Just when you think Bigfoot has been analyzed, merchandized and satirized ad nauseam, along comes journalist Leah Sottile and an octogenarian rodeo cowboy named Bob Gimlin, galloping out of the Pacific Northwest with a take you probably haven’t heard before.
It’s the story of Gimlin, the daredevil horseman who helped capture the 1967 footage that made Sasquatch famous – the Zapruder film for the Bigfoot set, as Sottile puts it — and then became almost as elusive as Bigfoot himself. Rather than poke fun, Sottile delivers a humanizing portrait laced with vivid details and memorable descriptions.
Coming from an alt-weekly background melded with Jesuit schooling and several years in the Portland, Oregon, punk scene, Sottile specializes in profiling fringe characters. (Personal favorite: the backyard fight club whose members throw each other through television sets and light their comrades on fire.)
“I’ve always been drawn to people who reject or are cast from the mainstream,” she says. “I think I learned that from punk rock. … I’m also very into American iconography and folklore – the stories and collective mythology we tell ourselves about who we are and where we’ve come from.”
The formula works. Her narrative pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Playboy and Rolling Stone, to name a few.
This one has inspired me to make a slight detour the next time I visit my cousins in Northern California. The turnoff to their home happens to pass by the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, a tiny red outpost crammed with assorted ape-like statues, T-shirts with “Santa Cruz Sasquatch” lugging a surfboard, supermarket tabloid articles (“I Had Bigfoot’s Baby!”), even a Bigfoot board game. There’s also an exhibit devoted to the film that changed Gimlin’s life. After years of telling myself I should stop in, I think it’s time to finally follow through. Thanks, Leah.
How did you come across this story, and was it difficult to find a home for it?
Cryptozoological stories are something I’ve always loved. As a kid, I regularly checked out the June 1977 edition of National Geographic – which contains a serious investigation of the Loch Ness monster – from the school library. I was obsessed. So of course, if you’re into one cryptozoological story, you’re likely to fall down other similar wormholes. I’d read about the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film quite a bit, but didn’t realize there was such a great connection to the Northwest, where I’ve always lived.
Earlier this year, I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned that Bob Gimlin was going to be in town for a meeting of the Bigfoot Lunch Club. (That’s an actual club in Portland — hardly the weirdest of clubs to be a part of in “Portlandia.”) I was shocked because I didn’t think Gimlin was alive, and I had no idea he was from Central Washington.
I went to the meeting to drink beer and be around other weirdos. But from the second I saw Bob and heard him talk, I knew I had to write about him. If you were to ask a cartoonist to draw a cowboy, Bob is who they would picture in their heads: handlebar mustache, a slow drawl, a big belt buckle and a big cowboy hat. I was blown away by the way people threw themselves at him that night. So I got into the line, introduced myself to Bob, took a picture and told him I was a journalist. I asked if he might be open to letting me interview him. He said, “Sure, why not?”
When I got home that night, I started doing research and realized that Gimlin hadn’t really told his side of the story to any journalist. And, even more, everything I read painted Gimlin as this recluse who’d willingly stepped out of the spotlight. So, yeah, I wrote a pitch the next day.
I got three rejections on the story before I approached Greg Thomas with Outside. I hadn’t written anything for him before, and knew I might be slamming a door in my own face by approaching an editor I didn’t know with a story on Bigfoot. So I actually pitched with that in mind. The first line of my pitch was: “I’d like to write a feature profile of 84-year-old legendary Sasquatch hunter Bob Gimlin, of the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. Wait – hear me out.”
“Some people I know can’t deal with associating with people whose views are different from theirs. And I think it sort of sucks that people don’t use journalism to understand the full range of perspectives out there. When it comes down to it, I can talk to people whose views fall outside the mainstream because my own views absolutely fall outside the mainstream.”
I’m still surprised he went for it, honestly, but I think any editor who works with me quickly learns that even though my ideas seem totally weird, I’ll bring home something that’s worth a damn in the end.
A lot of writers would have taken a snarky approach to this subject. What made you decide to avoid that?
