I grew up in a mountain valley, one of the three vast “Parks” of Colorado, a windswept plain at about 8000 feet above sea level, surrounded by 12,000 ft. tall mountains on all sides. We were isolated. Undeveloped and to this day, still one of the most untouched regions of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
My home town was, and to this day, hovers at around 700 people. We had one school. Two gas stations. Three bars. Three liquor stores. And two grocery stores, both of which featured severely marked up milk, bread, canned beans, and meat. Most people in town drove sixty miles to the nearest town (in any direction) to do their shopping. Only during blizzards when the roads were closed did the locals succumb to price gouging and shop locally.
A number of years ago, when I was just around my youngest’s age now, someone in town had a corral of horses down by the river. Something had been spooking them. Something which had emerged from the primordial forests, followed the river down, close to town, and began tormenting these horses. In the partially frozen mud of the Michigan River, someone found a footprint. It was like the shape of a man’s footprint, only large. And fresh.
I remember that chilly afternoon when a large group of local men gathered, some riding in the back of pickup trucks, others with their dogs. A few had horses. All of them had hunting rifles. There was a lot of hushed talk, fearful talk in low voices about Bigfoot. Sasquatch. For two days, the men crashed through the willows which choked the floodplain. They looked for any other sign. Hair. Scat. More prints.
Two weeks later, a black bear was shot by a friend of my dad’s with a bow down by the bridge outside of town. The bridge that spanned the Michigan River. Bears weren’t all that common in those days, having been hunted out decades before. And with the death of the bear, strangely enough, the signs of Bigfoot also disappeared. The two were obviously a coincidence. But I never forgot the angry villagers who converged to drive a monster out of our community.
I love telling my kids that story whenever we visit. This last Thanksgiving, my youngest, seven years old at the time, got excited about the prospect of hunting Bigfoot. His grandpa outfitted him with all sorts of lanterns, flashlights, compasses, binoculars, and other gear to help him in his expedition. Unfortunately, Grandpa ran out of steam that afternoon, and so it was up to me, Grandma, and his sister to indulge him on his trek.
The days were growing shorter, and so at about 4pm, we loaded up in the car while my dad napped, and headed east to one of my favorite places in North Park. I’m convinced it would be nearly impossible to take a bad picture of this place. The sunsets are spectacular. The mountains are just as they were when settlers came into the area, and probably not much different than they were when the first people came into the area, with the exception of a few timber roads and patches of clearcut here and there.
We drove up the winding road, chasing the shadows cast by the last rays of light for the day. The higher we got, the colder the air became. The roads were rutted with mud and snow and ice. An unseasonably warm November, but because of recent snowfall, the mountains were caked in an impressive white, unmarred above treeline by the warm days that had followed.
As night set in, we took pictures and walked a hunting trail a little ways to the trailhead of what is still one of my favorite hikes. I have probably hiked this path in the Summer more times than any other trail. It is daunting to say the least. Most of it is at a grade that would be straight up if not for the switchbacks. An old logging road allowed to grow over. A thick forest of lodge-pole pines and aspen make up most of this five mile ascent until you reach tundra and some of the best views of the valley I have ever seen. North Park stretches out to the west, north and south. To the east is the Front Range as you stand on wilderness area, the highest tors and crags to the South are the Rawah peaks, across the valley to the West are the Zirkels. Unlike Rocky Mountain National Park, just a few miles to the south, there are no groomed trails, no busloads of tourists, no cell reception, and no signs kindly reminding you to take only photographs and leave only footprints. There is just you, the biting wind, and the cerulean sky infinite.
That night, there was no Bigfoot to be found. And though we only stepped out of the car for a little bit, being unequiped for a night hike in the snow, my son ran and played, searching, hunting, as is what boys are born to do. His goal was fulfilled, even though I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that we didn’t even see any footprints that weren’t our own. But that is what adulting does. It fixes your sights on the goal for so long that you forget to enjoy the path. We didn’t need to find Bigfoot, only look for him.
And that is what we did.
We headed back home, watching the last rays of light fade behind the mountains to the West. The stars and other worlds of our solar system began to wink into view. My son fell asleep in his seat, holding his trusty brass lantern. My daughter got back into range of the cell tower and was happy again. My mom and I talked about life and the world and broken things and hope. Back at the Grandparents’ house, hot chocolate was poured. Television was watched. And Bigfoot remained elusive.