They say he stinks, but I don’t care. I love Bigfoot.

There; I said it.

Not that I’ve ever met him, her or them. But others say they have. Hundreds of thousands claim to have seen, smelled, heard, maybe even spent a weekend with one of these reclusive, hairy, odoriferous giants.

And like other enthusiasms that have stuck with me since I was 12 — comic books, caverns, space exploration — I keep an ear perked for news of the elusive yeti, sasquatch, skunk ape.

So it was I found myself in Littleton, a tiny town of about 600 residents a bit west of Roanoke Rapids, two weekends ago for the first annual Crypto Paranormal Festival, where Bigfoot was the motif of the day. The festival was held at the Lakeland Cultural Arts Center, a former high school auditorium that has found new life as a volunteer-run community theater and events center.

The program began with a couple of locals — one a school teacher, the other a trucker — sharing their eyewitness accounts of chance observations of something crossing their line of vision — something that, by process of elimination, had to be Bigfoot.

The keynote address came from Ken Gerhard, a professional cryptozoologist — someone who studies animals whose existence is unsubstantiated — who has appeared widely on TV. He admitted up front that he’d never seen a Bigfoot, but had heard hundreds of stories from those who have. And Gerhard had a cellphone recording of an eerie-sounding howl that, by process of elimination, had to be Bigfoot.

Between presentations, I wandered through the merchandise room, where the speakers and others sold wares that included food, books, soap and jewelry, much of which had a Bigfoot theme. During a break for lunch, I spoke with a couple of retirees from nearby Lake Gaston who perform in local community theater as we listened to a young musician play, artfully, an out-of-tune piano. I also met and talked with Stephen Barcelo, the open, friendly man behind all of this activity. A former photographer from New Jersey, he moved to Littleton around 2013 and, before long, began hearing stories. Residents sporadically see not only Bigfoot, but other mysterious creatures in the woods. One thing led to another and Barcelo now has a new career as the proprietor of the town’s Cryptozoological and Paranormal Museum, as well as a seat on the town council. His advocacy has brought a considerable amount of media attention and commerce to Littleton.

I spent other parts of the weekend in neighboring Warrenton, a small-town enclave for well-to-do retirees, where I strolled past Antebellum and Craftsman-style houses decorated with roses and azaleas. I had dinner at the highly-recommended Burger Barn.

For the record, I’m skeptical when it comes to Bigfoot. Somehow, despite all the eyewitnesses, the evidence hasn’t yet met the stringent requirements of the scientific, legislative or journalistic communities.

But I love the stories. I love imagining Bigfoot tromping around the forests and mountains, the “undisputed hide-and-seek world champion,” as one bumper sticker at the festival put it, avoiding, whether through shyness or disgust, the corrupting influence of mankind. I love the thought, as I’ve written before, that something wild exists out there, beyond our control.

And I like that Bigfoot sightings are democratic — he doesn’t reveal himself to a preferred audience. Anyone might catch a glimpse.

Everyone I spoke to at the festival was friendly and cheerful. Nobody argued or fought. Nobody signaled any interest in politics or religion. It was all about Biggie.

“The mystery is what is fun about it,” Sarah McCann, a docent in a cryptozoology museum in Portland, Maine, told NBC’s LiveScience a few years ago. “There will always be mysteries out there. Whether or not Bigfoot is real doesn’t matter terribly.”

Unlike so many other topics that require our attention.

In the paranormal museum, I studied a map that marked Bigfoot sightings in the state. Large clusters of pins were stuck in the Blue Ridge and Uwharrie mountains, and some along the coast — and quite a few in Littleton — but Bigfoot seems reluctant to enter the Piedmont.

What do we have to do to lure him?

There seemed to be something in the woods in Mocksville a few months ago, with glowing red eyes, that prompted calls to the Davie County Animal Shelter. But that turned out to be an 8-foot-tall statue some witty provocateur had placed in the woods on his property.

As the weekend waned, I drove back to Winston-Salem via the two lanes of U.S. 158, pausing in Henderson for homemade biscuits and Yanceyville to watch a fountain bubble in the Caswell County Arboretum. No Bigfoot followed me home. As far as I know.

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