True, I was scrounging for mushrooms at the time — fairy rings, angels wings. chanterelles — up in the windblown, bonsai-lookin’ trees there above the South Jetty of the Columbia Bar, the very gateway to the Pacific Graveyard, but on my honor, I had not ingested anything that might have thrown me into some kind of Ken Kesey state of consciousness.
For much of my life, I avoided culinary fungus — after my four-year-old-brother pinched a tiny, squeak-square of mushroom out of his bowl of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, held it up to my six-year-old face, said, “Look, it’s a fly!” squished it between his fingers, and then screamed like a dying fly— if flies could scream, that is. That experience put me off ‘shrooms for a long time.
Eventually, I got over it. And now, on a soft-focus morning on the Oregon Coast, I was about to have another very intense — and very bizarre — mushroom-related experience.
The special effects were already amazing that day. Black and gray clouds, swirling above a churning, green-blue sea, just like a scene in “The Ten Commandments.” In fact, if Charlton Heston had walked out to the edge of the surf just then, and raised his staff to part the waters, I would not have blinked, but when Big Foot suddenly appeared, that threw me.
I had scored half a beach pail of chanterelles, thought myself lucky, and was about to call it a morning. And then there he was, right in front of me, like a stone monument, as if he’d been standing there for a hundred years. He was dark against the trees and the B-movie mist and the pale sky above our heads, taller than me by at least two feet. And covered with coarse, graying fur, which glistened and beaded with ocean dew and shimmered with silvery spider webs. I dropped my beach pail—out of surprise, not fear.
Big Foot was not an ape, but I did feel a strong sense of orangutan-gentleness, and ancient, dark-forest wisdom. Big Foot was not human, either, but he did bear more than a passing resemblance to the actor, Abe Vigoda, of all people. And yes, he had big feet.
Beast, man, or something else, Big Foot was huge and intimidating and I knew that at any moment, he could bonk me on the head and pile-drive me into the soggy ground — if that’s what he wanted to do. But for whatever reason, I felt totally safe, and I knew if things got hairy — sorry — Big Foot would simply vanish, disappear, fade back into the Doug firs and Sitka spruce trees, leaving me to wonder if he had ever been there at all.
“Good morning.” Big Foot did not growl. He had a voice, which was deeper than any voice I had ever heard. Like Lurch, kinda, from “The Addams Family.” I heard it in my ears and felt it in my lungs. That cavernous voice sounded intelligent, thoughtful, but more than anything else, weary, and a little sad.
“Mornin’.” I’m not what you’d call the starstruck type. I’ve met my share of celebrities (One time I stood at a urinal next to Orenthal J. Simpson.), and I know how to act around them. Here’s some quick, if unsolicited, advice: If you ever run into, say, Clint Eastwood, don’t get all up in his business and ask him to say, “Make my day” just for you. And don’t ask Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with airline food?” It just isn’t done, and you end up looking like a chump. The best thing to do is just be cool.
A simple compliment is OK, though. “I’m a big fan of your work,” I said.
“Thanks.” Big Foot shrugged as if to say, Please don’t make a fuss, I’m just Sasquatch on the block. “Thanks a lot.”
“I was in the fourth grade the first time I saw that film of you walking along the creek down in California.” You know the scene I’m talking about: grainy, jouncy, amateur footage of a slouching, furry hominid, stomping along the rocks and fallen trees and looking over his shoulder. I didn’t tell Big Foot that after I saw that famous film, I went out to the garage, made a pair of giant plywood feet and then left a bunch of super-sized footprints in the mud around Detroit Lake, causing quite the minor stir.
“Ah, the Patterson-Gimlin film,” Big Foot said. “That worked out well for me.”
“Way cool.” I had seen dozens of documentaries about Big Foot, seen almost all the cheesy movies, starring has-been actors like John Carradine, Cameron Mitchell — and unnamed stuntmen wearing bag-shaggy suits with ill-concealed zippers. And I had heard that famous Big Foot howl that someone in Elk Meadows, Oregon, caught on tape back in 1973. (If I was ever alone in the woods and heard that high, primal, literally hair-raising, deep-woods cry of — loneliness, fury, pain, whatever — I wouldn’t know whether to defecate or go blind.) Nothing is as iconic to me, though, in a Norman Rockwell-meets-Abraham Zapruder way, as those 952 frames of sun-washed, just-blurry-enough-to-seem-credible, 16-millimeter film.
Big Foot hadn’t suddenly materialized out of the ocean mist and pinecones to discuss his filmography. He held out two giant, leather-calloused hands. “I need your help.”
“What can I do for you?” What could be bothering Big Foot? Climate change? Paper straws? K-Pop music? No. I was way off.
