On Peter Matthiessen’s Lifelong Fascination with Bigfoot
Did the Author of The Snow Leopard Have Another
Great Search on His Mind?
In the early 1980s Matthiessen’s conception of Bigfoot was guided by a man named Craig Carpenter. Carpenter, who claimed Mohawk ancestry and had many contacts on Native American reservations, began to take Matthiessen around, introducing him to more traditionally inclined Indians. Among other things Carpenter was a curator of legends about Sasquatch. The term comes from the coastal peoples of the Northwest, but numerous other Western tribes have a Big Man figure in their traditions. Perhaps because his investigations in the Pacific forests had not borne fruit, Matthiessen sought a more measured, abstract sense of Bigfoot, a creature framed by Indian myths and also by occasional portentous sightings on native lands.
The indigenous communities in the West were going through a period of consciousness-raising and political ferment. Native pride was running high. The American Indian Movement (AIM), a group of activists, had had an armed standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. An AIM leader, Leonard Peltier, was convicted of murder after two FBI agents were killed in a shootout.
Dropping the astringent, dispassionate voice of Far Tortuga and The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen wrote a series of magazine articles about white Americans’ longstanding prejudice toward and outright swindling of Native Americans in their fragmented homeland. The dispatches were collected in a book, Indian Country, published in 1984 and dedicated to Carpenter. A more controversial book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which centered on the doings at Wounded Knee and the alleged ‘‘railroading’’ of Leonard Peltier, had been published the year before, but the tendentious, 600-page work was immediately pulled from bookstores because of libel litigation. Not until 1989, the libel cases having been dismissed by the Supreme Court, did Crazy Horse become available again.
What had all this to do with Bigfoot? Although Matthiessen had gone into Indian country looking for Sasquatch, once there he was exposed to grave injustices, which wrenched his writing in another direction. That the tail may have wagged the dog can be seen in the introduction to In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. ‘‘My travels with Indians,’’ Matthiessen explains, ‘‘began some years ago with the discovery that most traditional communities in North America know of a messenger who appears in evil times as a warning from the Creator that man’s disrespect for his sacred instructions has upset the harmony and balance of existence; some say that the messenger comes in sign of a great destroying fire that will purify the world of the disruption and pollution of earth, air, water, and all living things. He has strong spirit powers and sometimes takes the form of a huge hairy man; in recent years this primordial being has appeared near Indian communities from the northern Plains to far northern Alberta and throughout the Pacific Northwest.’’
Matthiessen goes on to link Indians’ sadness about their dispossession to stories of the Big Man’s reappearances. In a meeting with Matthiessen in California, a Lakota Sioux man reports rumors of the apocalypse, ‘‘when the moon will turn red and the sun will turn blue,’’ and the Lakota will regain their proper place at the center of existence. When Matthiessen arrives at traditional Lakota territory in the Dakotas, he hears that the Big Man was sighted not long previously at a place called Little Eagle. Some people recognized the creature as a chthonic being, formerly buried by a flood and now reemerged, perhaps because of uranium mining and its pollution. Others who were given over to drink were frightened by the apparition and shot at the Big Man, not knowing what they did. At Pine Ridge, where Matthiessen’s Indian initiation, as it were, ends, the Big Man’s reappearance is seen as a response to the incarceration of Peltier. Thereafter, with one exception, the creature is not mentioned again and a long political narrative consumes the book. Matthiessen notes that the night before the controversial shoot-out, three Indian teens at the site heard a large, heavy-footed creature walking on the stones of a creek.
Matthiessen in the late 1980s returned to fiction with his Watson novels, but he continued to research Bigfoot on the side. He liked to vacation in the West in the summertime and ramble about. He’d go fly fishing in Montana with the novelist Jim Harrison. At an ecology institute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Matthiessen met John Mionczynski, a free-spirited musician, wilderness guide, and big-game biologist. They cautiously traded accounts of their personal brushes with Bigfoot. Mionczynski, who was 20 years Matthiessen’s junior, found much to admire in the writer. ‘‘He was such a deep thinker,’’ Mionczynski said. ‘‘I appreciated his insights on Zen and meditation. He was so good at explaining the reality of that. I consider him a teacher and mentor.’’
