The primary allure of Bigfoot is that you never really expect to see Bigfoot, but still I was surprised to encounter him all over Banff, Alberta, a few years back. Thanks to a late-1990s adolescence spent watching dubious Animal Planet documentaries and TBS reruns of Harry and the Hendersons, I was primed to think of “Bigfoot country” as Northern California, Oregon, Washington—a distinctly American, Pacific Northwestern phenomenon. And yet Banff, more than 4,000 miles north of the border and on the wrong side of the Rockies, was rife with his lumbering form. Shops hawked T-shirts and stickers, “Bigfoot X-ing” signs dotted residential streets, and posters promoted disco night at a club called the Dancing Sasquatch. Rather than a flex of local cryptozoological bona fides, it seemed like pure pandering to that classic tourist desire to return home with some accessory that signals, I know I’m here in this checkout line/waiting room/coffee shop with you, but my heart belongs to the wild! But also, I wasn’t above it. When we encountered a googly-eyed Bigfoot statue guarding a mini-mall downtown, I made my husband, Joe, take a picture of me posing with it like we were headed off to prom.
That was in September 2017, on a trip I suspected might be the last before Joe and I became parents. Back home in Atlanta, I had an appointment to get my IUD removed. We’d waffled for years about having a baby, and now that we knew we wanted one, I assumed it would happen quickly. So we packed that week in Canada full, hauling ourselves up and down mountains and around blue glacial lakes, creeping to the edges of literal precipices as we teetered on this metaphorical one, the future dangling just beyond our grasp.
Sure enough, by spring 2018, after our first month of trying, I was pregnant. Despite my expectation that it would happen quickly, I was surprised. In May, another surprise: At eight weeks, an ultrasound detected no cardiac activity—a missed miscarriage. We got the same news at seven weeks the next January, and again at 11 weeks the following May. For the rest of 2019, we took a break for testing—turns out nothing was wrong, though it sure felt otherwise—then extended the break through 2020 and the worst of the pandemic. By July 2021, we were vaccinated and I was pregnant again; by August, we were deep in the fallout of miscarriage number four.
More From Oprah Daily
During those years, I often thought about that week in Canada. Instead of our last blast as unencumbered DINKs, it now seemed more like a farewell tour before we slid into an alien terrain of grief and uncertainty and violently raised and dashed hormones and hopes. Our onetime ambivalence about having a baby had mutated into pure certainty; it was the one thing I wanted, and the one thing I seemed unable to get.
Out of necessity, Joe and I got pretty good at scraping at the silver linings, one of which was the continued ease of traveling as just the two of us. Few of our itineraries were as ambitious as that week in the Canadian Rockies, but almost everywhere we went—even once the pandemic forced us to stay close to home—we encountered an odd echo of that trip: Bigfoot was everywhere.
From the rural Southwest to the mountains of North Carolina, we saw more of those “Bigfoot X-ing” signs, often accompanied by life-size metal cutouts staked alongside driveways. He was writ large on interstate billboards for attractions like Expedition Bigfoot in Blairsville, Georgia, and the Bigfoot Adventure campground and RV park in Tracy City, Tennessee; he appeared in miniature on bumpers and back windows, posed among stickers for craft breweries and Bernie Sanders, rubbing elbows with “thin blue line” and Browning Buckmark decals, multiplied to represent whole families across the rumps of minivans.
In Pawleys Island, South Carolina, in a Lowcountry general store otherwise stocked with ghost crab and sea turtle paraphernalia, I was spinning through a rack of stickers when I saw his classic silhouette accessorized with a tackle box in one hand (paw?) and a fishing pole in the other. “Wow, this is so stupid,” I said to Joe, laughing. I was four months past my fourth miscarriage; everything was kind of stupid, but very little was stupid and funny.
I bought the sticker, and this seemed to hasten a tipping point in my personal Bigfoot consciousness. Even back home in Atlanta—a metropolis hardly prone to woodsy mythologizing —he became unavoidable. There were the bumper stickers and the billboards, and now I spied him strutting across beef jerky pouches and water bottles and laptop covers, in checkout lines and waiting rooms and coffee shops all over town. Bigfoot was no longer just a token of my fellow urbanites’ adventurous extracurriculars; now he was a hippie, a DJ, a guitar god, a beer enthusiast. He was a “hide and seek champion,” he was a reminder that “not all who wander are lost.” He was often just “squatchin’.”
What was happening? Partly it was the frequency illusion, that weird human tendency to keep noticing what you’ve already noticed—the same cognitive phenomenon that had me seeing pregnant people everywhere, never not seeming to be pregnant at me. Also, as with many creatures, Bigfoot’s territory has shifted over the years. Nineties cable TV didn’t lead me entirely astray: California, Oregon, and Washington generally boast the most reported sightings—but Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have recently made snatches at the top spots. More than sightings, though, it was the aestheticization of Bigfoot that appeared to be spreading. He occupies a merchandising sweet spot: He’s a known entity, but not an owned character; he’s been colonized and appropriated, but not copyrighted or licensed or franchised (not yet, at least). He remains just fragmentary enough, just elusive enough, to belong to everyone and nobody all at once, from low-stakes dabblers to high-key obsessives. It’s the ultimate irony for the ultimate cryptid: His appeal is his accessibility.