I felt like being snarky about Bigfoot was the most obvious thing I could do with a story. My whole career is built on doing what everyone else thinks won’t work. … Moreover, one of this story’s key facts is that the Patterson-Gimlin film has never been definitively disproven. For nearly 50 years, it has held up against the scrutiny of forensic analysts, Hollywood costume designers, film experts, primate researchers. There is no smoking gun, no receipt for a monkey suit. Given that, I tried to come at it with an open mind. What did they see, and why did it make Gimlin go into relative hiding for as long as he did?
Also, to me, making fun of someone else’s beliefs makes me look like I’ve got it all figured out. And I definitely do not. I didn’t get into the journalism business to hold a moral high ground. I write stories about the human experience. And I didn’t hide my skepticism with Bob. More than once, I had the opportunity to look him in the eye and say, “Is it real, Bob?” And he would look right back at me and say it was.
Another key thing to point out is I think I’m willing to go out on limbs and entertain perspectives that other journalists won’t. I’m also willing to look stupid. There have been plenty of times that has not paid off for me. But in a few instances, the risks I’ve taken have been the best things I’ve written. I figured if I reported the hell out of this story, then this could be one of those.
When writing about someone whose views fall outside the mainstream or are maybe even distasteful to you, how do you go about humanizing them?
There aren’t a lot of people I’ve interviewed over the years that I’ve truly disliked. Maybe politicians? CEOs? Definitely marketing executives. But I don’t think I have to like someone to be able to write their story. The optimist in me believes that inside everyone there is someone inherently good looking to get out. I learned that early on when I wrote about a football hero and Army Ranger who, on a whim, robbed a series of stores and banks. We spent tons of time together. He was absolutely massive — a brick house of a man. He could have killed me with the flick of his wrist. But I challenged myself to get beyond that — that other people’s fears should not become my fears. And by talking to him, it didn’t mean I had to agree with anything he did or said, or the trauma he caused other people. He knew society hated him already. My angle was: Can a bad person ever be seen as good again?
Some people I know can’t deal with associating with people whose views are different from theirs. And I think it sort of sucks that people don’t use journalism to understand the full range of perspectives out there. When it comes down to it, I can talk to people whose views fall outside the mainstream because my own views absolutely fall outside the mainstream. I’ve never wanted to be a part of the mainstream — which I think is pretty obvious to most people who meet me, and that makes them more comfortable talking to me than they might be to a tie-wearing, press-pass-flashing reporter.
Did your opinion on Bigfoot’s existence change in any way from doing this story?
Hmm. I’ve been asked this a couple times now, and I’ve decided there’s no good way to answer it — just like there was no good way for Gimlin to answer it. Let’s just say I’m open to the idea that humans have not figured out every mystery in the world.
Every good story seems to have at least one beloved anecdote that doesn’t make the final cut. What’s your favorite lost part of the Bigfoot piece?
You’re so right about that. My favorite part was the original ending, which was a scene in which Bob Gimlin left his entire life behind. It was after Roger Patterson died. His wife had left him; he’d lost all credibility over this Bigfoot story hanging around his neck. He was so pissed off at society, and so he took his horse to the Mexican border and started riding the Pacific Crest Trail north. He rode for months, dodging death several times, shrinking down to skin and bones as he survived only on whatever he could hunt. He figured he’d either die out there, or he’d wander until he figured out what he needed to do next. He was truly a lone cowboy.
He was midway through Oregon, months later, when he realized he wasn’t going to be told by society what he did and didn’t see at Bluff Creek. He nearly killed himself on that trail in order to move on and realize that other people’s judgments didn’t matter. He saw what he saw, and he didn’t need anyone to tell him differently. It was the image of his wife that kept him riding. They’ve been together ever since he got home.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
By Leah Sottile
Published in Outside magazine July 5, 2016
For weeks in the fall of 1967 the cowboys rode from sunrise to sunset in search of the creature no one had ever captured on film. Two rodeo men from Washington’s apple country, they’d traveled to Northern California’s thick forest. They’d read headlines of unidentifiable footprints. The smaller cowboy was driven by a long obsession with the mythic beast known as Bigfoot; the other liked to see things for himself. You don’t name the cowboys right away. Why? I wanted to start the story with a great scene, and I knew that if everyone pictured two cowboys riding in their heads, they’d be envisioning Bob Gimlin and Roger Patterson almost exactly. Plus, I didn’t want to weigh down the first graf with anything but description that throws the reader right into the scene.
