For years, I’ve thought that the Catskills needed a monster, a rarely-glimpsed beast lurking beyond the boundaries of science and reason that would reaffirm these mountains as a wilderness still wild enough to harbor mysteries and dangers to those hubristic enough to believe that we’ve conquered nature. Lake Champlain has Champie, its giant serpent. New York City has alligators in the sewers. What the Catskills needs is an eight foot tall hairy beast with a massive chest and bad breath. “You mean a Woodstock hippie?” a wit once replied to my request. No, I mean a Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, or whatever species of half-man, half-ape you prefer. We did come close with the indie horror flick, Wendigo, filmed by Larry Fessenden in Olive and Phoenicia. I enjoyed that figure of Native American myth so much that I wrote a poem.
The Life of the Stag
You nibbled sharply on my lips, testing,
“You just want a girlfriend to help you carry logs.”
I held you bony and damp in my lap,
studied the cheek mole you said children loved to touch.
“And go to the movies with,” I said.
Your black Manhattan jeans lay dropped
on the fire rug by my rubber-soled Wolverines.
Smoke leaked from the wood stove like a cigarette.
In the morning we snowshoed Cross Mountain.
I showed you beech trees graffitied by bear claws
the size of our hands, and told you my story:
after the Hoboken divorce, I chose these mountains,
hung a Cherokee bear mask by my door,
filled my pencil holder with wild turkey feathers,
wrote my first ode to porcupines.
Then I found my Inner Wendigo,
named after the Indian spirit in a low-budget movie
shot one winter by our reservoir.
Half-deer loaded with antlers like bone chandeliers,
half-human in buckskin leggings,
this creature hurdled like an Olympian
through the midnight forest, while strobe lights
flashed beech trees, fierce as totem poles.
“And what was the Wendigo chasing?” you asked.
“The same old story,” I said, “revenge.”
We kissed, turning me back into a man.
The point of Wendigo, of course, is that we mess with Mother Nature at our peril. If we push too far — and we always push too far in the movies — the Wild Spirits will rise out of hiding to take their revenge. (Fessenden later took this idea up to the arctic for a global warming horror movie in which powerful ghost-like figures appeared like vapors from the melting tundra.) These monsters teach us humility in the face of Nature which still has sharp teeth and a stern code of justice. When up against a Wendigo or a Bigfoot our lawyerly weaseling does us no good. We either learn to back off like the movie’s heroic survivors, or we get demolished in the most gruesome and entertaining of ways. It’s not by chance that the word “Fracking” sounds suspiciously like “Frankenstein.” The opponents of hydraulic fracturing knew how to monsterize this drilling technology. But the monster I long for is different, a creature of reclusive nobility who will remain rumor and myth so long as we respect the Catskills wilderness as a place of potent mystery, rather than as a natural resource under our managerial control. This Bigfoot wouldn’t be an endangered species. He’d be the Lord of the Unknown. He wouldn’t engender our sympathies. He’d scare us half-to-death.
Alas, the old adage has proved true: be careful what you wish for. The Catskills Bigfoot has arrived. And I don’t like him. In fact, the Weekly World News first reported his capture on September 8, 2008 under the headline, “Bigfoot Captured in Catskills.” Did you miss the news? So did I until a recent Google search. Here’s why. “The scientific community’s eagerness to study the captured Bigfoot has been frustrated by the Department of Homeland Security. The towering humanoid vanished after the anti-terrorist organization took him into custody in the belief that he has ties to Al Qaeda.” Okay, cue the laugh track. The grungy Bigfoot photographed by the Weekly World News looked like he should have played a wino in Planet of the Apes. So much for my romantic notion that our beast be the descendant of worthy creatures like Grendel in Beowulf, the powerful if tragically doomed master of the forbidden forest. This ape man was campy P.T. Barnum.
And now Bigfoot has gone upscale. A recent article in Hudson Valley Magazine, that purveyor of fine writing and snobbish lists for Best Restaurant, Best Dentist, etc, reports that our region has become a hot spot worthy of an episode on the Discovery Channel’s Finding Bigfoot. Though written with the bemused tone of suspended disbelief, the article does attempt to give the true believers their due. At one point the writer joins “the lead investigator for the New England region of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization” on a bushwhack up the back side of Slide Mountain, one of the wildest regions in the Catskills, where, apparently, there had been “word-of-mouth reports of a sighting” “four or five years ago.”
What were they looking for? “Twisted branches in the tree line seven to nine feet from the ground, stick or rock formations, bedding areas, and of course — the Holy Grail of evidence, short of an actual sasquatch itself — footprints or other impressions,” the article’s author, Gene Lormoriello, wrote. “That day, we discovered no telltale signs of the elusive Bigfoot.”
How pathetic, I thought. They wasted a perfectly good adventure, an immersion in the Catskills wilderness that all too few people experience, on an inane quest for a tabloid fantasy. And then I wondered why I’ve spent so long advocating for a Catskills Bigfoot myself. Doe he represent the true wild man I’d like to become? Unfettered , unshaved, unsocialized in the extreme? If he’s out there, I wish he’d sue. The photo of him in Hudson Valley Magazine couldn’t be more demeaning. It shows a character in what looks like fat furry pajamas marching smartly across the Hudson River Walkway bridge in Poughkeepsie. He looks like a greeter for a children’s birthday party. No, the Bigfoot we need should be the ferocious guardian of the places we dare not go. His breath should stink of savagery. He should send us running back down the rocky hillsides to the safety of our valley communities. He should put our techy arrogance to shame. He should eat Boy Scouts for breakfast. He should do all kinds of things, except to reveal himself to humorists and photographers.