Tracking a Legend

October 1, 2015 | By More

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An autumn breeze filters through oak leaves on the cusp of turning from the tired green of late summer to autumn russet.

I’m standing atop a ridge on the Ozark Plateau. Carved and rough hewn by eons of wind and water, a deep and rugged hollow yawns below. “Did you hear that?” whispers Rich Goodall (not his real name). And indeed I did. A single hardwood knock thumped from the hollow’s dark belly. It could have been a pileated woodpecker, but the big crimson crested birds usually rap with faster rhythm and more beats. Woodpeckers sound like a drum roll. This was a heavy and deliberate thud with sharp tones and woodland acoustics shaping the sound. It sounded solid. Most likely wood on wood or maybe even flesh on flesh, a massive hand clap or gorilla-like chest thump. Definitely not avian, or so says Goodall. “No, that was no woodpecker. Too much weight behind it.” But like the woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat, this sound was also communication. “You can hear them from over a mile a way,” said Goodall. “One knock is just like a ‘hello.’ Two knocks is ‘I hear you.’ And three knocks means ‘I’m on my way.’ If we hear three knocks things could get real interesting real fast.”

Goodall prepares to answer the knock by whacking a heavy club of dense hickory against a white oak tree twice the diameter of himself. That’s a big tree because Goodall is a bear of man, standing well over six and a half feet and he’s got to weigh close to 300 pounds. He unloads on the white oak and a wallop rings through crisp mountain air like batting practice in the big leagues. The reply is not long in coming. Two knocks, sounding even more powerful than Goodall’s, boom back up the hollow. The sound waves seem to vibrate our bones. Goodall grinned with affirmation. “Nah, that’s no woodpecker.”

Goodall is a Bigfoot researcher specializing in the Southern Mountain subspecies of Bigfoot or Sasquatch or skunk ape or a hundred other names and nicknames associated with the mysterious creature. Goodall’s research territory stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, west to the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains here in Arkansas. And it just so happens that the River Valley region sits between two Bigfoot hotspots — one is in the Ouachita Mountains near Perryville and the other is here, somewhere in northern Pope County, at an area Goodall made me swear not to disclose. It’s an area I am familiar with through hiking, hunting and fishing. And it’s an area in which I, personally, have observed some strange happenings.

Large rocks, boulders even, are stacked in an unnatural manner just a few feet from the white oak Goodall uses as a woodland percussion instrument. The cairns stand about seven-feet tall and some of the rocks weigh north of 200 pounds. The stack looks like a monument of some sort. But on this roadless, isolated ridge it’s hard to believe a man would do this. It seems impossible without heavy equipment or at least block and tackle. And then you’d have to ask “why?” Trail marker? Memorial? Altar?

“Maybe all of the above,” said Goodall. “But they’re definitely not man-made.” He scratches his beard and eyeballs the rocks again. “Or maybe that depends on your definition of a man.”

Beside the rock towers, Goodall points to another sign — a thick vine, big around as my wrist, twisted like a wrung out dishrag around another vine. Few animals in the Ozarks could do that kind of specific damage to a vine this size. “Maybe a bear or a large whitetail buck that got his antlers wrapped around it, but it’s really too high for a deer,” said Goodall. The twist is at the eight-foot mark on the tree. “And I guess maybe an elk, but the whole thing about the antlers twisting up a vine strikes me as improbable. You really need some opposable thumbs to twist things. Only two animals with opposable thumbs in North America, and I don’t think humans or possums (opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind feet) have the strength to do this.”

Bigfoot is not an individual. Bigfoot are what Goodall believes to be a population of bipedal primates in North America. “I think they probably came across the Bering land bridge like the first humans in North America did,” said Goodall. “They’re probably most closely related to orangutans, an Asian ape and descendent of Gigantopithecus (an extinct 10-foot tall ape) what with the red hair and all.” Goodall has some semi-solid science behind his speculations. He’s right about the Bering land bridge and orangutans and even Gigantopithecus. But from there the evidence gets flimsy. The problem is that no scientist has ever been able to examine a Bigfoot, dead or alive, in order to substantiate the speculations. Plaster casts, shaky video, fuzzy photos and a lot of “eyewitness” accounts make up the body of evidence for the existence of the creature. What science needs is a real flesh and blood body. Goodall believes a body will come along soon, though. “I think we’ll have a specimen within the next decade.”

And that’s what Goodall is working toward. He believes a better understanding of the biology, physiology and habits of Bigfoot will lead to a solid physical encounter of the type that can be documented by science. So this afternoon and evening we’re running ridges, looking and listening for signs of a beast that most rational people don’t believe exists. Goodall is undeterred by overwhelming public opinion or science, and he notes that Bigfoot sign — visual and audible — is everywhere in the mountains of Arkansas.