One late October afternoon near Bluff Creek, the men trundled on horseback, half a day’s ride from the nearest signs of civilization. The sun shone bright, lighting the leaves all around them in a grand finale of orange and red and yellow. Roger Patterson rode in front, pausing his quarter horse to point his lens toward the leaves, the film chattering inside his rented 16mm Cine Kodak camera. When he finished, he tucked the camera into his saddlebag, leaving the leather flap open.
Bob Gimlin brought up the rear. He rode a quarter horse, leading a pony loaded with supplies behind him. Patterson navigated around a bend where a large tree had fallen and jammed up the nearby creek—its root system upturned and exposed, like blind fingers reaching for an anchor. Lots of nice imagery and details – the fiery leaves, Cine Kodak camera with film chattering, upturned tree roots, etc. How much of this does Gimlin include in his stump speech vs. you coaxing out such details? Gimlin definitely has a speech he gives, so my interviews with him were always trying to get him to break from that script. So, some of this came from Gimlin’s speech and books that have been written about that day, like how Patterson was supposedly shooting lots of film of the pretty fall leaves just before they saw the Bigfoot. The camera was rented from a camera store in Yakima, so documentation of that exists. The good thing about the Bigfoot world is that it is entrenched in semantics. Gimlin has told and retold the whole story over and over, and for just as many years, people have been shooting holes in it. I had a stack of Bigfoot books I checked out from the library to compare and contrast everyone’s account of the scene. But most of this — like the tree roots — came from my own watching and rewatching of the footage to describe the scene as accurately as I could, and then I fused that with the rest of the information and interviews I had.
The horses saw it first. Patterson’s reared, kicking and protesting, then Gimlin’s. Less than 100 feet away, the men saw why: a hulking gorilla-like figure covered in dark hair hurried on two legs along the creekbed. Its sloped head and torso were pushed forward, its upper back hunched, thigh muscles rippling, long arms swinging, breasts exposed.
Patterson scrambled off his spooked animal, holding its reins just long enough to reach inside his saddlebag for the camera. Gimlin, a cowboy famous through the Yakima Valley for taming wild colts and running in breakneck “suicide races” (in which riders careen down steep slopes), dropped the packhorse’s rope and gripped the reins of his frightened pony to steady it.
Patterson scrambled across the uneven ground, waving the camera in one hand, the film blurry as he ran. He stopped to crouch and steady himself, then trained the lens on the strange figure, the camera shaking from his breathing. “Bob! Cover me!” he yelled over his shoulder to Gimlin, who rode toward the creek, dismounting his horse and drawing his rifle.
The picture steadied as the creature, mid-stride, turned to look over its right shoulder—just a glance—before it disappeared into the forest. A skunky, rank odor hung heavy in the air. The whole affair was over in less than a minute.
The final 59.5-second film, which the men would airmail back home to be developed, would soon become the world-famous Patterson-Gimlin film—arguably one of the most scrutinized pieces of video footage ever made. It is the cryptozoological equivalent to the Kennedy assassination’s Zapruder film. Nice comparison. Ha – thanks. Not long before writing this story I had fallen into a Kennedy assassination wormhole, so it was front of mind at the time. The film met immediate criticisms accusing Patterson and Gimlin of being master pranksters who simply filmed a man in an ape suit and laid fake footprints in the mud.
The film tore Patterson’s and Gimlin’s friendship apart. Patterson partnered with his brother-in-law, Al DeAtley, to take the film on a national tour as a way to raise funds for a full-fledged expedition back at Bluff Creek. The three took equal shares in the film, but soon Gimlin felt edged out, and sold his share of the rights for less than $10 to another Bigfoot researcher. You stick to calling this creature “Bigfoot” throughout, not switching it up with Sasquatch or other nicknames. What was the reason for that? Since the story was primarily about Gimlin being one of the original framers of the American Bigfoot narrative, I wanted to stick with what he called it. He calls it Bigfoot. There’s basically a Bigfoot legend unique to every region of the world, and there are just as many names: Sasquatch, Yeti, Skunk Ape. I just made the choice to stick with one — Gimlin’s version — and commit to it.
