As a kid growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, my older sister and I spent hours exploring the creek behind our house. We conjured stories and played the parts. My father showed us how to form things with mud and fire them in mom’s oven. Using sticks and my bare hands, I’d dig holes on the banks of the shallow rivulet in search of dinosaur fossils, which I was convinced were my destiny to uncover.
In the summer of 1989 we moved to an apartment in Queens, New York and my tenure as a dinosaur hunter came to an abrupt end. As field research was no longer possible, my obsession was commuted to the local library and to television. At the time, my curiousity about the prehistoric began to dovetail with interests in the mythological, the supernatural, and eventually, the criminal. The 1990s were rich with resources on the subject: the X-Files, Unsolved Mysteries, an endless string of PBS educational programs, Americas Most Wanted, and news segments speculating on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. I remember being particularly enthralled by Walter Kronkite’s special on Archaeopteryx, the missing link between bird and reptile. There was no doubt in my mind that I was to become a paleontologist, and so the library became my office, where I poured over every angle and available source. But my dedication to these pursuits waned as I discovered music, graffiti, girls, and weed, and made my way through the brutal gauntlet of high school socialization, quietly relegating these interests to the naiveté of childhood.
A few weeks ago, on our way to Santa Cruz, California to report on climate change and wildfires in the region, my colleague suggested we stop by the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. I didn’t see a direct connection to the story at hand, but upon walking inside the ramshackle wooden structure, I was, with a rush of elation, transported back to the library in Queens and to the creek in Mankato, where my own scientific inquiry into the unknown and prehistoric began. No bigger than my modest living room in NYC, the museum’s walls are crammed with glass cases, reaching up to the low hanging ceilings, filled with all manner of Bigfoot ephemera: photos, magazine and newspaper covers, comic books, plaques, patches, trinkets, toys, plaster casts of footprints, and a scattering of postcards, t-shirts and stickers for sale. Behind the reception desk, a handwritten sign in front of an overstocked wall of books on Bigfoot (Sasquatch) and his mythological cohort—Yeti, Yeren, Almas, Chupacabra, Nessie—reads: “Available for use on site for students of the supernatural.”
Mike Rugg, the museum’s founder, has been researching, documenting, and collecting Bigfoot memorabilia since 1952, when he first read about massive hominoid footprints found on Mount Everest. Not long after, he claims to have had his first sighting of a cryptid hominid. He recalls reporting the encounter to his parents at the time, who told him “not to worry, it was probably just a tramp.” His interest persisted, even after graduating Stanford University in 1968, but needing to make a living and being a visual artist and musician, he opened the space that currently houses the museum as a commercial art gallery.
After a long stint as a commercial artist, Rugg, a self-taught technologist and programmer, joined the rank and file of the Dot.com boom, “pushing pixels for Silicon Valley.” When the Dot.com bubble burst six years later, he was downsized out of his position. Some years after the financial collapse, Rugg noticed that many people in his circle of cryptozoologists and enthusiasts were dying, before they were able to prove or disprove Bigfoot’s existence. To honour those efforts, he decided to transform his art gallery into a public archive—a space to share his decades-long research and inquiry into the supernatural.
Standing in the cramped main gallery, taking in a lifetime of one man’s obsessive curiosity, I wondered: does it really matter whether Bigfoot exists or not? Holding onto the sliver of possibility and our desire to explore the obscure folds of this world feels more important these flat, vapid, digital days. And so, Rugg’s labor of love registers to me as an extraordinary act of cultural preservation that helps cultivate a society that validates child-like wonder, intellectual curiosity, and an appreciation of the unknown. It comes with the personal risk of scorn and ridicule, evidenced by the hordes of travelers who stop by for a tongue-in-cheek selfie in front of the Bigfoot Discovery Center but don’t feel compelled to enter, offer a donation, or validate Rugg’s life’s work.
According to EcoWatch, University of London scientists identified 503 new species in 2020, many of which will be reevaluated, reassigned or discredited through subsequent scientific study. Every day, new species and natural phenomena are “discovered” on land, sea, and ice. It deserves acknowledgement that while humans have made extraordinary scientific advancements, and created technologies for expansive exploration, we are still largely ignorant to the intricacies of the natural world.
I’ve tasted a little of Rugg’s medicine these past couple weeks, as I’ve extolled the Bigfoot Discovery Museum to friends and strangers, most often received by an eye roll and a “Really? Bigfoot? That’s what you’re working on?” In those moments, I became the crackpot. But given that we agree on the premise of evolution, how is the existence of a cryptid hominid less incredible than the existence of God? As absurd as it may seem, Bigfoot is a metaphor for our intrinsic sense and intellectual curiousity. Rugg’s life’s work archiving the subcultures of cryptozoology and conspiracy theories is an archive of a sociocultural phenomenon that, like God, is ubiquitously present in the human imagination—infused within the art, music, written and oral histories, and creation narratives of cultures across the planet.
Rugg’s long career investigating the supernatural, or as he suggests, meta-terrestrial, has seen a number of scientists and cryptozoologists turn up at his cabin with the express purpose of discrediting his theories and casting him as a nutcase. He doesn’t seem to be bothered; he is a man grounded in the conviction of his beliefs and is willing to debate and educate. Despite his respiratory condition and macular degeneration, Bigfoot Discovery Museum is open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Mike Rugg is amenable to discussing any and all things supernatural with curious strangers.
Learn more about the Bigfoot Discovery Museum at: www.bigfootdiscoveryproject.com/