Mionczynski worked part time on a university ethnography project collecting legends and stories from Native Americans. He would bring Matthiessen along on trips to the reservations, and they’d ask the elders about the Big Man. A tale they heard at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming deeply intrigued the two investigators. Some time back a young woman on the reservation claimed to have been abducted and raped by a big hairy man. When the woman became pregnant, the tribe sent her away to Jemez Pueblo, a reservation of another tribe in New Mexico. There she gave birth to a boy who turned out to be not normal. He was sickly but also muscular. ‘‘He was not good to look at,’’ said Mionczynski, ‘‘what you used to a call a retarded child. At thirteen or fourteen years old he died.’’ Reportedly the boy was buried in a mission graveyard on the pueblo, and his mother returned to her tribe in Wyoming. A mystery turned on the boy’s grave, which had been lost or moved—what had happened to it? Mionczynski would telephone Matthiessen at his home on eastern Long Island with updates on this and other Bigfoot puzzles.
Entering his sixties, Matthiessen was preoccupied with the Watson novels. Over the course of two decades he published three and then pulled them apart and consolidated them in a fourth, the National Book Award–winning Shadow Country. Although during these years he traveled to research books about tigers and cranes, his best nonfiction work was behind him. The Bigfoot notes and drafts simmered on the back burner, neither fiction nor nonfiction. He was simply unsure. He would put himself on the line for an environmental or political cause and incur a risk, he allowed, to his literary reputation, but he would not be called a crackpot or dupe. Once at a small dinner of friends in the Hamptons, a guest told a story about seeing a green light from a UFO, which he had decided upon reflection to be a laser. The man was astonished when Matthiessen spoke up and declared that he had once seen a sasquatch run across the road into the trees. Matthiessen’s wife (he had remarried) tried to stop him from giving the details, but ‘‘he was determined to do so,’’ the guest said. The creature had jumped a tangle of stumps and logs with the ease of a deer.Although Matthiessen had gone into Indian country looking for Sasquatch, once there he was exposed to grave injustices, which wrenched his writing in another direction.
Matthiessen always felt on firmer ground with the yeti, or mehti, as he now called it, a better transliteration. In May 1992, he returned to remote Nepal at the invitation of the photographer Thomas Laird. Instead of walking, the party went by air and horseback into the wild region of Lo, where Laird took pictures of brightly clad villagers, barren landscapes, and little-known Buddhist monasteries. Matthiessen provided the text for a coffee-table book, East of Lo Monthang, published by Shambhala/Timeless Books. In it, on a 14,000-foot-high plateau, my intrepid uncle savors a bit of bread and sweetened tea, ‘‘and in this way, keeping my own counsel, I celebrate my wonderful luck at finding myself on this eminence in the clear mountain air of Central Asia and the good fortune that permits me to lead such a wayward life. I am sixty-five years old this very day.’’
Alert to the possibility of yetis, Matthiessen and his companion are told by their Sherpa porters that pastoralists have come across tracks in a nearby gorge. Matthiessen records that ‘‘numbers of such prints had been made near the salt lick a few days earlier by a mehti—the problematic creature derided in the West as the yeti, or Abominable Snowman.’’ Laird and Matthiessen demand to be taken there, the photographer more hotly than the writer, because Laird ‘‘had been grievously afflicted by the mehti fever that has struck down many a Himalayan traveller before him, myself included.’’ One of the tracks ‘‘had a strange narrow heel and also a pronounced line behind the ball of the foot, just at the arch, which distinguished it at once from Homo sapiens.’’ There were marks of primate toes in the hard sand. The prints were small, about the size of the foot of a small man, but then yetis were held to be not nearly as large as sasquatches.