After five years estranged, Patterson and Gimlin made amends in 1972 as Patterson lay on his deathbed, dying of cancer at age 38. Patterson apologized for ousting Gimlin, pleading with him that when he recovered that they would go back to California and catch Bigfoot. He died the next day.
More than 40 years later, the film has never been conclusively debunked. I’m guessing skeptics would disagree with this assessment. Have you gotten any feedback on this paragraph? They would disagree, yes, but none had produced definitive evidence. From what I could find, all skeptics’ evidence is based just as much on “belief.” One of the foremost skeptics, who I talk about later in the story, wrote a book that people often cite as the smoking gun. But when you read it — which I did — you find it’s filled with interviews of people saying, “Yep, I was the guy in the suit” or “I sold them the suit.” But it’s all he-said, she-said. As far as feedback: I haven’t heard much about the story from skeptics or believers. I’m taking that as a good sign? It has withstood scrutiny from scientists, forensic analysts, Hollywood special effects experts, and costume designers. No one can quite explain it—except those who believe in folklore. In that time, Bigfoot has evolved into a full-fledged American myth, propagated by a national congregation of believers who regard Gimlin as a kind of prophet.
“Meeting Bob Gimlin, to a Bigfooter, is like meeting the President of the United States to an American,” says Cindy Rose Caddell, a researcher and author. “Or what meeting the Pope is to a Catholic.”
The 84-year-old cowboy wore a black cattleman’s hat and sunglasses, an off-white coat with “Bob” embroidered in blue thread at the chest. His boots stated their intentions across the tile entryway of a roadside diner in Union Gap, in central Washington, pausing as he held the door for an elderly woman in a pink jacket.
“Come on in, young lady,” he said, his baritone voice all campfire smoke and truck engines. This is a wonderful description. In other articles, have you ever characterized someone’s voice in similar fashion or was there something about Gimlin’s that inspired this? Thank you. Gimlin really is unlike anyone I’ve ever met, and part of that is the true cowboy way that he presents himself. His voice is really deep and gravelly, and he really does talk about stuff you would expect a real cowboy to talk about: horses, trucks, being outside and in the mountains. It was a description that just fell out onto the page — and it worked. Bob Gimlin wears big hats and big belt buckles and drives a big pickup. He talks slow with a heavy drawl and seems to find a way to turn almost any conversation toward horses.
In a booth with vinyl seats, Gimlin ordered coffee and dumped in two creams, and told the waitress he wouldn’t be eating. For the next six hours, he told his story: who he was before he saw Bigfoot, who he became after, and why he stayed quiet for four decades after the film’s debut.
Before he had ever heard of Bigfoot, Gimlin had led the life of a man who feared nothing, who thrived on dares and several times cheated death. The first time was at age seven when his appendix burst. He missed a year of school as he recovered in the Ozark mountains cabin in Missouri where he was born.
In 1940, the promise of sprawling green ranchlands and orchards set against the towering Cascades pulled his farmer father and mother westward. In Washington, Gimlin roped wild horses with native boys on the nearby Yakima Reservation, crawling onto their backs and hanging on for dear life. “I was ready to ride,” he says. “Even at a very young age I wanted to ride anything that bucked, jumped, moved, run, or whatever.” He became a natural rodeo man: quick to bounce back, never letting a cast or a sling keep him from a horse. He raced caravans and chariots through mountain passes, hurtled down cliffsides. He gained a reputation as a daredevil (though he declined Evel Knievel’s offer to join him in for-profit “daredevilin’”).
At age 18, Gimlin joined the Army reserves; later he enlisted in the Navy. After two tours in the Korean War, he and three other sailors were in a car accident that left one dead when the driver smashed into a power pole. His head slammed into the dash and the motor of the car pinned his body in the vehicle. “I lost half my face,” he says. Gimlin underwent several plastic surgeries to repair his nose. He spent two years recovering in a hospital in California. Once he received his discharge papers, Gimlin headed back home to Yakima.
Life, for Gimlin, continued on a normal course: he married, had children, divorced, then married “the sassiest thing I’d ever met”—his wife of 52 years, Judy. In 1967, Gimlin, then 35, was scraping together a living driving trucks, roofing, and riding and taming horses. There was nothing significant about the day he pulled into a Union Gap service station and ran into his old rodeo pal, Roger Patterson.
