Hunting Big Foot

This should read “Loyall, Home of Big Foot.”

I grew up in the Golden Age of Big Foot–the 1970’s.  I also grew up in the Land of Big Foot–Harlan County, Kentucky. I realize that the proper spelling of the species is “bigfoot,” but I prefer “Big Foot,” as his proper name.  I never saw Big Foot, but he was around, lurking.

Some 40 years later, my contemporaries ponder the state of the World.  They grieve over politics and social issues.  They worry about such mundane topics as prostate health and cardiovascular disease.  I, however, still think about Big Foot.

Eastern Kentucky has always had its share of tall tales.  There was Old John Shell, reputedly living to the ripe of old age of 130.  He killed a bear with his bare hands in a creek.  Thus, that creek is now known as Greasy Creek from the grease left by the bear’s carcass.  My Papaw used tell of a headless man who roamed the woods in Island Creek in Pike County.

We now live in a new era of Big Foot.  He’s making a comeback.  The History Channel used to be devoted to subjects like war–you know, history.  Now, it has shows about Big Foot.  Big Foot is on the Science Channel, The Learning Channel and others.   He’s a star again.

I first became familiar with Big Foot’s cousin, The Abominable Snowman.  The Abominable, of course, was one of the stars of the classic Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  He terrified me, even after Hermey sadistically pulled all his teeth.

I learned of the real Abominable through a magazine article–it might have been in Boy’s Life.  Someone had made plaster casts of his foot prints. They were huge!  He had to be real.

It was around that time that I first heard of Big Foot.  He might be known as Sasquatch elsewhere, but in Harlan County, he was–and will always remain–Big Foot.  Harlan County had Big Foot.

To be precise, Loyall had Big Foot.  Loyall is where I grew up.  It was–and is now–a small town.  For years, the sign into town said “Population 1100.”  I guess that was right.  I don’t know how long Loyall has been there, but I’d guess since 1911, the year the first trainload of coal was shipped out of Harlan County.

Loyall is a railroad town, home of a railroad yard.  Originally, it was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  Today, it’s CSX.  The “Yard” is huge, full of old relics and buildings which haven’t been used in decades, but it still runs trains.  It seems like most folks in Loyall worked for the railroad.  My uncle Jack was the Trainmaster at the Yard.  He made sure the trains ran on time–literally.

The Loyall Yard, many years ago. It looks pretty much the same today.

I lived most of my childhood in Rio Vista, a subdivision of sorts just outside Loyall.  It was 5 blocks of houses and a nice, quiet place to live.  Nice neighbors, you slept with your doors unlocked, etc–typical small town USA.  The only downside was that we lived right by the railroad tracks–as did most folks in Loyall.  Even today, I’m sure I could sleep soundly right by a train track.

Just outside Loyall is a mammoth cemetery, Resthaven.  That’s where my parents and younger brother–and many others–are interred.  Near the cemetery was a curved railroad bridge, which I was told was the first curved railroad bridge in the country.  I doubt that, but I like to think it’s true. So, Loyall was pretty ordinary.  Our biggest claim to fame was being saluted once on Hee Haw.

Even though Loyall was ordinary, it had its mysteries.  For example, there was Good Neighbor Road.  For the most part, it was just a little road at the foot of Park Hill lined with houses.  After about a half mile, the road ran out and turned into dirt.  People lived on that stretch, too, but I don’t know who they were.  Their dogs were vicious and would chase you like a pack of wolves.  Past those few homes was the sewer plant.  Past that was a big old house full of people.  We didn’t know them or what they were about.  A friend of mine and I used to go into the woods above that house and look at it with binoculars.  It looked like the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  We never saw anything interesting going on, but it was still creepy.  We knew they were up to no good.  My knew those folks and said they were alright.  I’m sure he was wrong about that.

Then, there was Old Loyall which really was no different from “new” Loyall except that’s where the Yard was located, and I guess it was older.  It’s also where City Hall and the fire department were–and still are–located. But, on the other side of the Yard was a strange stretch of road running behind the Yard.  In the back of the yard were a couple of old school buses with stove pipes in the windows.  People lived in those buses.  At least, I think they were people.

