On an overcast January day in 2002, I plunged into the backcountry of East County, carrying a half-full pack and weathered walking stick. Hiking into the serene green of silence and solitude was my escape, and lately it had become an obsession. It offered a mental, physical, even a spiritual reprieve from the fast-paced SoCal lifestyle. Like alcohol to an alcoholic — the more I hiked, the more I craved.
The worn dirt trail dropped steeply, and unstable footing made for an on-again, off-again controlled slide for both Richard, my long-time hiking buddy, and me. We had been on 200-plus hikes over the years, feeding off the challenges and discoveries each backcountry trek would bring. This trip appeared to be no different. As we descended into a magnificent green-and-brown, chaparral-filled valley, the pristine headwaters of the San Diego River beckoned, shimmering silver in the weak sunlight 1500 feet below us. Beyond the open valley, brooding on the horizon to the east, the proud Cuyamaca Mountains sat like squat kings, mute sentinels lording it over their kingdom below.
After 50 tense minutes of knee-pounding, ankle-twisting descent, we abandoned the rutted trail and slipped into the tangled chaparral. The low, brittle branches tore at our pants as we stomped up the river gorge. We followed a faint deer trail that only animals and brush-savvy humans could discern. The narrow trail zigzagged upward into the ravine. The pungent smell of sage filled our nostrils. For the next 20 minutes, the only sounds were heavy breathing and branches snapping, occasionally punctuated with an “Ow!” as another branch slapped my face. By the time we were ejected into a clearing, my T-shirt was soaked with perspiration, and goose bumps had exploded across my bare arms.
The rare brushless area was an open oasis of rock and moss, a needed break from the profuse vegetation of the surrounding sides of the gorge. Rock ruled here, arousing our prospecting curiosity: we were eager for a glint of elusive gold. I chugged an entire liter bottle of water. After doing the same, Rich headed one way and I the other. I was enticed by a dry streambed littered with jumbled boulders, granite worn smooth by millenniums of moving water and wind.
An unexpected shape caught my eye. “What the heck,” I murmured. “That looks like a huge footprint.” Closer, I ogled a five-toed imprint embedded into the rock. “Hey, Rich, I just found Bigfoot!” I shouted over my shoulder. Rich made his way toward me. I squatted down to examine the impression and noticed dermal folds under the biggest toe. The toes were flexed to the side in unison, the way mine would be if I stepped at the same angle as this foot once had. “Oh, yeah, I see it,” said Rich. “It’s probably a natural rock formation. Sure looks real, though.” There was an unspoken rule of hiking courtesy between us: You show interest in what I find, and I’ll do the same. It didn’t matter what it was — animal skull, pottery fragments, arrowhead, an oddly shaped rock, an old rusty can, etc. A buddy inspecting your find was a way of justifying the hike.
Rich rock-hopped up the streambed, searching again for his own finds, while I lingered. Clearing the print of dirt and debris, I studied it, unable to determine with certainty whether this huge gorilla-like footprint was authentic. It had so many apelike/manlike features — opposing side toe, heel indent, ball of the foot, the indent between the ball and the toes, toes with toenail points, dermal folds under the big toe, plus the scrunched toes all racked in unison to the side, corresponding to the load of a biped stepping at an approximate 45-degree angle. A coincidence? It couldn’t be. Or could it? I’d seen hundreds of imprints in rocks, but this was beyond bizarre.
I shook the cobweb of questions from my brain and followed the sounds of snapping branches made by Rich, already swallowed up by the green sage. We explored until the weak winter sun found its way into the western sky. We hiked out in the dark, as usual — flashlights are for emergencies or wimpy hikers, and we were proud of our night-hiking prowess — yet already, I was planning my return to the rock enigma.
Soon, curiosity about the footprint had eroded my ability to think of anything else. A general contractor, I got off work early one day and decided to put the issue to rest. I stuffed my backpack with a five-gallon bucket that contained a gallon jug of water, a third of a bag of 20-minute (hot mud) drywall compound, a jar of Vaseline, a paintbrush, a trowel, and some cardboard and tape. Then I made for the trailhead. The extra weight, along with my usual pack items, left me exhausted. When I arrived at the rock site, I collapsed and lay on the sun-warmed granite beside the footprint for a while. Then I got out a paintbrush and began to sweep the indents in the rock.
With the dirt removed, I splashed water into the print and cleaned it meticulously, wiping it dry with my T-shirt. I felt like an amateur anthropologist, smearing the warm, gooey Vaseline into every inch of the print’s surface, careful to leave only a thin uniform coat. I stroked the Vaseline with the brush to remove any excess lubricant.
The wet drywall compound smoothed to a cake batter–like consistency when stirred in the bucket with the trowel. I quickly built a low cardboard retaining wall and secured it to the granite with masking tape. The wall was needed to keep the drywall compound from flowing out of the footprint. Gingerly troweling in the hot mud, I questioned my judgment, vacillating between “This is nuts. What are you doing? What a waste of time. Are you mental?” and “No, I need to know. Do it! Follow through.”
The fast-setting drywall compound was hard in about half an hour. Yet because of its thickness, I gave it another half hour to be sure. I’d come too far and expended too much energy to blow the casting because of haste. With timid prying, using a 12-inch K-bar knife, I tried to lift up the cast — nothing. More pressure. Still nothing. For 40 minutes, the white casting couldn’t be budged. The sun was heading home when, with a final pry, whoosh. The cast separated from the stone in one unbroken piece.