Patterson was recovering from a bout with cancer. As they spoke, Patterson told Gimlin of his interest in supposed Bigfoot sightings. “He said, ‘Let me show you something,’” Gimlin recalls. “He went over to the truck and brought out a plaster cast of a big foot.” Patterson asked Gimlin if he would be interested in searching Mount St. Helens on horseback with him for evidence of a Bigfoot. “I said, ‘Roger, I just don’t have time.’”
By the late 1960s, Bigfoot had been tromping through Northwestern lore for hundreds of years. Several Native American tribes tell of looming, furry beasts reeking of scorched hair who stole trout from fishermen. In the early 20th century, newspaper articles reporting sightings read like spooky stories to tell around a campfire. In one such report, from 1924, a clan of rock-throwing ape-men ambushed a group of miners on Mt. St. Helens. The place is now called Ape Canyon. (Skeptics said the beasts were just YMCA campers playing a prank.) Ivan Sanderson’s 1961 book, Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life, read like the stuff of a B movie.
But there were few opportunities for Patterson to commune with other believers. So he talked to Gimlin: the men formed a bond, riding horses through Washington’s backcountry. Patterson continued to regale Gimlin with Bigfoot lore, playing him recorded testimonies of real-life encounters and lending him books on the topic, despite Gimlin’s insistence that he did not care. (Patterson self-published a book in 1966, titled Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?)
Then, in August 1967, Patterson told Gimlin about a logging road construction crew spotting tracks and having their equipment inexplicably disassembled deep in the Six Rivers National Forest. He begged Gimlin to drive the two men and their horses to Northern California to search. Gimlin was skeptical that anything existed, but he was intrigued, and he wasn’t the sort of man to turn away from a good adventure. “I wanted to see these footprints that these people talked about,” he says.
The film the men produced gave the murky myth shape: suddenly, Bigfoot was manifested in flesh and blood. It had a loping gait and, with the twist of its torso, it looked over its shoulder before disappearing again into the wilderness. It even had a name: Patty. You don’t explain the origin of the name. Because I had conflicting stories over it. Gimlin, in all of our interviews, never actually called the creature “Patty.” I found out people called it that later when I was doing more research and saw it referred to as Patty in several books — which made me think the name came from Patterson, short for his own last name, or named for his wife, who is actually named Patty Patterson. I never asked Gimlin about it, if you can believe that.
Patty, arguably, created the Bigfoot industry. Today, the apelike figure—frozen in its signature turn—adorns car air fresheners and infant onesies that read, “Believe.” It looks back from coffee cups, Christmas ornaments, guitar picks, and Band Aids. There’s a Patty-shaped Chia Pet. Bigfoot even has a home on reality TV: Animal Planet launched Finding Bigfoot in 2011, starring Washington’s Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO). BFRO members lead guided backwoods expeditions—with a price tag of up to $500—throughout the U.S. where participants scour the forests for a look at the fabled beast.
But looking back on the trip today, Gimlin wishes he’d said no. That he’d turned away from Patterson that day at the service station and never looked back.
That trip to California changed him.
“It ruined me.”
By 1972, Patterson had died. Gimlin alone faced the scourge of detractors that were emerging around the country—some even confronted he and his wife in their hometown. Yakima was the place where Gimlin had become known for his fearlessness and strength, and suddenly he was a seen as crazy. His word, his handshake—currency around this part of the state—was in doubt.
“My wife was a teller at a savings and loan institution. Of course, she was sitting right there and the public would come in and make smart remarks,” Gimlin says. “This went on and on and on until she come home crying. She’d say, ‘I’m not tough enough.’ A couple times we were going to split up over this.” I found myself wondering if his wife died or finally left him, because we never hear from her – and the depiction of Bob in rancher retirement mode farther down sounds as if he’s on his own. Nope, Judy and Bob Gimlin are still together, but there’s a reason she isn’t in the story. When I would call the Gimlins at home, Judy would usually answer the phone, and more than once I asked if we could talk. She said no every time and handed the phone off to Bob. Later I asked Bob if he could have Judy call me, and he said it wouldn’t happen. She wants nothing to do with the Bigfoot world. Bob travels all over the country going to conventions, giving speeches — and she never goes with him. He told me that even talking about Bigfoot is hard. “All it does is just bring up her anger,” he said. Those years that people harassed them over what Bob saw and believed were tough on him, but from the sound of it, even tougher on her. For Bob, he’s found a community of people who, too, are Bigfoot believers. That helps him. I still wonder if Judy feels on her own over the whole thing — like it’s this weird world she didn’t choose to be a part of, and yet she’s intrinsically tied to it because of Bob.
