Research Notes · 06/13/2014

Bigfoot and the Baby

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ann Gelder writes about Bigfoot and the Baby from Bona Fide Books.

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I’m going to say that I conducted the bulk of the research for Bigfoot and the Baby between the ages of nine and ten. According to Google, 1974 is the year I would have seen the television documentary, Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?, which included the famed Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film. In it, a female “Bigfoot” strides through a forest clearing, and, even as a kid, I remember feeling there was something terribly wrong with this footage. It was deeply scary, but not because it seemed to prove the existence of a monster — rather the opposite. The creature looked so obviously fake, especially in that blank white space where the eyes were supposed to be. The jittery camera movements and sun-splashed setting put me in mind of Ray Harryhausen’s twitchy monsters, which frightened me not because they seemed real, but because they didn’t. They erupted into our world from elsewhere, from the no-man’s-land of someone else’s imagination. Like Bigfoot, they made a permanent home in mine.

But the most disturbing aspect of the Patterson-Gimlin film, I now believe, was that the documentary’s insistence on the reality of this hokey-looking creature caused me to doubt my own judgment. If something I thought was fake was actually real, because a man on TV said so, how could I count on my little brain to tell me the truth about anything? Compound this newfound existential angst with summers at a cottage in northern Michigan, surrounded by woods, frequent rain, and an endless supply of Readers’ Digest back issues, with their tales of LSD-addled youths jumping off buildings, thinking they could fly. Was the whole world, I began to wonder, some sort of hallucination? Was I the only one who, attempting to place my foot on the ground, plunged instead into a sea of wild, fleeting images?

You could say I was a nervous child. But also a curious one, with extensive access to dubious information.

Along with Reader’s Digest, in the summers of 1974-75 (approximately), I devoured a fairly large number of paperbacks concerning Bigfoot. I purchased these (note that I could be making most of this up, but it seems real enough) at a bookstore in Beulah, Michigan, which displayed such books in an upstairs room with big windows framing shuddering, leafy branches. From these books I learned that Bigfoot was probably a creature from outer space. Colonies of Bigfeet (this singular-plural issue has never been adequately addressed, nor resolved, even on the grammatical level) lived underground in lava caves. What their purpose was, I don’t remember, but surely it was some sort of global takeover. Witnesses heard the sound of “subterranean machinery,” a phrase that lodged itself in my brain. Night after night, I lay awake in my room at the cottage, surrounded by windows and dark, waving branches, listening.

The end of the 1970s brought The Late Great Planet Earth, and Ronald Reagan, and high school, and a whole bunch of other weird phenomena. But growing up, I guess, means accepting weirdness as normal, or at least not worrying about it so much. So I did grow up and went to college and then graduate school, believing, wrongly, that I would become a professor of American literature. I didn’t think of Bigfoot that often during those years, though when I did, I began to see him as part of a larger frontier mythology — a tall tale, incorporating Native myths with White fantasies and guilt. Rest easy; that’s as far as I plan to go with the pedantry. I’ll just note that one of the best sources for this kind of information isn’t pedantic at all. It’s Robert Michael Pyle’s now-classic Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. If there’s a single book that informed my research in the traditional sense of the word, that’s the one.

But what got me on the Bigfoot kick again, enough to spend eight years writing a novel about — or, more accurately, around him? I suppose it was a lingering sense of the shadow. That occasional feeling that something has just slipped past my peripheral vision, just out of the frame. Not that I believe in monsters as such. As to Bigfoot’s actual existence, I’m a thorough-going skeptic, though still willing to be convinced otherwise. But I think many of us share a notion of the unknown as a kind of presence. Some translate that into a religious experience, a relationship with God; I don’t. I see that presence as neither good nor evil, but as mystery itself. We can’t live without it, and don’t want to. It walks with us, every step of our journey.

So that’s what the book is really about: our relationship with mystery. And, caveat emptor, that means Bigfoot doesn’t appear as often, or as literally, as you might expect. But appear he does, both physically and as the novel’s guiding spirit.

I did do one more bit of actual, traditional research for the novel. I spent some time in the Bakersfield area, where some of the novel is set, to get a feel for the place. For the same reason, I then traveled to Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert. Though I’d been to the desert before, I was not prepared for the thorough, mind-blasting strangeness of the light, the openness, the sky. The place almost gives off a sound — a kind of hum. More than any actual facts or images I may have soaked up, it’s that desert sensation I needed to capture — and I hope I have done so, in various ways, throughout the story.

I also took some pictures at Red Rock. Here’s one:

Do you see that figure in the top left corner of the sky? The cloud that looks like an archer, or possibly a biped, walking?

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Ann Gelder’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Flavorwire, The Millions, The Rumpus, Tin House, and other publications. She has taught literature at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked as an online producer and marketing consultant. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.