Colleen O’Neil’s “Waiting for Bigfoot,” is barely a “longform” article at just under 3000 words, but since it’s about twice the length of a typical Slate or Salon story, I say it qualifies. O’Neil’s story takes her on an outing with a group of Ohio Bigfoot enthusiasts/researchers.
The tone of the story is light, but respectful. She doesn’t openly mock the group, though she’s clearly a nonbeliever. But she observes and listens to the people she meets; she gives the reader a sense of the being there in the woods with them:
WHEN I ARRIVED AT the campground that night, I found a dozen or so men and women lounging in lawn chairs around a campfire. I’d expected a few skinny, acne-speckled teenage boys and maybe some shotgun-wielding folks in tinfoil hats. But these people looked … normal—a group of middle-aged men and women in blue jeans and lumpy sweatshirts. The men sported camouflage hunting hats, and the women had short frizzy hair. They looked more like volunteer firefighters than paranormal enthusiasts.
I sat down next to a man from Pittsburgh who offered me a cookie.
“I don’t believe in Bigfoot; I just believe in Shawna’s cookies,” he chuckled, gesturing toward one of the women. “I just happened to be lost in the woods one day and come upon these people. And next thing you know, they start talking about hairy guys with big feet who live in the woods.
O’Neil spends some time on the history of bigfoot sightings and its grip on folklore and legend around the world. She explores the enduring interest in the mythic man-ape-monster. But her story quickly veers back towards the group she meets. O’Neil clearly sees this as a story about the people, not the mysterious creature they’ve come together to find.
Nancy puffed on her inhaler, Bernie shoved his “Bigfoot kit” (plaster for footprint casting, a stick of beef jerky, and an audio recorder) into his backpack, and Todd handed out flashlights to everyone. Then we set off down the trail.
For the past two hours, Bernie has led us down miles of dark trails. We’ve walked to the historic stone house by the lake, to the spot where Bernie and Nancy had their sighting, to the entrance of the caves that have the most nightly Bigfoot activity. We’ve taken so many turns; I have no idea where I am.
Every once in a while, we stop so Nancy or Todd can shriek and shout gibberish into the forest. That’s how they communicate with any creatures that might be nearby. They encourage me to try it; Bigfoot is attracted to female voices. I let out a weak yelp. Nancy smiles proudly. I blush and laugh nervously, feeling totally ridiculous. Are they trying to prove something to me here? It’s really not working.
We continue tramping through the undergrowth. Todd has been talking about paranormal activity for the past half-hour. His girlfriends, he says, have never really been into Bigfoot or ghosts. He’s single at the moment. He pauses. “You know,” he says to Bernie, “you guys are lucky to have each other to do this with. It’s good to have anyone to go on these hikes with—especially someone like a mate.”
There’s something very simple and effective about this story.
The hook is that this is a bunch of people who hike around the woods looking for Bigfoot, but it’s really about a group of people who’ve come together and found connections and community. O’Neil shows it to us rather than telling us. By the end of the piece, it doesn’t really matter if they find proof of the big hairy Sasquatch.