“What people don’t think about is that Bigfoot is a primate; it’s an ape. And like all apes they are extremely clever,” said Goodall. According to him, this intelligence in combination with a sparse population is why Bigfoot are rarely seen. “Arkansas has around 4,000 black bears, but how often do folks see a black bear? How many times do people come across a black bear carcass? The answers are rarely, unless the bears are baited, and never,” said Goodall. “Now, think about a population of, say, 500 great apes, animals nearly as smart or maybe even smarter, in a different way, than we are. Yeah, good luck finding one.” But, their one weakness, according to Goodall, is that Bigfoot is not above the laws of physics and biology. “Their Achille’s heel, the one chink in their stealth armor, is that an animal of that size must leave signs — tracks, droppings, feeding sign— and, since they are social animals, they must have ways to communicate. This includes visual communication, like twisted trees and cairns, as well as audible communication”

Feeding sign is one of the easiest for Goodall to explain. “Well, we know what other great apes eat,” said Goodall. “They’re mostly herbivores. The biggest, gorillas and orangutans, are almost exclusively plant eaters. I think acorns and other mast make up a big part of the Bigfoot diet. Plants with high sugar content, like maple leaves and fruits, are probably eaten as well.” But Goodall thinks that animal protein might play a role in Bigfoot diets. He thinks Bigfoot have some chimpanzee eating habits as well. “I’ve heard reports of them catching fawns and raiding bird nests, but I think insects are what they really crave,” said Goodall. “And I think they use tools to capture insects.”

His thoughts spring us into action, and we pilfer along the ridge top in the golden afternoon light looking for a specific insect gathering site: an ant hill. “Here we go,” said Goodall as he points to a pile of sticks laying rather neatly around an ant mound. “We know chimps use grass stems and twigs to capture ants. They poke the stick in there and as the ants attack and cover the stick, the chimp has an ant lollipop. Then, it’s just slurping ants and poking around for more,” said Goodall. “And doesn’t that kind of look like what happened here?” As a seasoned woodsmen and naturalist I’m poring over the catalog of animal sign in my mind. And I’m coming up with nothing. There is not a known Arkansas animal that would leave this kind of sign.

But Bigfoot communication is what we are mostly relying on tonight. Besides tree knocking, Goodall said that Bigfoot communicate with chirps, whistles, growls, howls and hoots. “They can mimic just about any sound in the forest,” said Goodall. “And they use this mimicry to communicate right under our noses. For instance, they often hoot like a barred owl. The difference is a slight growl at the end of the call and a slightly different rhythm. But the differences aren’t noticeable to the untrained human ear. Luckily, I can tell the difference after hearing Bigfoot calls literally hundreds of times.”

We have in fact heard what I took to be a barred owl earlier in the afternoon. Goodall was unsure about the call’s creator. The distance was too great for an accurate assessment.

Screams and hoots can be explained away as coyotes and owls. Tree knocking? Well, that’s a little tougher, but the human ear often hears what it wants to hear. Twisted vines are strong evidence of a critter we haven’t identified yet. But these cairns — five piles of heavy rocks stacked higher than a man’s head — are tough to explain. Hoaxers come to mind first, but you’ve got to ask “why?” And it seems especially unlikely given the remoteness of our location. Goodall could be the instigator. But there is no sign of equipment use and, robust as he is, there is no way he could stack 200-400 pound stones in five separate piles and each one over head high. And, again, you must ask “why?” Goodall doesn’t make any money in his research. He’s not marketing a book or a career of any kind. He’s simply a man looking for answers in the wilds of our eastern highlands.

“I don’t really know why I do it,” said Goodall. “I’m broke most of time and most everyone thinks I’m crackpot. The wife left me some years back because of this obsession. I’m just one of those guys that’s got to find an answer. And, so far, I haven’t found much, just enough to keep me digging.”

The shadows lengthen as Goodall and I lean against the ancient white oak. Sundown is nearly here and darkness creeps up from the creek bottom. Still, we wait. Nothing.

A pearly moon lights our ridge-top path back to the truck parked over a mile away.  Goodall doesn’t use electronics because he believes Bigfoot can sense them, and artificial lights are especially discouraged. We stop occasionally to check the compass by moon beam and here in the wilderness, miles from any other known soul, I catch his spirit. There is a chance, there is a possibility however slim. But then it’s gone, and I know in my logical mind that a giant North American ape is an impossibility.

The bright moon reflecting off the truck’s windshield tells us we’ve made it back, and as we take the last steps through crunchy leaves Goodall pauses with one hand on the truck door. “Well, it didn’t go as well as I hoped it would,” he said. “But you did get to hear a couple of solid tree knocks.” I nod and start to say thank you…  but I’m interrupted by two thudding tree knocks echoing through the Ozark forest. We decide to sit in the woods for just a little while longer.

After a few more hours of primate silence, Goodall speaks. His voice sounds graveled and rough in the early morning darkness. “They’re watching us now,” he croaks. “You know they’re always watching us. They don’t have jobs and vacations and planning to do beyond the next second. They live by the wind and the seasons, by sunshine and night. And that’s why they can see us and we can’t see them. They really live in another dimension that we can’t even imagine anymore.”

As the first pink rays of dawn peek over mountains to the east, I nod in approval. If they are indeed  here and watching us from deep in the forest, there is no doubt as to which species is more advanced.

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