going so far as to pitch the book as being in the first person perspective. He isn't wrong and, as is evidenced by this detailing, I have already begun constructing ideas to weave together and prompting people for further information, but it is the first time I think my true intention might have been guessed and exceeded. I don't know how Bigfoots would fit into the Night's Dream universe, but this it is distinctly and oddly paranormal and occurring not simply in the Hudson Valley but specifically Red Hook. Throw in a young woman with dominion over thought and it is already something I've written. In the lulls in conversations, I have been rehearsal my former leads for a starring role in this story, but none are forthcoming.

Years ago, I read a book called Gray Highway where two guys drove around America and interviewed people who were instrumental in UFO culture. Their intent, as they made abundantly clear, was not to prove or disprove anything (admirable already) but merely to talk to these people in the grips of the strange. I could imagine myself doing that here.

Soon in Xenology: The perils of poverty. The meeting.

last watched: The Talented Mr. Ripley
reading: In the Mountain of Madness
listening: Jenny Dalton

Left in the Garden | 2014 | High Strangeness about Bigfoot and UFOs

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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