Michael Rugg was four years old when he saw the Bigfoot. He’s been chasing them ever since.
Behind the desk of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton, California, its curator, the hirsute, bespectacled cryptozoographer Rugg, stands encased in a womb of Bigfoot memorabilia. “My parents tried to talk me out of it. They said it was a tramp. So it was a repressed memory. I know the Bigfoot are real. I know that people see them.”
Rugg isn’t a kook. Far from it. He’s an erudite, evidence-seeking citizen scientist. He’s the Fox Mulder of Sasquatch lore. And here in Felton, he’s at the nexus of a Bigfoot homeland hidden deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Keeping Santa Cruz weird
At the edge of Santa Cruz, California, a laid-back university town known for its oceanside amusement park, is a primordial forest with a history of unexplainable phenomena and nefarious dealings. The county’s motto is literally “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”
A hundred years ago, cult leader William Riker founded Holy City for the followers of his philosophy “The Perfect Christian Divine Way,” preaching celibacy, temperance, white supremacy, and racial and gender segregation. Twenty years later, in 1939, a local electrician and inventor opened the Mystery Spot, a roadside attraction purported to be a gravitational anomaly—150 feet in diameter—that challenges the laws of physics. Twenty years after that, around 2:30 a.m. on August 18, 1961, without warning, hundreds of Sooty Shearwater birds began falling from the sky. By morning, more than 2,000 carcasses littered the ground.
And then there are the Bigfoot sightings. On a map hung on the wall of his museum, Rugg has marked with multi-colored push-pins more than a dozen locations within Felton and its immediate surroundings where individuals have spotted the creature or evidence it left behind. He has documented more than 200 of them in the 90-mile stretch between Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay.
“They’ve been hiding around here for 400 years, at least,” Rugg tells me when I visit him at the Bigfoot Discovery Museum on an uncharacteristically sunny Saturday morning in May. In 2006, Rugg converted this small art studio into a two-room center for all things Bigfoot.
In glass cases, he’s laid out a collection of figurines, board games, and comic books—special editions of The Incredible Hulk and Superboy—dedicated to the Sasquatch. In the corner, a giant, stuffed Bigfoot leans dejectedly against a display case, an arrangement of big plaster cast footprints arranged behind him.
In the museum’s inner sanctum, Rugg plays the Patterson-Gimlin Film, the holy grail of Bigfoot sightings, on loop. Shot in 1967 in northern California, near the Oregon border, the 59.5-second film shows a six-to-seven-foot tall, bipedal figure covered in dark brown hair walking along a creek bed and looking back at the filmmakers, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin.
For more than 50 years, the two have denied that the film is a hoax and several studies, including those done by a biomechanical engineer, an anthropologist, and a certified forensic examiner, have suggested that this was no ordinary human-in-an-ape-suit. “Analysis has shown that you couldn’t fit a human in this costume,” Rugg says. “There’s no place for the head; the arms and legs are the same length. Science has proven that this is not a costume.”
The film is probably the closest thing we have to proving the existence of a creature that prefers to remain elusive, but Rugg and other believers say it is by no means the only evidence they have found. In the Santa Cruz Mountains alone, several discoveries suggest that the Bigfoot are, well, afoot. Other discoveries include a “very robust” molar found in a puddle on a trail in Scotts Valley; an oversized human-like jaw bone discovered in Valencia Creek in Aptos; and a deliberately-made creche of rocks, sticks, and feathers in Ben Lomond. One local woman found a pile of acorns five feet tall on the back 40 acres of her wooded property.
“It’s impossible to know how many are around,” says Rugg, but his best guess is that at least one nuclear family group is making itself at home in land owned by the Santa Cruz Water Department above Loch Lomond, a man-made reservoir in Felton. They don’t want to be seen, Rugg tells me. They’re deliberately looking for solitude. Those that end up caught on camera, he believes, are typically juvenile males pushing the boundaries of acceptable Bigfoot behavior.
Massive ancient primates
I’m not a Bigfoot believer, but Rugg is convincing. He pulls out comparative photos and books written by professors of anthropology and anatomy. In one—The Nature of the Beast by Bryan Sykes, an Oxford geneticist—analysis reveals unexplainable anomalies in the DNA of “Yeti hair” samples collected in Bhutan.
