A guide to the wildlife of northern California will invariably include black bears, mule deer, maybe some spotted owls. What won’t you find? Sasquatches. These legendary, bipedal apes are—according to most scientists—mere folklore. But that doesn’t keep a tight-knit community of believers from fervently arguing they’re real.
“They call themselves ‘Bigfooters,'” says David Williams, who documented a gathering of the faithful in Willow Creek, California last month. The attendees were obsessed with all things Sasquatch, and Williams, well, he was obsessed with them. “They’re all so passionate,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to come out as saying they believe in it because they don’t want to be ridiculed or laughed at, but these people are totally out in the open about it.”
The Bigfooters were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Patterson-Gimlin film, a 59.5-second slice of footage they hold up as evidence the cryptids aren’t just folklore. It’s named for Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, a couple of ranchers who rode through Del Norte county, California, on October 20, 1967 looking for Sasquatch footprints, and actually found a live one—or so they believed. Patterson whipped out his 16mm Cine Kodak camera and filmed the hairy, 7-foot-tall creature, back hunched and long arms swinging as it bolted across Bluff Creek.
Since then, people across the country have claimed their own Bigfoot encounters, producing no end of photos, sound bites, and even carcasses as proof the beast is real. But the Patterson-Gimlin film remains the most famous. “It’s still the best piece of evidence they have all these years later that Bigfoot exists,” William says, “which is crazy, because technology has evolved so much. I’m like, ‘Why don’t you guys just put 100 GoPros in the forest and you’ll find it?’ But they claim Bigfoot can sense that kind of stuff and won’t go around cameras.”
It’s not a subject that particularly enthralled Williams until one weird night this past September, when he and his wife were driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park and stopped at a small-town bar for a drink. The bartender asked if they believed in Bigfoot, and Williams replied he didn’t see the harm. A nearby patron sporting several Bigfoot tattoos quickly scurried out to his car, returned with a cast of a huge, flat footprint, and told them about the upcoming event in Willow Creek. “I was like, ‘Man, if everyone at this conference is as cool as this guy, it’s going to be really interesting,” Williams says.
Three weeks later, Williams made the six-hour drive to Willow Creek, a secluded town of just 1,700 people nestled in the forest of the Klamath Mountains, a couple hours south of the film site. It’s the first place Patterson and Gimlin stopped after recording the footage and has subsequently embraced the title of Bigfoot Capital of the World. Williams stayed at the Bigfoot Motel, its lobby presided over by a statue of Chewbacca. Naturally, the town also has a Bigfoot book shop, restaurant, and dollar store, plus a massive mural on the side of an Ace Hardware showing humans and Sasquatches peaceably cohabitating. Footprint casts and related newspaper clippings fill the local museum.
“It’s just a place where people live, where this thing just happened to happen 50 years ago, and it kind of took over,” Williams says.
The conference kicked off on a Friday evening at the veteran’s hall in Willow Creek and continued at a bigger venue in nearby Eureka the next day. It drew more than 100 people from as far away as Nebraska, Ohio, and Massachusetts—including the great Bob Gimlin himself. At 86, he frequents Bigfoot events when he isn’t breaking in horses at his ranch in Washington. Attendees toasted the legendary cowboy, shopped Bigfoot T-shirts and footprint casts, and listened to a handful of experts expound on Sasquatches. One authority detailed the food they might eat in different parts of the country where they have been sighted. Another analyzed their walk and how it can’t possibly be human.
Williams found it all interesting, but he was even more fascinated by the colorful scenes and characters he photographed as he wandered around the room. He used a DSLR with a harsh, off-camera flash. It makes everything and everyone look like a deer caught in the headlights—or maybe, if you’re a believer driving through a California forest after dark, a Sasquatch.