The Oak Leaf reporter Sal Sandoval-Garduño and the manifestation of his inner Bigfoot confront each other after Sandoval-Garduño realized that Bigfoot was in his heart all along.
The Oak Leaf reporter Sal Sandoval-Garduño and the manifestation of his inner Bigfoot confront each other after Sandoval-Garduño realized that Bigfoot was in his heart all along.
Shannon Burrows

I Went Searching for Bigfoot and Found Myself

Morning traffic. Tax season. Las Vegas Raiders fans. This is the price we pay to live in “modern” society.

Well, I’d had enough.

My girlfriend seemed to sense my mood and recommended a weekend escape into the redwoods. Together we would drive into the mountains to revitalize, maybe even to get… hairier.

I say hairier because, while I was desperate to live the hermit lifestyle, I like my hands well-moisturized and have a grave fear of spiders. And, what do I know about living like a recluse? We realized we needed a mentor. And when we examined our options for hairy, hard-to-find mountain folk, one legend stood leagues above the rest: Bigfoot.

So we booked an Airbnb — just because Bigfoot shits in the woods doesn’t mean I have to — and off we went to our weekend getaway in Willow Creek, the Bigfoot capital of the world. 

A small mountain town located near the Trinity River in northeastern Humboldt County (specifically at 40°56’22”N 123°37’53”W), Willow Creek sits in the center of the Six Rivers National Park, surrounded by majestic, massive redwoods that lead gracefully to the pebble beaches along the Trinity River.

One might think these pebble beaches are a perfect spot to don a Bigfoot costume and record some “footage” for a documentary of the big ape. However, that’s silly, since real footage of the hairy hider has already been shot there.

The river connects to Bluff Creek, located 50 miles north of Willow Creek, known as the home to the Patterson/Gimlin film, THE definitive, one-minute-long clip famous for clearly showing the first Bigfoot caught on film.

While the authenticity of the grainy footage is highly contested, naysayers of the film are wrong since the film clearly shows a Bigfoot, not a man in a gorilla costume. The filmmakers have both maintained that the footage is real, with one of them declaring its validity all the way to his grave.

The 50-mile stretch of land between Bluff Creek and Willow Creek is renowned for dozens of Bigfoot sightings, making the area the perfect location to look for the large, unkempt wild man.

But the journey there took longer than anticipated. We had a roughly five-hour drive ahead of us from Sonoma County to the mountain town. Heading north on Highway 101, a breathtaking scene straight from the forest moon of Endor played out before us. We passed the town of Leggett and the long, rolling golden hills common to Sonoma and Mendocino counties quickly disappeared into snow-capped mountains covered with gigantic redwoods.

A comparison between the left foot of The Oak Leaf reporter Sal Sandoval-Garduño and an alleged cast of a Bigfoot print found in Willow Creek, California. (Sal Sandoval-Garduño)

Just past Leggett, my girlfriend’s 2015 Honda Civic began making a worrisome noise, as though something was stuck in the AC. As we pulled off the road, I wondered if Bigfoot himself was responsible. Could he have tampered with the car? Before the odd noise erupted, we’d been driving “slightly” above the speed limit. While the kind and gentle spirit known as Bigfoot would never intentionally cause us any serious harm, could he have used his Sasquatch sorcery to teach us a lesson?

We turned off the AC and reduced our speed, and Bigfoot’s message became evident. If we had continued speeding, we would have missed all the grandiosity that the northern section of Highway 101 has to offer. The road is littered with interesting tourist attractions.

That said, skip the Chandelier Drive-Through Tree. It costs $15 to drive through a tree, and I learned the expensive way that it’s not worth it.

Beyond the town of Leggett lies Confusion Hill, founded in 1949. This tourist attraction served as the inspiration for the Mystery Shack from the Disney Channel cartoon “Gravity Falls.” Here, for just one-third the price of driving through a tree, an intrepid traveler can experience the Gravity House, a cabin where tourists hang by their arms at an angle and watch a ball roll up a track. Some lucky few even claim to see the legendary “Chipalope,” a mutant hybrid between a chipmunk and an antelope. These antlered rats love peanuts.

