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"This thing that's out here, it's got a lot of medicine, it's got a lot of power to it. Spiritually, they can take you."
-- Mel Skahan, a member of the Yakima Nation tribe and a Bigfoot guide
The world, she's flat.
Everyone knows that.
Except for maybe crazy Chris down the street. He thinks we live on a ball.
And he's going to prove it.
Fueled only by wind and courage, Chris will either sail off the end of the earth or go round and round. Do you crave adventure so much that, given the chance, you would have set sail with Chris?
Would you have stepped on the ship, or would you have stayed on shore and said, "Stupid Chris. The world is flat." And laughed.
* * * * *
"Whatever you do, don't look in their eyes. If you do come up on one of them, don't look in their eyes. That's the way they will take you."
"DO NOT go out in the woods at night; it's their time when they want to be out there. Don't scream in the woods; whatever you do, DO NOT scream in the woods."
"I'm searching for my scared scream, not that yelp you do at a scary movie but that high-pitched 'aieeee' girlie scream you do when you are really freaked."
-- Grant Stetz, sophomore wrestler, West Virginia University
There are 10 of us in the woods of West Virginia. Just regular folks -- an attorney and his wife, a business-manager type and his editor girlfriend, a retired Army tank guy who has been in all the latest wars, a massage therapist and her girlfriend, and an environmental scientist. Your neighbors, except for maybe the ex-intel officer from the National Security Agency and the state trooper who works undercover rounding up drug dealers.
Just ordinary people searching for Bigfoot. We're an expedition of regular folks, ages 19 to "don't ask," put together by Matt Moneymaker of The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.
"It's the mystery of it," says my friend Denver, the ex-NSA guy. "There's really not much stuff that we are going to find new in this world, and if there is actually some big hairy biped walking around out there, I'd like to see it for myself."
And he brought along Gen 3 night vision goggles to look for it.
* * * * *
Bigfoot, if you believe all the reports and sightings, lives Everywhere and Nowhere. And we've found Nowhere -- Pocahontas County, W.Va. "I've lived here all my life," says Keith Davis, assistant superintendent of Watoga State Park. "In the whole county, we only got four stoplights and one of those lights just blinks."
At the campground, sitting around the fire, we tell tales of a 10-foot tall, 1,500-pound legend -- of footprints, of films of it walking, of hopes to see it.
"Was it fake?" "No way." "Maybe." "Coffee's ready."
"I looked up and saw two upright things walking down the riverbank; I thought they were the guys coming back. Funny thing was I didn't see any white -- no white face, no white palms, just black. Then it dawned on me, the guys had went the other way, wouldn't be coming back this way. As I walked closer to see them, they just vanished into the woods. Gone. Damnedest thing."
-- Kathryn Willis, pilot and wife of the retired tank guy
Suddenly, from above -- between the campers and the stars -- F-15s from a nearby base shatter the quiet of the tranquil canyon. Practice runs, "over an unpopulated area," says one voice by the fire. This is not the suburbs.
The screeching of the engines disappears. We hear nothing but the stillness of the forest symphony.
Listen. It's quiet. Even the crickets, frogs and coyotes have respect for the men in the sky.
Tales under a frozen sky
Grant's Bigfoot search began as a kid in Johnstown, Pa. "Me and my friend were laying on a trampoline out in his backyard," he begins. "Too hot in the house.
"His house backs up to woods, so I'm laying there looking at the stars, getting cool, when suddenly we hear this noise in the woods. I'm thinking, 'Great, a skunk.' A devil animal, hate them. So we're laying there, about four or five feet off the ground when all of a sudden we hear this bloodcurdling scream come from the woods, above us, like 10 feet in the air.
"We jump off that damn trampoline and run into the house to tell his father, who tells us, 'Go to sleep.' Didn't seem to believe us."
Grant's search is for peace. "Sometimes when I hear something that sounds like that scream, I get up and close my dorm drapes, and, dude, I live on the fourth floor of the dorm," he says.
The flames flicker, another F-15 flies above, our talk of beasts subsides, and the whispers between new friends centers on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even in Nowhere, you can't escape reality. Monsters, it seems, can be everywhere.
* * * * *
"I pray alone" Mel whispers, head bent, eyes closed.
It's two-sock cold.
Expensive water bottle or not, the liquid turns to ice.
"I'll ask for power from the trees "
It's so cold only one leg bothers to shake. It's so dark, you can't see faces, only teeth, so you walk in single file, holding on to the coat of the person in front of you.
