Shane Carpenter is a reluctant believer. The former MMA fighter and gym owner had his first encounter when he was 10. He was walking an uncle’s Missouri property, looking for a lost dog. After taking a few steps into the woods, “I had this feeling of being watched,” he recalls on a warm October Saturday. “Like, a physical sensation. Then this thing steps out from behind a tree, 30 feet away.”
Carpenter, now 45, is standing in a field turned overflow parking lot, in rural southeast Oklahoma. The creature was upright, bipedal, and covered in black hair, he continues. For a 10second eternity, the two gazed at each other. “There was a human quality behind its eyes,” he adds. Then the creature turned and walked over a hill and disappeared. For years afterward, nothing could entice Carpenter back into the woods.
Carpenter has been curious about Bigfoot ever since, and he now wants solid proof that the creature exists. That’s why he has driven from Springfield, Missouri, to the Honobia Bigfoot Festival and Conference, a two-day Sasquatch salon of sorts, held annually at a campground about 200 miles east of Oklahoma City. He’s mindful that Bigfoot believers fall along a spectrum. He wants to keep his distance from the true whackjobs—the folks who say that Bigfoot can turn invisible and has mastered space and time travel. Carpenter just wants the truth.
AS NONEXISTENT CREATURES go, Bigfoot has had a helluva run. A thousand years ago, indigenous people were painting his likeness onto rocks, and he remains a fixture on television and in movies to this day. A contingent of kooks has long maintained that the creature exists. But in recent years, as QAnon, flat-earthers, Area 51 raiders, and other conspiracy theorists have gained traction, Bigfoot has captured the interest of a burgeoning number of regular people, like Carpenter. At least 10 states now have annual festivals, with two having started since 2017. The Bigfoot festival here in rural Oklahoma is among the longest-running. It began in 2005 and now draws a few thousand people to Honobia (population: about 70). Festivalgoers gather to share encounter stories, attend seminars, and camp in Sasquatch country. “We’re in the middle of nowhere,” says Jolly Winsor, one of the festival organizers. “You’re lucky if your phone works. No gas stations, ATMs, or stores.” What the town does have are churches, deer, and Bigfoot sightings. There have been dozens over the years.
It would be easier to dismiss Bigfoot believers if they all wore tinfoil hats. But that’s not the case when you walk around the festival. Most people have jobs, kids, and minivans, and are exceptionally kind. They wander among the vendor booths scoping out the T-shirts, Bigfoot research kits, tomahawks, and turquoise earrings.
Throughout the day, crowds file into a conference center for seminars led by Bigfoot experts. They include Igor Burtsev, a Russian “hominologist” who’s been researching Bigfoot since 1965. He spends months at a time in the field, investigating supposed encounters. During his talk, he explains how in Mongolia he found ponies whose manes were tangled in a peculiar way that, in his view, clearly pointed to Bigfoot. (His logic is, unfortunately, impossible to track.) Later, a cryptolinguist plays field recordings that sound like chimpanzees trying to shake down a grocer for bananas. A cryptozoologist then drones on about Bigfoots’ pillarlike legs. (Crypto sounds hightech, but in this world, it just means that you’re trying to substantiate something no one else has.) All of the speakers, as it happens, have books for sale.
The degree to which the attendees buy into these talks, and into Bigfoot in general, varies. “I’m not a Bigfoot believer,” I overhear a guy in mirrored sunglasses say. “I’m a Bigfoot knower.” Later, when I ask Larry Harkey, a retired truck driver, whether he believes, he says, “Don’t tell anybody, but not really.” He comes to the festival just for the fun of it.
The skeptics and the zealots do share a sense of humor about the whole thing. Popular T-shirt phrases include “World’s Hide-N-Seek Champion” and “Bigfoot Has Pictures of Me But Nobody Believes Him, Either.” There’s even a guy in a Bigfoot Lebowski shirt, bearing a cartoon of a furry creature in a bathrobe and shades, hoisting a White Russian. “I’m the Squatch, Man,” it reads.
THERE’S BEEN A LOT of handwringing recently about how we live in a posttruth era, in which facts are meaningless and misinformation threatens to topple Western civilization as we know it. The Bigfoot crowd doesn’t dwell on such concerns.
After lunch, among a circle of trucks and campers, I find Kurt Stanley, the founder of a Bigfoot group called the North Canadian River Project. He’s sitting in the shade of an RV. He used to play bass in a hairmetal band and now works as a real-estate property manager.
He says that his first sighting was in 1988, while he was bass fishing with a buddy in an Oklahoma reservoir. “We rounded a little bend,” he says, “and there it was by a tree, 13 feet away.” The creature may have been a juvenile: It stood six and a half feet tall, compared with the normal seven to nine feet. It had reddish hair, Stanley adds, and a “dangly little penis.” That ain’t no suit, he recalls thinking. He was too amazed to be afraid.
He kept fishing nonchalantly, to avoid spooking it. When he finally alerted his friend, the guy turned and screamed. The Bigfoot ran on two legs, then vaulted over a brush pile and landed on all fours. “It was fast on two legs,” Stanley says. “On four, it was just a blur.”
The armchair sociologist in me wants to draw zeitgeisty connections between Bigfoot’s popularity surge and growing suspicions about a deep state and government cover-ups. Stanley has a different explanation: Bigfoots, he says, are expanding their range, “so you’ve got many more sightings these days and from reputable people—cops, preachers, park rangers.” To be sure, though, the government doesn’t want people to know about Bigfoot. Just look at how the endangered northern spotted owl brought logging to a halt in the Northwest. “This area is made up of huge timber-company forests,” he says of Honobia. “Imagine those companies not being able to cut their land. No way they want that happening.”
Throughout the day, I’m never in jeopardy of being convinced that Bigfoot is real. But guys like Stanley do make me consider it. If they’re crazy, they’re a convincing kind of crazy. They’ve cued in to the fact that, though there’s no evidence that Bigfoot is real, there’s no evidence that he isn’t, either. The believers don’t sweat this lack of proof. Besides, gathering with friends in the woods to chase Bigfoot is a lot more fun than having to reckon with legitimate conspiracies, like regulatory rollbacks or systemic inequality. And, ultimately, the true believers are so firm in their convictions that they don’t care whether you believe them.
AT THE END of the day, I run into Shane Carpenter, the former MMA fighter. Turns out, he started investigating Bigfoot well before this weekend. In 2013, while hiking with his wife and three sons in Missouri, he was overcome with the same sickening feeling of being watched as when he was 10. Please don’t let this be what I think it is, he thought. He spotted three heads looking at him from behind a brush pile. The Carpenter family quickly skedaddled. This time, though, Shane was determined not to be afraid. He went back to the spot the next day, then kept going back. He says he took a “Jane Goodall approach”—nonconfrontational, walking the same trails at the same time of day, leaving food, showing that he wasn’t a threat.
He had more encounters and got hooked. He closed his MMA gym, took a flexible construction job, and devoted as much time as he could to recording his encounters. He even has a documentary in the works, titled In the 400. He explains this all to me matter-of-factly, as if it were a completely normal thing to do. But he knows the futility of trying to convince guys like me and doesn’t try. He believes in what he’s seen.
This story appears in the March 2020 issue, with the headline “The Bigfoot Believers.”