Dick McIlhenny awoke with a cold foot in the blackness that could be an hour after he fell asleep or ten minutes before the alarm clock went off. He attended to the foot inside the sleeping bag and checked the luminous dial on the clock beside his pillow. The clock said 30 minutes past one. McIlhenny rolled on his side and was working deeper into the bag when the first scream sounded. It came from a hundred yards or so away, manlike but voluminous as the shriek of a giant. The sound came and came again, a high-pitched yell bonded with a roar, before a second voice answered it from the opposite ridge. In the darkness McIlhenny fumbled for his revolver. He had a flashlight with him in the pop-up camper but was unwilling to call attention to himself by using it. Wanting to peer across the moonlit clearing, he was fearful of the sound running the tent zipper down would make. Instead he lay listening for nearly ten minutes to the unseen creature beyond the edge of the forest and the thing that was answering it from half a mile or more away, until nine rifle shots fired in rapid succession from a neighboring camp rang out, waking his son beside him in the camper and ending the screams abruptly. Armed with rifles, the two men patrolled the forest and the edges of the parks where, in spite of the full moon overhead, they observed no deer or elk grazing. The incident occurred near Leadville, Colorado, in the second half of October 1994.
Four months earlier and 100 miles to the south, Keith Hawkins and his two sons had been fishing for trout on the Conejos River cutting through wild and rugged country not far north of the Colorado- New Mexico border. Although it was only late afternoon the sun had dropped behind the continental divide rising to an elevation of over 13,000 feet, and the canyon in which the river flowed was already twilit. The western bank rose steeply to form a high ridge partly logged but with tall stands of timber remaining. As the three cast to trout in the long shadow of the mountains, a bellowing roar started from the ridge above them, within one of the deeper tree stands. The roar was terrific, seeming to issue through a megaphone mouth from a pair of lungs that wouldn’t go inside a Kodiak bear. A bow hunter with two record kills listed with Pope & Young, accustomed to killing elk and bear at distances of 25 yards and less, Hawkins recognized the sound for a threat. Unarmed except for their fishing rods, the Hawkinses reeled in, waded from the river, and returned to camp a couple of miles downstream. Wearing a revolver this time, Hawkins returned to the site the next day and explored the ridge on foot looking for sign, of which he found none. However, the incident caused him to recall his parents’ claim several years before to have seen, from a distance, an eight-foot tall creature on two legs standing beside their house trailer while they were camped near the Conejos, and a cousin’s story of being wakened at night by the violent rocking of his Winnebago and the stentorian breathing of some enormous creature audible through the aluminum skin.
Being trained scientists as well as experienced outdoorsmen, Dick McIlhenny and Keith Hawkins were aware that no explanation recognized by science or irrefutably demonstrated by empirical experience could account for what they had heard in the mountains of Colorado. Neither man was willing to say what the creature responsible for the sounds was; both, however, were ready to assert what it assuredly was not: bear, elk, moose, mountain lion, coyote, or any other animal known to inhabit the Southern Rockies.
Dick mulled his experience at Leadville for nearly four years before running across Keith’s recently posted account of his own encounter on the Internet, which introduced the two men to one another. Not wishing to waste time and effort on a wild goose chase, both had done considerable reading and arrived, finally, at a willingness to suspend judgment. When you have eliminated the impossible, said Sherlock Holmes, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Only in this case, neither Keith nor Dick was quite so reckless in embracing improbability as Holmes frequently was prepared to be.
Several months after Dick McIlhenny, my elk-hunting partner in Wyoming years ago, invited me to join him and Keith Hawkins for a walkabout in the wilderness of southern Colorado, I mentioned the planned trip to Brad Willford when he called one evening from Kemmerer, without mentioning its object. “Oh,” Brad said, “my great-great-grandfather homesteaded in that area in the 1870’s and 80’s. Hold on and I’ll get the memoir he wrote in the 30’s about it.” He was away from the phone a couple of minutes and returned with the book in his hand. “Let’s see,” Brad said. ” . . . Oh, this ought to interest you . . . ” Old Willford had written that you had to be a brave man to go alone into the San Juan Mountains, where strange incidents occurred and the sense of being watched was recurrent. In one instance, a hunting camp that was supposedly bearproofed was robbed, and game meat hung high in a tree out of a bear’s reach stolen. In another Willford had his horse spooked from under him and his packmule panicked by a mysterious presence while riding out of the mountains after dark. In a third, Willford was hunting after an early fall snowstorm when he came on the tracks of a small party of Indians, identifiable as Navajos by the cross-hatches on the soles of their moccasins. The tracks led diagonally uphill for about a mile before plunging abruptly downward in a series of broad jumps separated by four or five feet. Willford followed them two or three miles farther and came upon the Indians setting up a shelter for the night. “Don’t go up there!” one of them exclaimed, pointing in the direction from which they had come. “One terrible big thing—fifteen, foot bear!” Disturbed by these and other happenings, Willford eventually quit his homestead and moved away horn the area of the San Juan River where it crosses from Colorado into New Mexico. The Indians in the vicinity have stories going back six or seven centuries about a mysterious being inhabiting the mountains, and the English translation for the name of one Native American village lying south of New Mexico’s northern border is The Place Where the Giant Man Stepped.
