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.
“Now is the moment of truth,” I thought. I rotated the heavy imprint upward and gasped. A giant footprint had been captured in the cast, revealing details that were hard to see in the rock. A wave of euphoria swept over me. Seeing is believing. “I’m not nuts! This is a real footprint! Woo-hoo!” I screamed, venting excess adrenaline in joyous celebration. Then the tide of epiphany receded, leaving paranoia. “This is not my land. Did anyone see me? Or hear me?” I heard the sounds of a small plane overhead and looked up. “Can they see me?”
I quickly packed the still-warm print cast into the bucket, padding the treasure with a fleece shirt. As if to hide a crime scene, I stashed all evidence of the casting into the pack. I placed heavy rocks over the footprint, then topped them with dead brush. The sun was now sinking below the hilly horizon. Satisfied with the natural concealment, I hiked out. I was giddy with excitement, muttering, “I just found a Bigfoot” over and over, interspersed with whoops and laughter.
Once home I showed my wife Mary (the Princess) the cast. “Wow, that sure looks like a huge foot. Amazing!” she said. She has always been my biggest cheerleader. I hid the cast in the garage, checking on it periodically while contemplating the next move.
When the weekend came, I returned to the print in the rock and made another cast with real plaster of Paris. Then I took photos, including the front page of the North County Times newspaper in the frame, to verify the date. I measured the print’s length and width — 18 inches by 8 inches — and even took off my boot and stuck my foot into the indent. It dwarfed my size-13 foot. This beast had been huge.
After some coaxing about the benefits of a good, healthy hike — and with the additional guilt trip of “If I die, you need to know where it is” — Mary agreed to accompany me on my next trip. Being the better photographer, she took more photos. She then treated us to a swank picnic lunch, with turkey-on-wheat-bread sandwiches, pickles, crackers and cheese cut into perfect slices, juicy red grapes, and the “necessary” napkins. I don’t call her Princess for nothing.
After the initial rush of the discovery subsided, I pondered the next logical step. Should I contact scientists, the media, or keep it a secret? The media should be alerted, I figured. Who better to spread the word of Ramona’s Bigfoot? I compiled a list of the major San Diego TV news stations and newspapers, then sent a typed letter about the discovery to each. I waited for one week. Nothing. “They don’t get it,” I thought. Again I did a mass mailing, this time with copies of the Bigfoot photos. Now they got it.
The phone rang. “Hi. This is the news director from Channel 8 News. Can we send a reporter and a cameraman to the site?”
“When?” I asked.
“Would tomorrow be okay?”
“Sure, but don’t send anyone out of shape. This is a rough hike; they wouldn’t make it.”
The next day, reporter Don Teague and his cameraman, both in shape and chomping at the bit, showed up early. They couldn’t decide which camera to take — a large shoulder version or a small, high-tech Sony. After looking down at where we were headed, the cameraman chose the small one. We hiked to the print site, arriving at 9:00 a.m. For stealth and maximum impact, I didn’t tell them at first that we had reached the site, allowing them to think it was another needed rest stop. When their backs were turned, I removed the brush and stones from the imprint in the rock.
“Gentlemen, what do you think?” I said. I pointed at the now-exposed footprint.
Surprised, they put down their water bottles. “Oh my God,” Don Teague said. He placed his fingers in the footprint.
“That’s really huge!” said the cameraman. “Let’s get some video.” They swung into action.
Their excitement was palpable and, to me, a relief. I hadn’t known what to expect from seasoned news professionals. Don took off his hiking boot and inserted his foot into the imprint. “Man, this is huge!” We were like three adolescent boys, bouncing with exuberance over the discovery.
Don called via cell phone to his newsroom. Within 20 minutes, the News Eight chopper was hovering 30 feet overhead. A cameraman inside filmed from above.
That night on TV, sultry, smoky-eyed Kathleen Bates gave a teaser about what was to come at the start of the news report. “Did Ramona once have a Bigfoot? A Ramona man thinks so. Details at 6:00.” Super-serious Marty Levine and Kathleen Bates led the newscast with the story. It led the news for the next two days, as other local stations caught Bigfoot fever. Fox News picked up the story and ran it on a national program. Pandora’s media box had been opened, and out stomped Bigfoot.
A bubbly gaggle of excited teenagers from Ramona High School rang the doorbell one morning at 8:00. I invited them in. They begged me to take them to the Bigfoot site. “Our English teacher said we could do a report on anything we wanted, and we decided to do a story on your discovery,” their cute spokesgirl said.