When we see Bigfoot, we see what we need to see. For my part, once I made peace with his odd ubiquity, I noticed how often he’s presented alongside the admonition to “BELIEVE.” On the same highways where he populates bumper stickers and billboards, other bumper stickers and billboards make similar demands re: Jesus, and the contrast renders Bigfoot as both a parody of dogma and the purest example of faith. He makes no promises, possesses no powers; he offers no salvation, no eternal life, nothing but potential affirmation of a hunch. If he exists, he doesn’t care if you think he exists.
To be clear, I don’t. Not really. But when it came to my own slog through the wilderness—four miscarriages in three years, many tests, few answers—after a while, I needed a guide. I’d once wondered how I would know when I knew what I wanted; now I wondered how I’d know when it was time to give up. My chances of having a fifth miscarriage were somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. Maddeningly, my doctor couldn’t say for sure and couldn’t tell me how to proceed. Nobody could, not even Joe, who insisted his priority was my psychological well-being—but what would be more crazy-making: continuing to try and fail, or giving up entirely? I swung between seeing meaning in everything and seeing no meaning anywhere, every smidgen of hope a crass hoax, the reproductive equivalent of a dude in a gorilla suit filmed at a shadowy distance.
In my 20s, I’d ghosted the loosey-goosey Episcopal faith of my childhood; now, in my 30s, I had my first regrets. It seemed newly useful to have some greater entity to steer my life plans, or at least take the blame when those plans went awry. But God came with too much pressure, too much baggage. Bigfoot, meanwhile, barely wants to be perceived, let alone worshiped. His commandment is nonspecific, more of a prompt than an edict. “BELIEVE”—in what? Doesn’t matter, he seems to say. Just whatever you need to be true.
“BELIEVE”—but how? Bigfoot’s territory is broad, but that question falls beyond it. Fortunately, his most fervent devotees provide a model of sorts. I decided to adopt their methods, if not the object of their devotion. I confronted the odds and eschewed the skeptics (myself) and made peace with the unknowable cost. I marched myself once more into the dark woods, set up camp, and settled down to stare into the void—night falling, senses piqued, telling myself I was open to whatever might or might not come, telling myself I could pack up and go home anytime, still unsure what might make me give up on this wild hunch.
In other words, I decided to believe I’d get pregnant again. I decided to believe it would work out this time.
And then, in the middle of last winter, it happened: a sudden presence, a grainy flutter on an ultrasound screen. And then again, and again, and again. Every time Joe and I left the doctor’s office with good news, we couldn’t have been more shocked if we saw Bigfoot himself in the waiting room.
Spring brought more strange reversals of doubt. After confessing that he didn’t think he’d ever care about baby clothes, Joe went and bought a onesie emblazoned with the Bigfoot silhouette and cutesy scrawl of “Lil Squatch.”
Summer came and the fact that we might actually have a baby was easier to believe with every weird rustle in my gut, first as faint as snapping twigs, then an unmistakable crash of limbs.
In June, we went to Portland, Maine, and weren’t at all surprised to see Bigfoot lurking around the city. One afternoon we visited the International Cryptozoology Museum, nestled between breweries in a gentrifying riverside neighborhood. The museum houses the personal collection of a man named Loren Coleman, art and artifacts and theories amassed over 50 years spent documenting the existence or nonexistence of various hidden creatures: the jackalope (known fraud), the chupacabra (those goats didn’t suck themselves!), the coelacanth (a gnarly, eight-finned fish discovered in the 19th century as a fossil, thought to be extinct for 66 million years, and later found living in the rocky depths of the Indian and Pacific oceans).
And, of course, there was Bigfoot. The exhibit—easily half the museum—began in a back hallway and spilled upstairs into a loft crammed with newspaper clippings, flickering TVs looping purported footage, all manner of hand-carved and mass-produced figurines, pelts and plaster-cast footprints and resin replicas of various droppings. Photography wasn’t allowed except in one corner, where a shaggy Bigfoot statue stood among a spray of silk foliage, a cow skull, and a taxidermied raccoon with its fist in a Jif jar. A sign declared the tableau a “Selfie Zone,” but I made Joe take a proper portrait as I held my belly like an Instagram influencer and beamed under my KN95. A joke, but I meant it.
On our way out, we stopped by the gift shop. I was nonplussed by the onesie selection, but no matter, we already had one. All the T-shirts were two sizes too big for me, and somehow none of them featured Bigfoot, but once I realized this, I’d already touched them all and the cashier was staring at me. I panicked, pulled a shirt at random, and paid up. Back home, I realized it was actually perfect. Aside from having room to spare—by October, when our daughter arrived, it was one of my only shirts that fit—it bears the screen-printed silhouette of a coelacanth, that eldritch fish once believed to be lost forever but later found lurking in some of the planet’s dankest depths, hideous and endangered, but wondrously, undeniably alive.
RACHAEL MADDUX’s essays, reviews, and features have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, Guernica, and other places. Her work has been noted in Best American Sports Writing 2016 and collected in Best American Travel Writing 2015. In 2010 she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in Reviews & Criticism. She was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s at work on a memoir about growing up mortal in the South at the turn of the 21st century.