Several websites exist to explore the phenomenon that was the object of McIlhenny’s, Hawkins’s, and my expedition last summer, one of them posting what purport to be eyewitness—and earwitness —accounts of encounters with the creature. While some of these stories are of dubious credibility, the large majority ring true, not least for the timid nature of the reporting which, so far from suggesting a desire to gain attention, points instead to the fear of self-exposure and ridicule. Ninety percent of these almost daily communications from around the United States describe experiences that occurred over roughly a 30-year period, from the early 1960’s to the early 1990’s; a few relate to happenings as distant as the 1940’s, while accounts of incidents within recent weeks or months are posted every several days. Reports belonging to the first category are filed by informants who, after maintaining a prudent silence for years, feel emboldened to come forward when an hospitable but impersonal forum is made available to them. In 99.9 percent of all reports, past or present, witnesses are careful to provide first names only, while requesting that their identities be kept confidential to avoid damage to their reputations, even their livelihood. “I know what I saw,” the typical statement goes, “but I am a respected professional living in a small town and I’m afraid my business would suffer if it were known I considered even the possibility of such a thing.”
Almost more interesting, in fact, than the mystery itself is the response it provokes —a narrow gamut of emotion ranging from intrigued skepticism to half-angered embarrassment. The more open reaction has been a willingness to admit evidence of a North American bipedal monster provided by a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while Theodore Roosevelt, in his book Wilderness Hunter, recounts a narrative told him by an old hunter whose trapping partner was killed in the mid-1800’s by a mysterious creature in the mountain country of southern Idaho. Dr. John Napier, at one time director of the primate biology program at the Smithsonian and later the holder of an equivalent position at Birbeck College, University of London, after conceding that “The vision of such creatures stomping barefoot through the forests of north west America, unknown to science, is beyond common sense,” adds, “Yet reason argues that this is the case.” Don Abbott, once curator of archaeology at the provincial museum of British Columbia, has written that, while not a “believer,” he is nevertheless “aware of certain phenomena which have not yet been adequately explained if these rather unlikely creatures do not, in fact, exist.” And in the early 1970’s two highly respectable papers on both sides of the Atlantic—the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Times—printed lengthy articles, prominently displayed, examining the claims for their existence, and against it.
Still, far more common than the skeptical but interested response is the angry, indignant one, typified by Dr. Napier’s then colleague at the Smithsonian, Dr. T.D. Stuart, who summarily dismissed reports of “unlikely creatures” as “bosh,” and the small-town ridicule anticipated by anonymous contributors to the Internet website. Taken together, these reactions suggest how much the “sophisticated” scientific mind has in common with the Main Street one—how much, indeed, it shares with the peasant mentality, both of them given to rejecting “superstition” and embracing it, by turns. The difference between scientific and popular orthodoxy is less than it is commonly supposed to be, as the answer to both orthodoxies is at once simpler and more difficult than the liberal orthodoxy imagines. The obvious response by the small-town professional charged with credulity—or worse—is, of course, “I am an educated man and a professional, trained to observe empirically, deduce, draw conclusions, and—above all—to think for myself; the retort by the simple man to the learned scientist should be, “I was there, I know what I saw and heard, and I don’t give a damn what you think about it.”
The inclination of the uneducated man to display gumption and independence of mind a good deal more often than the educated one does speaks volumes about modern mental habits and assumptions. Chesterton (in Orthodoxy) says of the ordinary man that “He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.” That, unfortunately, is not scientific thinking, nor is it middle-class thinking—the two being, essentially, one and the same type of ratiocination. A single-minded and (literally) deadly seriousness lies behind both of them: Ideological as well as practical in origination, it is wholly materialist in both senses of the word. Seriousness, Chesterton well knew, is not a virtue. “It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking oneself gravely, because that it is the easiest thing to do.” Seriousness puts not only ourselves at the center of our lives, but our experience at the center of all experience, our mode of perception and reasoning at the center of cosmic consciousness. Whereas (Chesterton again), “Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
Is it really possible to suspect that the ape-man or man-ape believed in by tens or scores of generations of Indians in the Pacific Northwest actually exists? It is not only possible, it is harmless, and even healthy. (“As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.”—GKC) One sympathetic reader of this column told me my story “Something in Colorado” stopped just short of inviting ridicule. To which I replied that the facts were as I recorded them—nothing more, nothing less—and that I urged my audience only to draw their own conclusions. There is no reason for anyone to apologize for the facts (unless, of course, he is responsible for them). But there is no reason either for him to be embarrassed by mystery (unless he put it there, and I didn’t). The world, indeed, has always seemed to me to be a fundamentally mysterious place, and if thinking so makes me one of those unashamed unserious persons instead of the ashamed and serious one I know I ought to want to try to be, then perhaps I really should be committed to the American equivalent of what was London’s Hanwell, sooner than the little man in the white coat can say “Sasquatch.”