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Author explores bigfoot fascination

When Josh Buhs sent an e-mail in the fall of 2006, I was initially more than a little dubious.

"I am a historian, currently working on a cultural history of bigfoot," he wrote. "I saw your recent article, 'I've Always Believed There Is a Bigfoot,' and liked it very much.

"As it happens, I have just finished a chapter that concerns Ron Olson, and I was wondering if you could pass on my e-mail and home address to him, and tell him I would be interested in having his reaction to the chapter," he added.

He was referring to a Sept. 3, 2006, "Off the Beaten Path" column about Eugene resident Ron Olson who, with his father and a friend, built the bigfoot trap near what is now Applegate Lake in 1974. As the headline indicated, Olson was — and is — a bigfoot believer.

My skepticism was twofold: First, the big fellow with the size 18 footprint has been known to attract a few oddballs. Secondly, as one who has been inching toward completing a book for years, I know how difficult it is to finish the marathon.

Turns out my dubiousness was unfounded.

"Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend" was published Friday by the University of Chicago Press. Written by Buhs, 36, of Vacaville, Calif., the 279-page hardback is available for $29 at a bookstore near you, as well as at amazon.com. A reviewer's copy arrived here two weeks ago.

The skillfully written book isn't about debunking the legend or proving the big guy exists. Rather, Buhs, whose other book, "The Fire Ant Wars," was published by the same printing house in 2004, explores the cultural phenomenon created by the Sasquatch lore.

Buhs takes us around the world, from Olson's bigfoot trap on the upper Applegate River to the search for Yeti in the snowy Himalayan peaks with Sir Edmund Hillary. You will read about Roger Patterson, who shot the grainy film footage of an alleged bigfoot along Bluff Creek in the Klamath River drainage and Washington State University professor Grover Krant, who sought to give gravitas to what cryptozoologists have dubbed Gigantopithecus americana.

The stories are invariably interesting, sometimes strange, often humorous and always entertaining. It's a good read, particularly if you've ever camped in a wilderness and wondered what lurks in the darkness just beyond the dying campfire light.

The writer, who has a degree in history and the sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania, lets readers make their own conclusion.

He does note in the preface that he doesn't believe the big boy exists. Yet you won't find that bias in reading his book.

"I'm willing to concede people out there might see something they otherwise can't explain," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "I personally don't believe it is a big hairy beast. But a lot of people are very sincere about what they've seen.

"There are the hoaxsters out there," he continued. "But there is also a real core group of people who are very sincere and earnest, just trying to understand what their friends have seen or they have seen themselves."

Reared in California, Buhs recalled first learning of the bigfoot legend as a youngster. He also has camped throughout the Northwest.

"The approach I wanted to take was not, 'Yes, it does exist' or 'No, it doesn't,' but to look at how Americans think about nature and our ideas about wilderness, particularly in the 19th century," he said. "I also wanted to look at the different ways the bigfoot legend has spread. It is very ubiquitous."

He also explores why there was so much interest in the creature at different times in our history, including the 1970s.

"I didn't expect to find this many people involved or the detailed information that was out there," he said. "When you get into the microscopic anatomy of a footprint cast, that's very specific ... I had a blast writing it."

He is now researching a book about the Forteans, folks who follow the work of Charles Hoy Fort, an early 20th-century writer who devoted his life to phenomena on the thin edge between fact and fantasy.

"I think that could be very interesting," he said.

On a sadder note, Walt Smith, 64, the Medford resident profiled here last Sunday, died in a motorcycle crash early Wednesday afternoon about 25 miles east of Lakeview on the first day of his trip to Washington, D.C. You may recall he was traveling with fellow Medford residents Nick and Linda Moreau en route to the annual Rolling Thunder gathering honoring veterans. He wasn't about to let his years-long battle against kidney cancer slow him down.

Although I had met him only once, he struck me as a bright and brave fellow with a keen sense of humor and a great outlook on life. My gut feeling was confirmed by telephone calls and e-mails from his many friends after his death.

Rest in peace, Walt.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Author explores bigfoot fascination