A photo of the best track was duly reproduced in the book, along with credulous commentary. Unfortunately, when the photo was presented to mammalogists in New York, they agreed that the footprint was a bear’s. Yes, it was unusual for a Himalayan brown bear to roam that high. A twist of reddish-brown hair that the Sherpas averred had belonged to the mehti turned out to be horsehair. Just before the book went to press, Matthiessen inserted a block of extra text, in bold type, reporting the findings and withdrawing his statements about the tracks in the gorge.
John Mionczynski became friends with Jeffrey Meldrum, a professor at Idaho State University. Meldrum, who teaches anthropology and anatomy at the Pocatello campus, has been fascinated with Bigfoot since his teens, when he saw the Patterson-Gimlin film in a theater. Meldrum had good credentials as a researcher of bipedalism in fossil hominin species. Later he began to publish papers on putative bipedal characteristics of Bigfoot. Like Mionczynski and Matthiessen, Meldrum had had an encounter in the woods with an animal he believed to be a sasquatch. ‘‘It’s not a matter of belief,’’ he said to me. ‘‘I’ve had it brush against my tent. I’m convinced on the basis of the evidence, which admittedly is short of a holotype [a definitive specimen]. But I have over 300 footprint casts in my lab. They are biomechanically sound. So it goes beyond belief.’’
In 2005 Meldrum was preparing to publish a book, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, with an introduction by George Schaller. Mionczynski suggested that Meldrum send the galleys to Matthiessen, who was impressed, and later wrote a glowing blurb for the paperback. Then Meldrum invited Matthiessen to join him that summer in the Cascade range in Washington State. A documentary about Bigfoot was being filmed in conjunction with the book. Meldrum, Mionczynski, and others planned to poke around the Suiattle River drainage, because it was the area of a recent possible sighting. Making camp at the end of a Forest Service road, Meldrum and his team installed motion-sensitive cameras along game trails. They went out on daily forays to search for tracks.
Matthiessen was in excellent shape for a 78-year old, but he found it difficult at times to keep up. The men clambered over logs and pushed through brush. At one obstacle the younger guys physically pulled him up. ‘‘Don’t get old,’’ Matthiessen said ruefully. ‘‘Just don’t do it.’’
No sasquatch tracks were found; nothing was captured on the trail cameras except familiar animals. After about ten days Meldrum removed the cameras, and everyone in the party left but Matthiessen, Mionczynski, and a third fellow named Rick Noll.
The three went to bed. In the morning Matthiessen noticed that a large rock near the tents appeared to have been moved. It had been stood on its end, like some sort of sign, and what’s more a footprint and suggestions of additional prints were nearby. Said Mionczynski: ‘‘We walked around trying to figure out how it could have been faked. How could a bear have positioned that rock? Did someone hoax us? We didn’t find any vehicle tracks. It would have been a long walk in along the road. But we didn’t say definitely it was Bigfoot.’’
Meldrum and Matthiessen kept in touch. When he turned 80, Matthiessen seems to have decided to speak openly about his Bigfoot and yeti researches. In 2007 he gave a talk on the Pocatello campus. The title was ‘‘A Naturalist’s Perspective on the Wild Man,’’ and it covered the zoology of relic hominoid species, on the one hand, and Bigfoot stories and indigenous legends, on the other. Matthiessen gave another talk the next day before the tribal council at the nearby Fort Hall (Shoshone-Bannock) Reservation. When a gray-haired woman in the audience angrily interrupted, accusing him of coming to steal their stories, Matthiessen gently turned the tables. He was there to give them back their traditions, he maintained. He won the crowd over, and after the talk gleaned more information about the Big Man.