“We need to see it,” an athletic-looking boy in a letterman’s jacket chimed in.
The thought of party-animal teenagers rockin’ out at the Bigfoot site steeled my will. “No, sorry,” I said. “I can’t do that yet.”
Disappointed, the girl pleaded, “Please, please.”
Not wanting to be a complete Scrooge, I brought out the plaster foot cast and the photos, spacing it all on the dining room table for their inspection and photo session. After a quick tape-recorded interview of who, what, when, how, but not where, they filed out the door, still high on the idea of a Ramona Bigfoot.
That same day, an overly friendly reporter from the Union-Tribune called for an interview. I gave one over the phone. Then he used the information and the photos I had previously sent to enhance his piece in the next Sunday paper, which smugly mocked people who believe in crypto-zoology, crop circles, and UFOs.
One evening, a brainy scientist called and lectured me in academic detail about how this could not be possible. He ended the conversation with “But I sure would like to see it. Can you take me there?”
“Not at this time,” I said, wondering why he wanted to see it if he was so sure it wasn’t anything.
An enthusiastic man from L.A. called and offered me $200 to see the footprint. “I’ll get back to you,” I said. I still wasn’t willing to reveal the discovery site, no matter the price.
But the next day an AP photographer called. He wanted me to take him to the footprint so he could do a professional photo shoot with high-tech camera equipment.
“What will you do with the photos?” I asked.
“I’ll sell them to media outlets around the world,” he said. He was trying to impress me.
“And what will I get?”
“I’ll give you a nice set of photos.” Clearly, he was hoping that a picture portfolio would seal the deal.
But I was disappointed in the lopsided offer. “I’ll get back to you,” I said.
This Bigfoot business was like an explosion over which I had no control. Being a Christian, I prayed for guidance. Then I took the plaster cast to the Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee. This organization had an Intelligent Designer’s point of view on anthropology. Maybe they could redirect the blast.
One of the professors left a full classroom of students behind to look at the cast. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “Can I keep this and show it to some of my colleagues?”
“Sure,” I said, “but I’m pressed for time and only have one good cast. One day only, then I’ll be back.”
When I returned the next day, the analysis was “We can’t figure out what it’s from. Maybe a Gigantopithecus or some other prehistoric ape. Extremely interesting!”
I sent photos of the print to a Bigfoot website run by a local expert, Michael Esordi. He posted them on his site, and within days, the Bigfoot people started chiming in with opinions. Dr. Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University expert on Bigfoot prints, said, “It can’t be. I see a quartz vein in the rock.” However, the supposed “quartz vein” was a white mineral-water stain from a seasonal flow of water. So much for the “expert.”
Another scientist from UC San Diego called and proceeded to lecture me on why this could not be. “That anomaly is caused by foreign matter that got caught in molten rock,” he insisted.
“Could a giant ape foot be considered foreign matter?” I queried back.
The silent pause was seconds long as he thought it over. “Yes, it could,” he conceded.
Other experts who reviewed the footprint on the Bigfoot website said, “It’s a bear’s rear paw print. No doubt about it.” Or “Native American Indians carved the print in the rock. I’ve seen similar work elsewhere, but not this detailed.” Still others said with that side toe, it was a giant ape.
I took the plaster cast to Michael Esordi, the Sasquatch expert in Point Loma, who runs the Bigfoot website. He made a latex mold of the cast, so he could make and sell copies on his site. I was to receive profits, but he suddenly moved to Rhode Island, and I never saw a dime, yet he kept the Ramona Bigfoot cast in his merchandise offerings for a while.
I was feeling very used by the so-called experts, who seemed to twist the Bigfoot find to fit their own perspectives, especially that shoot-from-the-hip scientist who couldn’t tell a water stain from a quartz vein. Surely, there were others out there who knew more and could better determine what the find was. But how to find them? How could I get this enigma to them?
After researching, I contacted a Dr. Thomas Raab from Los Angeles. He said his company, Interpress Worldwide, could put the story in 250 major media outlets around the world, with me retaining the rights to the story, photos, and interviews. “There would be royalties,” he assured me. Buoyed by the phone conversation, we set up a meeting at a Starbucks in Studio City.
“Now I’m getting somewhere,” I thought as I sat at an outdoor table, basking in the midday sun. The beautiful people were out in force. Every young, pretty woman who minced by on four-inch platforms was a potential starlet, and every well-dressed man with muscled physique was an onscreen action hero. This place oozed wealth, power, and dream-makers. I stuck out like the Tin Man in the city of Oz. No Bruno Magli shoes or the ubiquitous Rolex. A Bigfoot plaster cast was in a cardboard box on the sidewalk beside me, a manila folder of photos on the table. I waited without the mandatory coffee cup in hand, since I’d never acquired a taste for that dark drink.
