The tattoo of a Les Paul guitar sprouting a pair of bat wings twitches on Michael Cook's forearm as he fires up another Marlboro Light. He blows out a plume of smoke and looks off in the distance from the back porch of the Symes Hotel, eyes narrowed as he relates, perhaps for the thousandth time, his encounter with a Bigfoot.
"When he was coming down the mountain it sounded like somebody threw a car down the hill," he says in a soft Kentucky drawl. The creature tumbled down the hillside and plunged into a 5-foot-deep pool in the river where cook had been fishing. "When it stood up, the water came up to here," he says, indicating a spot near his sternum. Cook watched the beast shake off, then wipe water from its eyes. It gave a grunt, then held its hands and arms up above the water as it waded ashore and strode back up the hillside. "The whole sighting was maybe two minutes."
Fifteen years later, he's one of the featured speakers at the Big Sky Bigfoot Conference in Hot Springs. It took Cook a full year, he says, to accept that what he saw was real. Since establishing the Kentucky Sasquatch Team in 2011, he and his plucky band of investigators have followed up on more than 340 Bigfoot sightings. He's something of a celebrity in the Sasquatch world, having been featured on the History Channel's "MonsterQuest" and NatGeo's "Bigfoot: The New Evidence." Here at the conference he's signing autographs for $5 a pop.
The crowd is a mixed bag of retirees, college-age kids, hippies, Native Americans, camo-clad outdoors types, a few New Agers festooned in beads and crystals—basically the same mob you'd see at any Walmart. The atmosphere is festive and relaxed. These cryptozoology buffs are comfortable among their own, and they can swap their stories and theories freely without the fear of being labeled a crackpot, or worse. This fear keeps most people from telling anyone about their sightings, Cook says.
"Nationwide, 70 percent of all sightings go unreported," he claims without explaining exactly how they can quantify unreported reports.
The lobby of the hotel is crammed with booths selling T-shirts, stickers, books, beer cozies and replica plaster casts of footprints left by our favorite cryptonid. One of these casts is taken from a silicone mold made from the print purportedly left by the most famous Bigfoot of all, the iconic creature captured on film in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. That one-minute strip of 16mm film has been scrutinized more than any footage not shot by someone named Zapruder, and the debate still rages as to its authenticity. The creature is known among Bigfooters as Patty, a female, as prominent breasts are evident in the image.
Bigfoot fiction is represented by a couple of authors in attendance, and they're doing brisk business moving autographed copies of their self-published books. Flesh and Fury, by Columbia Falls writer Misty Allabaugh, features a killer Bigfoot named Churel and his kind-hearted clan member, Red. "People contact me and tell me they love the book," she says. Her next stop: a Bigfoot expedition in Texas.
Becky Cook (no relation to Michael) has collected Sasquatch stories over the years, and published them in Bigfoot Lives ... In Idaho and Bigfoot Still Lives ... In Idaho. Even with today's technology, she says, it's easy to accept that a creature can exist in the wild without detection. "There are 80 planes missing in the Pacific Northwest," she says with a shrug.
Ed Brown, who hosts a popular online show called "Sit Down With Ed Brown," has been tapped to emcee the conference, and he's quite certain Bigfoot is out there. Between raffle announcements and speaker intros, he tells me of an Oregon friend who ran into a Bigfoot on the trail. "He shat his pants," he says. The Bigfoot, comically, tried to hide behind a skinny tree.
Late in the afternoon, Brown introduces the featured speaker, Brian "Duke" Sullivan, the founder of the Montana Bigfoot Project. Duke is another Bigfoot celebrity, judging by the swift appearance of phones snapping his photo. As a slideshow of blurry Bigfoot photos and fanciful illustrations cycles on the screen behind him, he tells the rapt crowd, "I don't believe in cloaking or interstellar travel. Bigfoots do not project light from their eyes." Like most of the folks here, he takes the subject seriously, but with a sense of humor. "Welcome to the world of Bigfoot intelligentsia," he says. "Michael Cook will teach you the secret handshake on the way out."
Everyone here has either seen Bigfoot or knows someone who has. The creature, meanwhile, continues to evade capture, the discovery of a corpse or even a decent photograph. That doesn't put a dent in the faith of these 'Squatchers.
"Not everything you see in the woods," says Sullivan, "is going to be something you recognize."