In 2009 he was the keynote speaker at the Texas Bigfoot Conference in the city of Tyler. ‘‘Peter Matthiessen is finally coming out in full public view with the Bigfoot beliefs I always suspected he held,’’ enthused a Bigfoot buff in anticipation. A journalist for the Texas Observer approached him for an interview. ‘‘Contemplating whether to write a book on the subject, Matthiessen paused to muse on Bigfoot and his worldwide brethren. ‘People have a need for story and myth,’ Matthiessen said. ‘Most scientists are very skeptical. And they should be. But they shouldn’t have a completely closed mind about it. Remember the coelacanth, a socalled fossil fish? It was believed to be 200,000 years extinct and then turned up 20 years ago off the Madagascar coast. I saw some myself in a tank while visiting the Comoros Islands. So, you know, stranger things have happened than Bigfoot. I’m all for mystery,’ he said. ‘I think it’s going to be a very dull world when there’s no more mystery at all.’ ’’
Now and then Jeff Meldrum and John Mionczynski pressed him, eager to know what his Bigfoot book would say. Was it a novel? When would it come out? But Matthiessen would not commit. He would only smile, and say to his two friends that he was thinking about it.
He came near to revealing his ideas in a short essay for a volume about adventure travel, Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers (2012). In the summer of 2009, aged 82, he and a boatman are about to launch a raft into a dangerous chute on a Montana river. Having volunteered to go, Matthiessen broods: ‘‘To refuse out of flimsiness and old-timer timidity what might well be my last shot at a real adventure was to face the fact that a man I used to know was gone for good.’’ He jokes to friends on the bank that they shouldn’t worry because his best work is behind him. ‘‘We laughed, of course, but there was truth in this. I was having great trouble finding the right voice for a difficult novel-in-progress, and also with a second one I sometimes fiddled with when frustrations with the first became intolerable.’’
The first novel Matthiessen mentions must be In Paradise, an uncharacteristic work that takes place in modern-day Auschwitz. The book was published in April 2014, around the time he died of leukemia. The second difficult novel must have been about Bigfoot, and may yet emerge from his papers.
In 1956, his first marriage on the rocks, a shotgun in the trunk of his car, young Peter Matthiessen took off from Long Island on a lengthy tour of America’s wild places. The book that ensued was Wildlife in America (1959), his first work of nonfiction. It contains no sasquatches and has not much to say about Native Americans. Drawing upon historical and scientific publications, and information gathered from government biologists and park rangers, the book is a ‘‘study of extinct and vanishing wildlife.’’ The author’s tone is mournful. The condor, grizzly bear, jaguar, bald eagle, passenger pigeon, crocodile, sturgeon, great auk, and many others are either going or gone. The fact that some of these creatures have, with help, regained some of their numbers would not have made Matthiessen any more optimistic about the state of the earth today.
Tenderly he tells about the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large and beautiful bird of ‘‘the dark cypress silences of southern swamplands.’’ Last seen in the 1940s, the ivory-billed woodpecker ‘‘has vanished quietly,’’ because it was overly dependent on a disappearing habitat containing large, recently dead trees. Scattered reports by people claiming to have seen the bird are ‘‘problematical, at best.’’
The story of the ivory-bill is the closest thing in American biology to the saga of Bigfoot. Was the beautiful bird with the flaming red crest and ‘‘loud, wild cry’’ truly extinct? Since Wildlife in America was published, reputed sightings of the woodpecker have never entirely ceased, while proof that it still lives has never solidified. Small-scale expeditions are forever being made. Just as a bear, standing on its hind legs, may be mistaken for a large, hairy primate, the rather common pileated woodpecker is often confused with the ivory-bill. I remember talking with Peter about the lost woodpecker one evening in the fall of 2005. I realize now that he had just come back from an encounter, possibly, with a sasquatch—the incident of the upturned rock.
A team of ornithologists had made a short, jumpy video in an Arkansas swamp of what they claimed in the journal Science to be an ivory-billed woodpecker. Another group of scientists, equally credentialed, had disputed the sighting, saying the bird was the pileated species. In our discussion Peter took the side of the ivory-bill, and I the side of the skeptics. It wasn’t exactly an argument, but I remember his irritation with his science-writer nephew, who parried everything he said. He shook his head and glared. Aldo Leopold described an old wolf he had shot as having died with a ‘‘fierce green fire’’ in her eyes. I saw Sasquatch’s embers in Peter Matthiessen’s eyes that night. Leopold continues, ‘‘I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.’’
From the July issue of The Yale Review. Used with permission of The Yale Review. Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wheelwright.