Some nights, cars would screech by the Gimlins’ house. “They’d come driving in my driveway all times of the night and go ‘Bob! We want to go out Bigfoot hunting!’” he says. They’d speed away before he could run outside.
The couple felt isolated, and Gimlin found himself for the first time in the predicament that came to define his life for decades: if he acknowledged that he saw Bigfoot, he was the town loon; if he stayed quiet, people assumed he was lying. Did you talk to any of his neighbors, friends, townfolk? If so, what made you decide to leave them out? Yes, I talked to lots of them — in particular, two of his closest friends. Both adore Bob. One believes Bob saw Bigfoot, the other totally thinks it is a hoax he made up. Originally they were in the story, but in the end I think we just had to cut them out for space.
“I can understand why they don’t believe in it—because I didn’t believe it either,” Gimlin recalls telling John Green, a prominent Canadian Bigfoot researcher, on a phone call during this period. “But I saw one. And I know what I saw. And I know it wasn’t a man in a suit. It couldn’t have been!”
In 1968, the year after Patterson and Gimlin returned, the Gimlins swore to never speak of Bigfoot again. But the video was out, and Gimlin was—and remains—stuck to the center of the debate, anchored like the sun in a growing solar system with believers and skeptics orbiting around him. You have some fun analogies in this piece. How’d you come up with this one and were there others you rejected? I’m glad you liked it. This was the analogy that popped up in my head when I started to physically map out all of the places in the Northwest where there had been notable Bigfoot sightings. It was crazy to me that as Bob was staying silent over Bigfoot, all of these sightings were popping up around him: in Western Washington, in the Cascades, up by the Canadian border, through Oregon and the Columbia Gorge. As he sat still and disengaged from that world, it continued to move around him.
Reports of sightings filtered in from all over the Northwest. Bigfoot was traipsing through lush coastal woods and rocky mountainsides in Oregon. Its glowing red eyes peered from the understory in Olympic National Forest in Washington. It stalked the Dark Divide, the massive roadless area between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. It ran across a road near Vancouver. It left footprints in the snow outside Walla Walla.
Believers cropped up in Texas and Ohio, then as far afield as New York, Georgia, and Florida. In the past 40 years, people have produced supposed Bigfoot hairs, DNA tests, footprints, and piles of scat—not to mention the countless photographs and video clips (most of which have turned out to be hoaxes)—as scientific evidence of the creature’s existence. Did Gimlin offer any thoughts on why seemingly nobody else has been able to capture this creature on film or produce other solid evidence? Yes. Essentially, he thinks that people are looking too hard. That’s the reason he thinks he and Patterson saw the thing: They were — and I’m paraphrasing here — just riding in the woods, enjoying the scenery, not thinking about their original mission. He thinks Bigfoot will show itself again, just when nobody is expecting it. I also asked him if he believes each and every crackpot that comes up to him at these Bigfoot conventions and shares their story of the Bigfoot they saw. Does he ever doubt them? Does he think a lot of Bigfoot people are weird? He sort of shrugged that off. The feeling he gets when he’s in these places with other believers — I think it’s a lot like being in church to him. It doesn’t matter if these people have seen proof of God. If you really believe, you don’t need to fact-check other people’s stories. I found that fascinating. To many, the notion of “belief” is irrelevant among the myriad stories, sightings, and artifacts.
“No, I don’t believe in Bigfoot,” says Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology and anatomy professor at Idaho State University who is one of the foremost experts on foot morphology in the world. He was 11 years old in 1968 when he watched Patterson-Gimlin’s Bigfoot walk across the screen at the Spokane Coliseum in Eastern Washington. Today, he’s the keeper of the largest archive of Bigfoot footprint casts and author of the book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. “Belief usually connotes a position of faith, a conviction held in the absence of evidence,” Meldrum says. “I, for one, am convinced by the evidence I have studied at length.”