The fact that Indigenous communities around the world have independently created myths about hairy, human-like beings—the Yeti, the Yowie, the Sasquatch, the Skunk Ape, the Yayali—is, in itself, intriguing. To explain the creature’s origin, Rugg looks to the Pleistocene era (125,000 to 14,500 years ago), a period in which megafauna, or giant animals, roamed the Earth in large numbers. “I would suggest that during that same period, humans were of that size. It’s really quite simple, somebody like us bumped into one of these and…” he trails off, hinting that humans and giant apes were interbreeding.
Later, doing some investigation of my own, I discover Rugg is right—sort of. The Gigantopithecus—massive ancient primates that may have been up to nine feet tall and over a thousand pounds—did live at the same time as modern humans. But their fossil remains, of which there are only a handful, have never been found outside of Asia.
That afternoon, hiking among the hulking Sequoia and Douglas Fir of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, my imagination runs wild. We know humans interbred with other primate species in the ancient past—people today can have up to two percent Neanderthal DNA, after all—but would our ancestors have mated with 1,000-pound hairy apes? And if there are, indeed, giant primates hiding in plain sight in forests and mountains across the globe, how have they managed to remain concealed for so long? In an era when walls and highways and logging operations have disrupted the migration patterns and survival of more than a third of the world’s known species, how could such a creature survive?
Although I’m right in the heart of Bigfoot country, it’s not a good day for a hunt. The nice weather and a festival at Felton’s famed covered bridge, the tallest in the U.S., have brought families out in droves, walking the trail and wading in Fall Creek. It’s a scene into which no Bigfoot in its right mind—not even a juvenile male—would venture.
“Very good at keeping hidden”
For all his proselytizing, Rugg has a sense of humor about his passion for Bigfoot. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous in a way,” he says. Real eyewitnesses don’t go around talking about their experiences in public, because most people don’t believe. Those conversations are saved for Bigfoot conferences (between six and 12 are held each year in the U.S.), online chat rooms, and organized hunts.
Like Rugg, many believers are looking for genuine evidence that somehow a human-ape hybrid from the past has not just survived but remained beyond the reach of human hands.
“I’ve followed cryptozoology, Forteana, UFOs, and other weirdness for over 30 years and I’m a student of a non-dualistic and pantheistic school of thought… The world is much more deep and complex than we perceive in this dimension,” Lisa Tsering, a Bay Area copy editor, tells me. She’s recently returned from a roadtrip to Mount Shasta and the “Bigfoot Scenic Byway” (California Route 96) in search of the creature. Though she found nothing this time around, she says she’s remains “wide open to the possibility that Sasquatch exists in another dimension, or that it’s a real primate that is just very, very good at keeping hidden.”
That evening, I drive the winding mountain road to Big Basin State Park in Boulder Creek just north of Felton. The air is dense with fog. On the trail, heavy drops of rain fall lazily in the gloaming. There is no one else here—at least no one of the human variety.
Big Basin was California’s first state park, a reaction to the logging industry that decimated the coastal redwoods in the late 19th century at a rate of 34 million board-feet of lumber per year. Its largest Sequoia, dubbed the Mother and Father of the Forest, stand over 250 feet tall with a circumference of over 66 feet. The trees are so sturdy that forest fires can do little more than hollow out charred cavities in their trunks.
I picture a shaggy, rain-soaked Bigfoot curled up within these oversized redwoods. If they’re here, they’ve covered their tracks well. The trail markers that Rugg believes the Bigfoot uses—piles of stones and “manipulated” trees—are nowhere to be found. It’s just another misty day in this coastal mountain range.
What I’ve found—or rather, not found—pretty much confirms my hunch: There are no hairy, eight-foot-tall mutant humans hiding in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bigfoot believers, though, are playing the long game. No single hunt’s lack of evidence is any kind of confirmation on whether the creatures exist. “I tell people the best place to be on something like this is agnostic,” says Rugg. “If you’re a real witness, it’s a profound thing.”
If you go
The Bigfoot Discovery Museum in located right by the main entrance to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. It’s is open every day except Tuesday between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Entrance is free.