The next must-stop on Highway 101 is The Legend of Bigfoot, a gift shop loaded with Bigfoot-themed paraphernalia. Here visitors can find everything from plush Bigfoot dolls and Sasquatch T-shirts to ape-man mugs, footprint keychains, elusive-creature puzzles and vials of Bigfoot’s luscious locks.

Warning: The store also contains two large velociraptor statues. Why? Unknown, but they are for sale.

A taxidermal Bigfoot, or possibly a statue located in Willow Creek, California. (Sal Sandoval-Garduño)

The last place Bigfoot would allow himself to be spotted would be along a major highway, so we veered from 101 onto the Avenue of the Giants, a road that continues north and envelops tourists in redwoods, free of charge.

This road is a slower one, with many cars driving at 35 mph, but the low speed limit ensures no one misses any of the guided stops, which mostly consist of hiking trails into the redwoods.

It was at the Mahan Plaque trail that my hunt for Bigfoot began. The trail is named after Laura and James Mahan, a dynamic duo who took it upon themselves to protect the forest surrounding the trail from loggers. In 1924, Laura physically put herself between redwoods and logging machinery while James fought the battle in the courts. Their efforts bought the Save the Redwood Organization enough time to purchase the land and save the grove.

We pulled over, parked and began hiking the trail. Realizing that walking on a designated path probably wasn’t elusive enough for Bigfoot, we took a left turn into the undergrowth. 

In short order we encountered multiple ancient redwoods with hollowed-out sections sunk into the earth about 4 feet, the perfect refuge for Bigfoot during Humboldt County’s rainy season. We were so very, very close.

At this point I heard footsteps in the distance, and intuitively knew they were Bigfoot’s. I could tell by the receding sound of the steps that Bigfoot did not intend to reveal himself to me yet, and in truth I was not quite ready to meet him myself.

We returned to the car and finished the drive to our Airbnb, ending the day’s adventure with the best-ever-made Bigfoot movie: “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot,” which starred actor Sam Elliott and his famous mustache.

That night I went to bed anxious about what the next day would bring. What if Bigfoot found my love for modern amenities, like Roombas and trains, annoying and wrote me off as another digital addict? With Bigfoot clouding my every thought, I eventually drifted off to sleep, my dreams haunted by an elusive, furry figure. 

Be cautious when driving on Trinity River Highway. In all likelihood your insurance will not cover Bigfoot-related accidents. (Sal Sandoval-Garduño)

The next morning we drove to Willow Creek. The town’s Bigfoot idolization was immediately apparent. 

A two-story-tall Bigfoot statue stood proudly outside the Willow Creek China Flat Museum, popularly referred to as the Bigfoot Museum. The museum’s star attraction was, of course, the Bigfoot exhibit, with its walls lined with enlarged photos of Bigfoot, newspaper clippings of reported sightings and stills pulled from Bigfoot-sighting films.

However, the real treasures were locked away inside glass display cases: Bigfoot footprint casts. Though they varied in size and shape, one aspect proved the same in every print: All the feet were quite big. It’s difficult to believe there’s so much debate about Bigfoot’s existence when so much evidence exists inside an official building.

Outside the museum, it was nearly impossible to take a single step down Main Street without encountering a Bigfoot-themed store or statue.

The Bigfoot Cannabis Company quite possibly sold Bigfoot-grown weed, and the large-footed lad himself prepared me a hairy steak at the Bigfoot Steakhouse. I assumed both the Bigfoot Barber and the Bigfoot Motel wanted for business — the former due to the scarcity of Sasquatches and the latter because of its shorter-than-a-Sasquatch length beds.

For such an elusive figure, Bigfoot stood in the spotlight in Willow Creek. I realized why as the town’s mellow mountain vibe began to sink in.

Outside of Bigfoot tourism, Willow Creek serves as home to roughly 2,000 families. It isn’t a party town. The residents — and Bigfoot — choose to live in the mountains because of the privacy the redwood curtain provides. It’s important to respect a town’s culture.

At this point in my journey through Willow Creek, I began to understand why Bigfoot enjoys such notoriety among Humboldt County residents: He serves as their mascot. On the outside, he represents the city-slicker view of Humboldt’s residents — as grizzled hermits who growl at out-of-towners — but as Inner Bigfoot, he represents their modest nature. 