Cynics, however, don’t just question the “evidence,” they question Patterson’s and Gimlin’s credibility. In 2004, Greg Long, author of one of the most oft-cited pieces of skepticism about the Patterson-Gimlin Film—a book called The Making of Bigfoot—taunted Gimlin from the final pages of his book: “Will he ever confess?” Long wrote. What are Long’s credentials? Long is an interesting guy too. In the introduction of his book, he writes about how he’s also in love with stories of unexplained phenomena: Bigfoot, UFOs — all the good stuff. He moved up to Washington and was at work researching some weird lights in the sky that he’d heard reports of near Yakima. He told me he simply mentioned the Patterson-Gimlin Film to someone he was interviewing and they pointed him to the supposed guy who wore the suit. From there, he made it his job to interview everyone he could about Patterson and Gimlin to debunk their story. But he never talked to Gimlin himself.
“I’m going to be blunt with you,” Long said recently over the phone. “I consider Bob Gimlin a liar. I think he’s a con artist.”
But Long’s arguments seem just as flimsy as believers’ proof. His book is filled with circumstantial evidence: a costume maker named Philip Morris in the early 2000s said he sold Patterson the suit but couldn’t provide any evidence of the sale; a Yakima man named Bob Hieronimus said he was the one that wore it. Neither claim is backed by concrete proof. You summarize the debate over Bigfoot in just a few graphs. Is that because it’s been hashed and rehashed so many times? I felt like this story could have lost focus really quickly. The point of it, to me, wasn’t to prove if Bigfoot existed, wasn’t to weigh both sides of the debate. It was to tell the story Bob Gimlin hadn’t told before. So anytime, for example, the story was weighing too heavily on the story of Roger Patterson, I had to steer it back on course. There are entire bookcases at my local library filled with books on the topic — I wanted to make sure I was adding something new to this well-traveled topic.
“‘They can’t exist, therefore they don’t exist,’” is the message Meldrum has received from skeptics, he says. “That was the actual retort hurled at me by an anthropology colleague.”
With Bigfoot having grown into an industry, Long says there’s no reason to believe anyone invested in the debate is telling the truth. “They need it to be real,” he says. The people who truly believe and search, he adds, “are driven emotionally, I believe, to find Bigfoot.” Is it true that lots of Bigfoot believers also gravitate toward UFOs and various conspiracy theories? Did you make a decision not to touch on the psychology of these folks? My assessment is: If you’re willing to entertain one unexplained phenomenon, you’re willing to entertain them all. Again, in trying to keep this story a reasonable length, there were certain things I just couldn’t fit in. Getting too much into other Bigfoot stories and theories and people was going to take the focus off of Bob Gimlin, and I wanted to make sure he was the core of the story.
In the face of skepticism and mockery, a large community of believers views Gimlin as the original seer: the man who witnessed the unthinkable, who lived to tell the tale, and who has been harassed for what he swore was real. These people congregate at Bigfoot conventions around the world to swap stories, trade evidence-gathering techniques and commune with kinfolk. Together they can be “out” about their beliefs.
Gimlin first appeared at a convention in California in 2003. Through his years of silence, Gimlin maintained contact with several prominent Bigfoot aficionados, including Swiss researcher Rene Dahinden and a Russian author named Dmitri Bayonov. After years of urging Gimlin to come to Russia to speak about the film, Bayonov arranged to come to America. With Green’s help, the pair convinced Gimlin to attend the Willow Creek International Bigfoot Symposium: an event that promised to bring all the biggest scientific names into one room (including Jane Goodall, a primatologist and Bigfoot believer, who canceled her appearance last minute) in the very same area where Patterson and Gimlin made their film decades before.
To Gimlin, walking into the conference was like entering a church. “It’s not a fairy tale to them. It’s serious business,” he says. “When I met those people down there, they accepted me with what you call open arms.”
There, Gimlin spoke of Bigfoot for the first time in years. “There wasn’t a sound in the room while I was talking,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can’t really believe this. This is almost like seeing Bigfoot.’ God, I felt like I was 10 feet tall.”
When he finished, the room rose to its feet.
“They just stood up and applauded and applauded,” Gimlin says. “I thought, ‘Why have I gone 35 years through a bunch of ridicule?’”