“I crashed a crab feed in Yachats a few weeks ago,” Big Foot said. “I did my usual act, shambling along the tree line, ducking in and out of sight. Nobody even noticed. They were all too busy arguing and insulting each other. The same thing happened the other day when I showed up at the Saturday Market in Newport.”
“I didn’t see anything on the news.”
“The news. . .” Big Foot dropped his head as if exhausted. When he raised it again, I saw blunted, ivory teeth. Big Foot was mad. “The news is the problem. Half the country prays to CNN and the other half prays to FOX.”
It seemed Big Foot was up on current events — and the media. Then I wondered, was Big Foot political? He seemed Green Party to me. Did he subscribe to Mother Jones?
“I’m out there,” Big Foot said. “I watch. I listen. And I’ve never seen or heard people vilify each other like this.”
I started thinking about monsters and politics. Frankenstein, after being chased all over the countryside by torch-waving mobs, was obviously a Democrat. Dracula, on the other hand, was a Republican. King Kong? Libertarian, no doubt about it. He just wanted to be left alone.
Big Foot snapped his fingers at me, and the sound echoed in the gauzy air like the ringing of an axe. “Are you listening?”
“Dads won’t talk to their daughters,” Big Foot said. “Marriages are on the rocks. Friends fight each other. It’s terrible! People shouldn’t be scaring other people! That’s my job!”
“I hear ya.” Big Foot was right, or course. These are discouraging, contentious, hair-trigger days. Hat wars. Red vs. Pink. Arguments, name calling, finger pointing, fights in the streets. Worse. So much worse.
“There was a time, “Big Foot said, “when monsters brought people together. Folks stayed closer to the fire when they thought there might be hungry beasts prowling out in the dark. Moms and dads told boogeyman stories to scare their kids into behaving.”
My own mom used to scare me with threats of reform school, but I got the point.
“Nowadays,” Big Foot said, “one half of the country sees the other half as The Monster, The Threat. The Big Scary Other. I’ve even heard people talk about another civil war.” Big Foot closed his eyes, and for a second, I thought he was going to cry. “Civil war! I’m not going through that again.”
Civil War? Was Big Foot — this Big Foot — around in the 1860s?
“I need to do something,” Big Foot said. “I need to make a comeback.”
I agreed. “Do you have an agent?”
Big Foot nodded. “I used to be with William Morris, but then we had a falling out.”
I started thinking about a career change. Could I be a Big Foot promoter? Did the Loch Ness Monster need representation, too? Then I saw that Big Foot was laughing—at me. The whole William Morris thing had been a put-on.
“Sorry,” Big Foot said. “I couldn’t resist.”
Big Foot had a sense of humor. Who knew? “You need a social media presence,” I said. “A platform.”
Big Foot considered this. “TV?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’m thinkin’ maybe a podcast. Have you heard of Joe Rogan?”
Big Foot shook his shaggy head. “I need to do something subtle, low key, mysterious, something that will make people look over their shoulders, make them wonder if that was just a shadow there between the trees — or something else. I got 20 years out of that California film. It wasn’t even a minute long.”
An idea came to me. “How’s about a selfie?”
I explained the concept, pulled out my smartphone.
Big Foot was amenable. He put a powerful arm around me and pulled me close. For a weird moment, I got emotional. This was like getting a hug from a relative I had never met. And even though Big Foot could have crushed me like a bag of Fritos, I was not afraid.
“Should I smile?” Big Foot asked.
“No way.” I snapped the picture. “That ought to do it.”
Big Foot released me. “Spread the word,” he said, “I’m out there, in the dark, in the fog, out on the edge of the forest. And I’m real.”
“One more thing.” Big Foot leaned over me, looked me in the eye, and flashed enormous canines that I had not noticed before. “When people fear each other more than they fear monsters,” he said, his voice rumbling, like a logging truck, down-shifting, “then we monsters have to step up our game.”
Now I felt fear, like a trickle of ice water running down my back. “Gotcha.”
“By the way, thanks for that footprint prank.” Big Foot morphed back into the trees without so much as a whoosh of leaves, or a snap of a twig. I was tempted to follow him, ask a few dozen questions: Where are you from? Are you the only one of your kind? How did you know about those plywood feet? I knew I would never find Big Foot again, though, so I picked up my beach pail and went home to sauté those mushrooms — and think about things
I still don’t know if Big Foot is some sort of crypto-hominid, an extraterrestrial being possessed of awesome wisdom— or as one late-night radio preacher claims, banished Cain from the Old Testament. I may never know. For sure, that is. But I do know that William Stafford, former Poet Laureate of Oregon, was right when he said, “Big Foot waits disguised as a shadow.” And we do not want to make him mad.
Steve Sabatka’s young adult novel, Mister Fishback’s Monster, is available from Black Bed Sheet Books.