June 7, 2010
Billy Willard says he's on the verge of a major discovery that could change the way humans think about the natural world, not to mention their need for a creature-proof home security system.
Here in Spotsylvania County, in the forests around Lake Anna, Willard claims there have been 14 sightings in the past decade of that most fabled of cryptozoic beasts: Bigfoot.
Or Sasquatch, as the elusive, apelike brute is referred to in more high-minded circles -- and on the side of Willard's blue pickup. The decal on the truck reads "Sasquatch Watch of Virginia," of which Willard is chief pooh-bah (when he's not earning a living installing and removing underground home oil tanks).
Go ahead, call him a loon, a flake, a huckster. He's heard it all. But Willard knows what he knows, which is that three people from this area -- a woman, her husband and their granddaughter -- told him they saw a shaggy, super-size figure on two legs gallivanting across their wooded property. Last month, Willard led a weeklong expedition to the site, where he installed five motion-sensor cameras that will snap photos if the big galoot wanders by again.
Willard, 41, says he'd like to lead a tour of the property and introduce the witnesses, really he would. But the woman who says she saw what she believes could have been Bigfoot fears an avalanche of ridicule, which is why Willard is left to begin delivering his version of what happened a few miles away, in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen.
"We believe we may be close to some kind of major discovery," he says. "All the things they would need are here, fresh water, shelter in the woods. The high concentration of sightings tells me they're here."
He interrupts his monologue to answer his cellphone, the ring tone to which is the country tune "People Are Crazy."
Ever since humans began telling stories, they have spun yarns involving life forms that tower above mere mortals, whether it's the giant of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame or Goliath or Frankenstein. Bigfoot has been a perennial for generations, with hundreds of purported sightings (many of them of supposed footprints), most prevalent in the Pacific Northwest but also
popping up in states as disparate as Rhode Island, Illinois and Alabama.
The myth grew in popularity in 1967, when two men in California filmed what appeared to be a huge and hairy biped walking into the woods, at one point turning its head to glance dramatically at the camera. In Bigfoot circles, the footage is referred to as the "Patterson-Gimlin film," named for its makers, and invoked with the historical weight of the Zapruder film of the JFK
assassination. In less admiring circles, the short, fuzzy clip is cited as nothing short of poppycock.
Willard knows about the film, and most everything else Bigfoot-related ("Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt once saw Bigfoot?"), all of which he's happy to share at any time, sometimes to the annoyance of his wife, Jeanean, who is prone to blurt out, "Okay, the conversation will have to change."
"After 22 years," she says, "I can get a little bit hateful."
For all of Billy Willard's certainty about Bigfoot, the buzz has not exactly caught on in the rural hamlets around Lake Anna, where many residents work at the nearby nuclear power plant or in construction or commute to Richmond or Washington.
Behind the grill at Tarheel Pig Pickers barbeque, Mark Lane, 54, giggles. "When I see Bigfoot water skiing, I'll believe it," he says. "If they catch him, we'll put him on the rotisserie and invite everyone in the community."
Ron McCormick, president of a home-building company, says people have more pressing concerns, such as plummeting property values and paying bills. "On the other hand, it could bring in tourists," he says as he sits at his desk, playing solitaire on his laptop.
Craig Petrie, 55, mowing grass a few miles away, volunteers that he sometimes hears voices calling his name from below ground as he tends the cemetery adjoining Wallers Baptist Church, where he holds the titles of head deacon and chief groundskeeper.
But Bigfoot sightings? "Never happened," he says, although he's open to the possibility, particularly with all the new subdivisions in the area ripping out trees and kicking up dirt. "If anyone's going to see him, it's me, because I'm always on this mower. And if he kills me, they'll just have to walk a few feet to bury me. It's convenient."
The small but avid universe of Bigfoot enthusiasts includes self-styled investigators who pursue their quest during off-hours from their day jobs. Willard, for example, hosts an Internet radio show and maintains a Web site from his home in Manassas; he also monitors his Bigfoot hotline for reported sightings (a recent caller announced "I just saw Bigfoot in Reston," before exploding in laughter and hanging up).
More dispassionate scholars are fascinated by the unflagging interest in bogeymen. "People have a need to think about something like ourselves, something scary, using them as a cautionary tale," says Robert Michael Pyle, whose book "Where Bigfoot Walks" explores the history of Sasquatch.
Pyle has spent years contemplating Bigfoot, including why witnesses typically report sightings in remote settings where no one is around to corroborate the discovery. "If this animal exists," he says, "I think it's aware of its plight, and that there are a lot of big guns and big trucks out there, and that it's a good idea to remain secretive."
Undermining that secrecy is the mission of Bigfoot organizations such as the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy and the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which grades all reports of sightings, from "A," awarded for "clear sightings in circumstances where misinterpretation of other animals can be ruled out," to "C," which includes second- and third-hand reports.
No category exists for hoax, which was what three men were accused of perpetrating in 2008 when the Bigfoot they claimed to have found in Georgia turned out to be a gorilla costume stuffed with animal parts.
Such episodes make Willard wince but do nothing to quash an interest that began when he was an 8-year-old at a drive-in theater watching "The Legend of Boggy Creek," a docudrama about a Bigfoot-type creature in Arkansas. Willard still spends countless hours in the woods listening for footsteps, always with a camera, ready to snap a picture.
He brings a set of knives and a hatchet. If he finds a dead Bigfoot, he intends to walk away with the ultimate trophy, DNA evidence, to send a message to those who ridicule the believers: "To give them the final 'Aha! I told you so.' "