Gimlin appears at conventions across the country. He signs shirts and plaster foot casts, tells and retells the story of he and Patterson’s encounter. He is no stranger to standing ovations.
“They want to talk to me, they want to tell me about their experience,” he says. “This turned my whole life around.”
At home in Central Washington, however, Gimlin is no celebrity. When I visited him this past spring, we took a drive through Wapato, just south of Yakima, to see the house where he grew up, only to find a field of weeds where it once stood. His high school is gone, too. Panaderias and taquerias dot the streets he once knew. As he idled on one street, people on the sidewalk turned to look at the cowboy in his truck, staring at him as if he’d just dropped in from outer space.
Gimlin’s days are typical retired-rancher stuff: he wakes at 5 a.m. every morning on his modest 1,500-square-foot home that sits on two acres in town. He leases land around the Yakima area where he grazes his seven horses. He mows his pastures on a riding mower and tends to his garden of cucumbers and tomatoes. At night he watches UFC fights. He’s a member of several local equestrian clubs.
Three days a week, Gimlin drives his black pickup—one with a Bigfoot sticker in a tinted back window and Bigfoot air freshener tucked into a cup holder—into town for physical therapy. Nice details. I hope the air freshener doesn’t smell like the Bigfoot Gimlin encountered. Ha! I didn’t ask to smell it since it was still in the packaging. Maybe it really does smell bad! In the 1990s, Gimlin was bucked off a horse and told by a doctor he’d never ride again. “I proved I could do it,” he says. But then, in the early 2000s, he went sailing off another horse. He had his bicep removed from his left arm and nearly lost all ability to use it. He lifts light dumbbells now, an attempt to regain some feeling.
Every couple of months, he travels to address another congregation of the faithful. People of every age and shape packed inside a Portland beerhall on a Friday night this past January to see Gimlin speak. He told the story he’s told a hundred times before, from the beginning: bumping into Patterson at the service station; the bright fall leaves; the creature glancing over its shoulder; the conversation at Patterson’s bedside hours before he died.
Afterwards, Gimlin stuck around to take pictures and sign autographs. A boy in a red plaid shirt and a cowboy hat holding a 16mm Cine Kodak camera—like the one used to shoot the Patterson-Gimlin film—and a plaster footprint cast approached him for a photo. Did you recognize the camera type, or did Gimlin point out it was the same? I noticed the kid was making a big deal out of showing it to people, and he posed for pictures with Gimlin while he was holding the camera. Later, when I found his Instagram account, I was able to see he had other pictures of the camera up close, so I could confirm it was the same model.
A few months later, while doing research for this article, I absentmindedly search “#pattersongimlin” on Instagram. A familiar face pops up on my screen. It’s that boy in the cowboy hat from January who got a photo with his hero, Bob Gimlin.
The boy’s account is practically devoted to Bigfoot. There are photos from the Portland event, old pictures of Roger Patterson, shots of book covers adorned with furry beasts and more of giant foot casts on his bedroom carpet.
It’s just one small example of Gimlin’s outsized impact on American lore. The Internet has exposed people to the Patterson’s and Gimlin’s journey in ways unimaginable to Gimlin, and continues to enchant new generations of believers. Whether or not any of the stories are true, Bigfoot is alive and well. In large part, that’s because Gimlin, the non-believer, an unlikely champion of the myth, helped catch a glimpse of it on film.
In one post, the boy splits the frame in thirds, filling each with photos of Roger Patterson’s gravestone. “We never forget he was our Bigfoot hunter,” he writes. A portion of another caption reads: “I met Bob Gimlin…it was a best day ever #bobgimlin.” What led you to finish with the boy instead of your central character, Gimlin? If you hadn’t stumbled across the kid online, did you have another ending in mind? Yes. The original ending I had didn’t work for a few reasons, but chief among those was that it provided a jump back in time. And ultimately my editor thought a time shift this late in the story was too confusing — and I agree with him. I think this ending shows how Gimlin’s impact will continue on long into the future. He doesn’t use the Internet, he doesn’t know what Instagram is. It’s just proof to me that if the Patterson-Gimlin legend could last this long — nearly 50 years — it’s going to continue to get passed on from generation to generation. I thought that was kind of cool.