If they are lost, so are you.
" power from the running water of the river "
You hear only Mel's voice; you see nothing.
" power from all the animals that are out there "
We are in the middle of the forest, bringing our search right to Bigfoot. From within, a small voice says the night belongs to the forest. This is the forest's house.
And it wants you out.
" from the wind, have it come right into me, have it help me get through this evening. I'll even ask for safeness for people who walk with me." The Yakima Nation elders told Mel, "Don't go."
Stay out of the woods at night, they said. The woods belong to the thing. Don't yell, don't whistle.
He didn't listen. It's 1:45 a.m., and Mel is leading us down a small animal trail in the dark. He's whistling, and now he's about to scream.
"I was up there on that ridge, walking along by myself, and off to my left I heard footsteps, heavy footsteps; twigs snapped, branches being bent. I stopped, the noise stopped; I moved, the noise started again. It was then I said to myself, 'Whatever it is, it's tracking me.'"
-- Stephen Willis, U.S. Army tank battalion, retired
Hollywood lies. The Gen 3 night vision goggles don't make some sort of Star Wars sound when they are turned on.
The only sound is a click. Not exactly the most comforting of sounds as you wait for the CVS battery to light up the night.
"So we are almost back to camp, walked about three miles, nothing. Right before the bridge, we stop and I decide, just for jokes, to let out sort of a woof-grunt kind of sound. I do. About a second later, from above us and to the right on the ridge, something mimics the sound back to me. Wasn't a dog, wasn't a coyote. Don't know what it was. Surely wasn't a dog, though."
-- Steve, undercover state trooper
It's 2 a.m., 26 degrees. Everybody's green. Blair Witch green. Blair Witch tight-butt worried. Mel just screamed into the forest, a vocal line in the sand. We realize Mel has just invited Bigfoot to join us.
Gen 3 green shows that this extreme adventure "vacation" is not the normal week spent vacationing on the Outer Banks.
Now Mel howls. From a guy barely 5-foot-4 comes a sound reserved for those more like 10 feet tall.
Frogs are in hiding; bugs keep to themselves. The group is listening, hoping Bigfoot got the message. The personal invite.
"I'm freaked," Grant says, wrestling with his fears.
"We have some peculiar sounds here, sounds I've never heard before. I don't know what it was, but something said something," Denver says into his radio to Matt, who is at another location with other expedition members.
Suddenly, the woods fire up. Sounds everywhere.
"Time to man-up, guys," Grant says to no one in particular.
Seems Mel has been answered. From behind us, coyotes howl. From above, owls hoot, screech and somehow chatter like monkeys. And as if to protest this invasion, from down the valley, comes a cold wind.
And in the wind, rides a stranger.
"I heard something in the distance make a whoop sound. Don't know what it is, don't know," Mel says into the handheld. "Very cool" comes the speaker voice, a sentiment not echoed by those standing here.
* * * * *
"When you have somebody doing the screams, if you actually hear something scream back, you believe there could be something out there, something a little different," Denver says. "It does add a little bit to life, you know; it's just not going back and forth from work in your Toyota Corolla, it's just not the everyday, mundane things you do."
At age 10, Denver was out with gramps walking the back forty of his West Virginia homestead when they came across something "very big, very loud, crashing through the mountain laurel."
Twenty-some years later, his grandfather still doesn't say what it was, only that it was big, brown and "looked mighty unnatural," Denver reports.
So Denver's search is for Paul. "I love you, man; before you go, I hope to find it for you," he says. Like Mel, he seeks answers for ancestors.
The answers remain elusive on this trip into Nowhere, however. We walk back to the cars, a mile and a quarter in the dark, on a trail traveled by animals. The sight of the minivan never seeming so welcoming. Courage by the tailgate light. Mystery 1, Bigfoot 0. We leave the spooky feeling of the cold campfire, the pressed grass where the tents sat the only witness to our presence. We head back over switchback mountain roads to I-80-something. Four lanes, drive-throughs, cruise control and Bigfoot in our rearview mirror.
We head desperately home, where the only monsters await in the corner office.
"Maybe it's the argument between flat-earthers and round-earthers, you know," Denver says. "Maybe in our life, we are all flat-earthers a little bit. We don't want to push that envelope at all."
Ten stepped on board. They wait, counting the time to the next wind to fill their sails.
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.