"Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide," by Robert Michael Pyle. Photographs. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 338 pages. $21.95
'We know that Bigfoot is one big metaphor," admits Robert Michael Pyle toward the end of this delicious inquiry into the Northwest's elusive Sasquatch, "a model for wildness, the unknown, tumid and hirsute desires with no names, the godforsaken exile. But metaphors can get up and walk." Under Pyle's ministrations, this one does just that. By the time he winds down his journeys and ruminations, we're on rather intimate terms with the "big galoot."
Pyle's restless and able exploration begins in the physical world but ranges into cryptozoology, back to Beowulf, to Grendel, and into questions of myth (with Joseph Campbell and John Gardnert), into Yakima and Haisla Nation legend; he debunks ethical issues (what are the natural rights of Bigfeet?), sociological matters (with all the fairs, forums, books and festivals, has Bigfoot become merely Big Business?), and instances of hoax and fraud. Nor does he ignore the tabloid absurdities that place the creature with "revivified rock stars, and pregnant pumpkins," and proclaim in bold headlines, "BIGFOOT BABY FOUND IN WATERMELON."
Seeking Sasquatch where he lives, Pyle treks through the Dark Divide in Washington State's southern Cascades, exploring Snagtooth Creek, Yellowjacket Pass, Carson Hot Springs, seeking a track, an odor, a sighting, any palpable evidence of the hairy giant, kin (in kind, anyway) to the big Loch Ness fellow and Yeti.
Along the way he speculates broadly in: the impact of motorcyclists on the wilderness; ghost moths almost as ghostly as Bigfoot (he asks: "When we come to plot the vague landscape of what's what and what's not, maybe a moth is as good as a monster"); bears and water ouzels and other real metaphors for wildness. Wildness (and its place in our lives as well as in Sasquatch's life) is at the heart of the issue. The more we tame and "dismantle" wilderness, the more we destroy even the dream of a Bigfoot.
Central to his inquiry is the miasma that has sprung up around the phantom. He interviews or reads the works of "Bigfooters" like Peter Byrne (the dean of Northwest Bigfooter students), Monty West (the anthropologist who went into the woods nude), Grover Krantz (who wants a specimen alive only if possible), and Jim Hewkin, whose description of Sasquatch at a forum as having extraordinary survival and hunting skills, "a lot of humor, yet restraint," superior health, compassion and freedom from having to pay taxes, prompts Pyle's shrewd observation that some Bigfooters "don't want to find Bigfoot they want to be Bigfoot."
So what's the truth in all this?
Without more than an improbable footprint to show for his physical explorations, the "truth" is surely in the nature of Pyle's search, his ample open-mindedness. He has found 13 ways of looking at a Sasquatch, and with his parliament of disciplines he has explored the "dark divide" between sanity and lunacy, "blind faith and curiosity," "superstition and wild hope," natural history and myth, imagination and the poverty of mere pragmatism.
He has tip-toed on the razor's edge with probity and a large dose of wit and he has written a challenging, important book as much about human beings as phantom hairy giants.
* Nick Lyons was professor of English Literature at Hunter College for 26 years and now is president of Lyons & Burfod, Publishers, which specializes in books on natural history and outdoor leisure sport. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's Magazine, Men's Journal, Audubon, Field & Stream, Fly Fisherman and widely elsewhere, and he has written books, most recently "Spring Creek" (Atlantic Monthly Press).