Dr. Raab spotted me immediately. He was a handsome man, much younger than I expected, with black hair and an easygoing smile. After greeting me, he got himself a cup of coffee. I proceeded to show him the cast and photos. “Very impressive!” he said. “Now, where did you find this?” Others seated around us were ogling the plaster cast and eavesdropping on our conversation.
“Southern California,” I said, being vague on purpose, acutely aware of the others listening.
He got my drift. “I understand your reluctance to divulge the exact location, and I appreciate that you haven’t told others. Because, without exclusive control over this find, my company wouldn’t be interested.” After 15 minutes of Bigfoot banter he cut to the chase. He took a typed contract out of a folder and handed it to me. “Look this over. If it’s to your liking, we’ll promote this find worldwide, providing that it is genuine.”
“It’s real,” I assured him. “This is not a hoax.”
We shook hands, and he melted into the opulent urban backdrop from which he’d appeared. I drove home on a high.
The contract was to the point. It said that I could not promote or divulge anything more about the property (the footprint) for a period of one year. This stipulation was to give Interpress Worldwide the time needed to take the plaster cast, photos, and a rock sample that Dr. Raab had requested from the footprint area to scientists in Europe and South America for investigation and carbon dating.
After two days of reviewing the contract and discussing it with Mary, I decided to sign it, trusting Dr. Raab, and cautiously believing that this was a legitimate organization. Their involvement seemed like an opportunity to take Ramona’s Bigfoot to the next level of analysis. Of course, the chance for some financial benefit was like a bright red cherry on top of an ice cream sundae — very appealing. So I boxed up the contract, cast, photos, and a small rock sample and sent it all off.
As the months went by and he traveled to European museums, Dr. Raab would send periodic email updates that the investigation was proceeding. Finally, I received his emailed response:
Dear James Snyder:
First let me apologize for the long time it took to get back to you. But I guess all the efforts, waiting, and patience were not in vain.
Your box, including rock sample and cast, traveled some three (3) continents.
I was able to present the exposé to several international (and, more importantly, independent from each other) experts in geology and paleontology, such as
(1) Dr. Heinz A. Kollmann, Chairman of the Department of Geology and Paleontology of the Natural History Museum in Vienna Austria and his team.
They are very knowledgeable, due to the vast experience of explorations and expeditions conducted by them worldwide. Their expertise is based on hundreds of years of data collected by the royal expeditions of the former Austrian empire.
(2) Angel Duran Herrera, Archeologist.
(3) Daniel Fracinetti, Head of the Paleontology Lab of the Natural History Museum of the University of Chile.
Their expertise is based on many ancient archeological, geological, and paleontological findings and excavations along the greater stretch of South America, including Continent-specific knowledge of flora, fauna, and culture of the Americas.
(4) Eduardo Valenzuela, Independent Paleontologist with great reputation and expertise in Chile.
All experts seem to independently concur on the composition and creation of the rock sample. Some discrepancy of its origin may still need some more investigation on my behalf.
However, given the fact that the “footprint” is imbedded in the same rock from which the sample was taken, experts seem to exclude organic involvement.
Some of the experts agreed to provide us with a written statement and explanation.
Given all the facts provided by you and known to me, at this point it seems that what appears to be a big “footprint” may merely be a game of nature.
However, there are still some meetings and investigation pending. But suspicions seem to harden that we may not be on to a possible organic print of fossil.
I will also try to call you for a personal update later today to discuss further action.
Thank you again for your patience, but I think we did the right thing.
With best regards,
Dr. Thomas Raab
The report was a disappointment. For one whole year I had put the 800-pound gorilla in the closet, hoping a scientist, or someone else who might hear about it, would finally give this creature a nod of authenticity. I was very discouraged. Their scientific training seemed to have limited their vision, only seeing through a single lens. I was still not convinced it was just a fluke of nature.
Occasionally, I still show the plaster cast to people, and I’ll check on the hidden print if out hiking in the area. I sometimes imagine what the creature that left its mark on that Ramona hill might have looked like.
One day, when friends were over, I showed their five-year-old girl the plaster cast. “What do you think this is?” I asked.
She looked at it for a few seconds before replying with conviction, “That’s a big foot!” Out of the mouths of babes.
One thing is certain: The next time I let the Ramona Bigfoot loose, I won’t look to science to validate the find. Because seeing is believing.