At this point I need to confess that I didn’t embark on this trip with the sole intention of finding my inner wild man. While I did need to get away from the modern world’s woes and I enjoyed my hunt for the mythical hairy ape, I also traveled to Humboldt County to help my girlfriend film a Bigfoot mockumentary. One in which I played the starring role: Bigfoot.

Masks, or trophies of hunted Bigfoots, located in the window of Unique Boutique on Mayfair Street in Willow Creek. (Sal Sandoval-Garduño)

We drove to a local river access point, where the sun’s appearance proved a welcome contrast to the prior day’s rain. It was the perfect weather for faking Bigfoot footage, an ominous omen. Perhaps a higher power — or the hairy power — did indeed motivate this trip. Maybe something inside me had yet to be realized.

In the parking lot, I discarded my clothing and donned the furry, latex-smelling suit. From that moment onward I experienced the world through Bigfoot’s eyes, and nearby hikers saw me as Bigfoot — or just another guy in a Bigfoot costume.

We began filming on the riverbank, and in no time at all I began to melt. The suit was unbearably hot in direct sunlight; the thick hairy fabric provided almost no ventilation.

Thankfully, when I moved under the thick redwood canopy, the shade and the slight breeze cooled me. My appreciation for the redwoods skyrocketed, not only for their majestic beauty but because they kept me from drowning in sweat. The escape from heat is difficult to find in concrete-laden cities, and I now understand why Bigfoot lives in cooler climates. 

Wearing a modest size 9.5 men’s shoe, I never realized all the troubles that accompany such big feet. The costume’s shoe cover added an extra 5 inches to my foot length, which slowed my pace considerably and forced me to stomp to avoid tripping over my own pretend toes or the odd stone. 

Those size 20 men’s shoes forced me to tread cautiously. The ground was no longer designed with people in mind, and if I didn’t watch my stomp, I could quickly go from vertical to horizontal.

Perhaps most enviable is that Bigfoot doesn’t care about the opinions of others; he doesn’t need to live up to anyone’s expectation of what an ape man should be. Most people can’t take a step without influencers dictating their cadence. Even if Bigfoot’s actions are odd and antisocial, they’re his.

Something else became apparent while in costume: my inherent need for privacy. It’s become increasingly difficult in today’s world to find alone time; even if I turn off my phone, even in solitude, true privacy is elusive.

People with phones and cameras are always within sight — neighbors, passersby, Las Vegas Raiders fans. As soon as I turn my phone back on, a scroll of messages and notifications reminds me just how electronically connected and socially bombarded I’ve become.

As onlookers stared at me in costume, I felt the urge to escape deeper into the redwoods. So I did, and suddenly I was free. My apprehension disappeared.

Stomping alone and hairy in the forest, my modern worries also evaporated. I had no access to my phone — but Bigfoot does not need pockets and his large fingers make using a touchscreen nightmarish. Everything outside of my limited view ceased to exist.

It could have been just the suit, but I did walk away from my performance more Bigfoot than I ever thought I could be. So many of my life’s stressors were reduced by the Bigfoot lifestyle. Although I was able to take off the Bigfoot suit, a part of Bigfoot stayed with me. Initially, I set off to find him; little did I know he was with me all along.

During my weekend stay, I received the mentorship I desperately sought. Bigfoot — in one way or another — guided me throughout my trip and taught me the importance of being alone, unshaven, in nature and letting my over-civilized troubles drift away. I wanted Bigfoot’s guidance, but by the end of my experience, I became my own shaggy, smelly sensei.

If traffic, taxes and Raiders fans get to you, too, take a page out of Bigfoot’s book. Leave the crowded city behind and venture to Humboldt County or anywhere you can get away and disconnect. Maybe you’ll find your inner Bigfoot too.

The Oak Leaf reporter Sal Sandoval-Garduño investigates a hollowed-out redwood tree, likely Bigfoot’s sleeping quarters. (Shannon Burrows)
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About the Contributor
Sal Sandoval-Garduño
Sal Sandoval-Garduno is in his 1st semester at the Oak Leaf and is hoping to transfer to Cal Poly Humboldt to continue majoring in Journalism. Sal can normally be found scurrying around abandoned buildings, engaging in deep philosophical debates on long drives, and being reminded of his lack of gym attendance at punk show mosh pits.

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