Our biggest mystery was Long Hollow.  It is above Park Hill, where I moved at age 12.  We lived–literally–on the side of the mountain.  The city of Harlan was on the other side of the mountain.  On our side of the mountain was a holler (“hollow” for you city folks).  That was Long Hollow, land of mystery.  To get to it, you had to hike straight through the woods above our house, maybe 500 feet.  Then, you hit the old mine road which you could follow for about a mile.  When it ran out, you just hiked.  Long Hollow was shaded, cool and more than a little eerie.  This is where Big Foot resided.

When I say I lived on the side of the mountain, I mean it.

I think my friend Norman first made me aware of Big Foot.  Norman was a font of information, some true and some false.  He knew of Big Foot, because Big Foot lived up above his house, deep in the woods.  Deep in Long Hollow, the mysterious cove well back in the mountain.

An aerial shot of Loyall showing Big Foot’s last known whereabouts.

It was probably in the 3rd or 4th grade that Norman described the great beast to me.  Big Foot had “the eyes of man; the nose of a bear; the ears of a man; the mouth of a bear; the hands of a man; the feet of a bear.”  Whew.  That’s one scary-sounding abomination.  Even at that young age, I could recognize exaggeration or outright lying, but it was an entertaining tale.

Norman and I saw the movie The Legend of Boggy Creek at the Margie Grand Theater in Harlan.  It was sort of a mock-documentary about the Boggy Creek Monster, kind of a poor man’s Big Foot.  This film had production values that would embarrass a pornographer, but it terrified me.  If Big Foot was anything like the Boggy Creek Monster, we were in trouble.

As an aside, the atmosphere of the Margie Grand made the film all the scarier.  The Margie Grand was an old theater–really old.  Plaster hung in big chunks from the ceiling.  The balcony sagged dangerously overhead.  The only time I was ever in there when the balcony was open, some kid peed off it–on to the audience below.  That’s a special effect George Lucas never thought of.  It had an old stage in front of the screen.  Norman and I would throw popcorn on the stage and watch the rats run out to eat it.  It added a certain grimy creepiness to anything you watched.  Years later, I watched The Legend of Boggy Creek on TV.  It wouldn’t frighten a preschooler.  But, at the Margie Grand, you half-expected the Boggy Creek Monster to be selling tickets.

We hunted for Big Foot.  Imagine, two small 10-year-old kids, heading into the woods, with knives on our belts seeking a beast which would tear us limb from limb.  We would stab him to death if it came to it. We were ready to take him on.

We walked the mining road, occasionally stopping to play with the old equipment.  Hey, we might have been Big Foot Hunters, but we were still kids.  An old dump truck was pretty cool.  Sometimes we encountered feral dogs or “wild” dogs as we called them.  Skinny, mangy and growling–they were damn scary.  I don’t care what kind of dog-lover you are, these mutts would scare the hell out of you. Sometimes, we’d go inside the portals of the old coal mines, an action far more dangerous than Big Foot.

I made several treks into Long Hollow to look for Big Foot.  I never found him.  Oh, occasionally, I saw his footprints or heard him off in the distance.  But, I never had the chance to take him on with my knife, which, incidentally, my cousin brought to me straight from Vietnam.

Some 40 years later, I still have my Big Foot hunting knife.

Even though we never saw Big Foot, people still had some fun with him.  I knew a kid who was obsessed with, and terrified by, Big Foot.  His father sawed huge feet out of plywood, strapped them to his feet and stomped around in their yard when it snowed.  He made tracks right up to his son’s bedroom window.  The kid didn’t sleep for weeks.  That’s a good way to assure years of therapy.

