Book Review: The Secret History of Bigfoot

It was while working on a film script set in the Pacific Northwest that journalist John O’Connor began to see Bigfoot everywhere: “On CBD oil and air fresheners. On car polish and coronavirus masks. On scented candles and Nalgene bottles and maple syrup and vile, undrinkable IPA.” 

But is Bigfoot an “actual zoological possibility or a human-wide cultural delusion, a manifestation of a universal desire to believe in the unbelievable?” The Secret History of Bigfoot sets out to answer this question. 

O’Connor’s journey takes him across the country: from the Washington Cascades to the Berkshires (“Massachusetts Bigfoot Country,” where the first documented sighting of Bigfoot occurred in 1765), from the 2021 Sasquatch Festival and Calling Contest in New York State to Kentucky, from Maine to Northern California and Southern Oregon (where the ancient forests of the Klamath-Siskiyou wilderness is prime Sasquatch territory), and to the Texas Bigfoot Conference in Jefferson, Texas (where “believing in Bigfoot is practically a civic duty”). During and amid his travels, he meets with believers, biologists, historians, and many others as he sets out to hunt for the elusive Sasquatch.

Bigfoots aren’t rare, he writes in his in-depth and witty account of his travels: “In fact, they’re quite common, or no less widely dispersed than, say, bald eagles or Starbucks.” Every year, hundreds of Bigfoots are sighted across the U.S. and Canada; there have been 75,000 eyewitness reports since the mid-1990s, when the Bigfoot Researchers Organization (BFRO) was founded, though only about 5,000 to 6,000 are deemed credible by the organization. 

Among much more, O’Connor learns that there are more Sasquatch sightings on Wednesdays and fewer on Fridays, and that eyewitness accounts are remarkably consistent, describing the creature as “shaggy, bipedal, nocturnal, shy, standing seven to ten feet tall, weighing seven hundred to eight hundred pounds, and smelling to high heaven.” Bigfoots are reportedly more curious than aggressive.

Yet eyewitness accounts are notoriously faulty, and many of those whom O’Connor interviewed acknowledged this unreliability. O’Connor details the psychological (and legal) issues regarding what we (think we) see—in fact, the book is filled with tangentially fascinating information related to the never-ending search for Bigfoot, from the history of monsters in mythology, literature, and native cultures to the search for the believed-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. Whatever the creature, whatever the century or location, O’Connor discovers that people seem programmed to believe—which in turn might explain so many sightings. “People tend to find what they’re looking for,” says birder David Allen Sibley.

And Bigfoot searchers continue to persist, despite the lack of concrete evidence—perhaps even because of it. Though he hasn’t yet found Bigfoot, Jonathan Wilk, founder of Team Squatchachusetts, says, “People are seeing something. I’ve seen something. And I can’t unsee it.” 

However, the biologists O’Connor consults do not believe that Bigfoot could live, even remotely, without being detected. As biologist Lee Kantar says, “Every animal defecates in the woods, every animal dies in the woods, and every animal leaves other types of evidence that they were there.” 

Realizing that much of this hunting may not actually be about Bigfoot, O’Connor wonders, “What are we really searching for?” 

This question is part of what makes this book very much an environmental work. O’Connor focuses as much on the forests—or, rather, what remain of our forests—as on the giant creature who may reside there. In the Pacific Northwest, he sees what looks like a healthy forest but is in fact, he writes, “merely screens—‘beauty strips,’ the Forest Service calls them—left by timber crews to obscure clear-cuts.” 

Climate change is also part of the story: “Heat, high winds, a historic drought, and a century of clear-cutting had contributed to one of the worst wildfire seasons in Washington’s history,” he notes during his 2021 Northwest journey. This was, O’Connor writes, the same year heat waves killed more than 500 people; temperatures in Portland, Oregon, reached 116 degrees; and the air quality index was worse than Chernobyl’s. 

“What remains is spectacular,” he writes of the Klamath-Siskiyou wilderness. “But there’s a question of how long it will last … Maybe we’re drawn to Bigfoot stories because they represent our hope that not every square inch of this continent has been slash-burned.”

And perhaps even more important than whether Bigfoot exists is that believers do good for the forests, among them Charlie Raymond, founder of the Kentucky Bigfoot Research Organization, who encourages the protection of forests to preserve Bigfoot habitat. 

O’Connor may not have found Bigfoot, but he did find hope within everyone he met, not only for the existence of the Sasquatch but likely much more. Utah State University folklorist Lynne S. McNeill believes that mystery and possibility are an important to our lives in general, and this includes Bigfoot: “It’s simply a better world if Bigfoot is real. It says something positive about our wilderness spaces. It says we haven’t totally destroyed our planet, that there are enough wild places left that Bigfoot can live undetected … the mere possibility of Bigfoot existing might be a psychological necessity, because it means we haven’t totally ruined this place.” 

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