A friend of mine and I once took another kid in the woods to show him where we “saw” Big Foot.  We had another kid waiting to jump out and scare him.  Of course, we had no Big Foot costume nor were any us 9 or 10 feet tall.  Our ersatz Big Foot leaped from behind a tree screaming his best Big Foot scream and whacking a tree with a stick.  It sounded kind of like “YOWWWWWYAAHHH!!”  He had improvised his own Big Foot costume by combining a football helmet with a green Army poncho.  Strangely, it worked and our poor dupe ran screaming out of the woods.

Mostly, Big Foot disappointed me.  Honestly, I never saw him.  I also never saw any footprints.  I tried hard to imagine that I did.  I had seen the eponymous Big Foot film (known as the Patterson Film to us Big Foot-philes).  That’s what I wanted to see, but I didn’t.

Truthfully, I’ve always been a bit of a coward.  If I had really believed he existed, I probably wouldn’t have set foot in those woods.  Nevertheless, it was fun to think about it.  It still is.

Eventually, Big Foot became like the Wallins Creek Panther.  I heard for years that there was a panther in Wallins.  A HUGE panther.  After awhile, I realized that if that many people had seen it, someone would have killed it.  Big Foot–being gargantuan–couldn’t have hidden that long. Say what you will about Harlan County, but our people won’t hesitate to kill something.

Gradually, Big Foot left my consciousness.  He became a thing of memories, like 10 cent cokes and baseball cards.  When I visited my parents, I would sometimes look up toward Long Hollow and think about hiking around.  Mostly, though, I thought about how my parents must have been crazy to allow an 10-year-old to wander off into the woods.  I wouldn’t allow my kids to walk to the corner at that age.

One night, my sons and I watched an atrocious film called Yeti on the SciFi Channel.  Yeti (or Yetti) is another name for the Abominable Snowman.  This Yeti was a maniac, able to leap 40 feet in the air and cover 100 yards in a single bound.  He slaughters most of the football team from “State University” whose plane crashed on his mountain.  Eventually, the Yeti falls off a cliff.  Of course, we find out in the final frame that there were two Yetis, setting the stage for a sequel.  It did, though, bring back my memories of Big Foot.

I’m not sure what has caused the rest of the world’s renewed interest in Big Foot.  Maybe he’s just making a comeback like zombies have done in last few years.  I hope no one captures him.  Capturing is for wusses.  Stab him to death.  That was my plan.

One thing that has always puzzled me is whether there are multiple bigfoots (bigfeet?).  I mean, there have to be, right?  They re-produce, I guess.  Or maybe Big Foot is 130 years old like Old John Shell.  That might make more sense.

So, there you have it.  An actual Big Foot hunter right in your midst.  Oh, by the way, the men’s room at the Margie Grand had its toilet at the bottom of a long flight of stairs.  You had to stand on the steps to pee.  Weird.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

8 Comments

  1. Ha! John, that’s hilarious. I saw that movie and another, The Legend of Bigfoot, at the Margie Grand as a kid. My friends and I became obsessed with finding Bigfoot. I remember us sitting around planning to meet each other at some random point in our adult futures, in Washington state to explore and find the creature! Hasn’t happened yet, but I would do it in a heart beat. 🙂

  2. John, I love your stories! I can imagine as I sat in my porch swing on Emerling Road looking up at that same mountain, that Big Foot was looking at me. It’s fun to read about my Loyall from a different perspective. You brought back the rat memories of Margie Grand. I think they never turned on the lights because they never wanted anyone to see what was in there. My brother explored those mountains and the “caves” and always came back with interesting stories. Never talked about Big Foot, though. Oh, and John Shell is one of my ancestors. Thought you’d like to know.

  3. Wonderful writing! I think I know you and your family. Actually I’m certain. I used to spend days upon days at your neighbor’s house, the Laws family. I write books about strange and bizarre accounts of Harlan County and surrounding areas. I do have several Big Foot stories where folks insist they saw this creature. Jamie and I never searched for Big Foot. We were too busy going to Loyall Pool and being teenagers. We called Good Neighbor Rd., “Sewer Plant Road,” Great memories, thanks for bringing them back.
    Darla Saylor Jackson

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