In the Valley of the Noble Beyond begins with a dramatic scene in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. John Zada, a journalist and photographer, is being led to where a local man saw a Sasquatch 30 years earlier, in 1983. Zada and his guide don’t see the fabled creature—but they do barely avoid an encounter with a grizzly bear and a cub.
“We’re forced to crawl on our hands and knees, past sprawling blooms of wet, rotting skunk cabbage, making loud noises, and occasionally having to untangle ourselves from the branches that snag our packs,” Zada writes. The men came looking for Sasquatch, and found fear; Zada’s book suggests they are one and the same.
We spoke about the mythology of the wilderness, the political and cultural implications of writing about Bigfoot, and why we keep believing in mysteries.
The Millions: You write about being “obsessed by stories about Bigfoot” when you were a kid, thinking the “most memorable tales were set in the mountainous and exotic Pacific Northwest.” Among the roads and houses of your Toronto suburb, there was “a wooded ravine through which a creek ran…It didn’t matter that it was a pruned pseudo-forest existing in a choke hold of suburban sprawl. The ravine was a self-contained extension of all wilderness areas—a spark from the fire of grander wilds.” How did these two experiences—a whisper of wilderness among suburbia and 1970s television shows about the paranormal—coalesce into an ardent search for Sasquatch?
John Zada: Even though I had let the Sasquatch preoccupation slide somewhat in early adulthood, I kept having serendipitous run-ins with the topic. Years ago, something large and seemingly bipedal shadowed a friend and I while on a day hike near Nelson, British Columbia. Later, a few acquaintances who had almost no knowledge of Sasquatch, and were the least likely people you could imagine to discuss it, had eyewitness encounters. Those sightings included lesser known, but nonetheless typical, details of the creatures. So in a sense the topic kept seeking me out. Finally, when I was on a solo press trip in the Great Bear Rainforest on the British Columbia coast and came across a bunch of reports without seeking them out, I knew I had to look into this further.
TM: What is it about the Pacific Northwest that captured your imagination as a kid—and why does it seem to be the center of American Bigfoot mythology?
JZ: Like most peoples’ predispositions, my attitude to the Northwest was a function of my environment and upbringing. Growing up on the outskirts of Toronto, a Great Lakes city set in a largely flat and mundane landscape, left far too much to the imagination of a kid with vagabond genes. Road trips from Toronto to Detroit and Montreal were (and still are) journeys of tortuous visual monotony. By contrast, mountains are wild and magical landscapes that contain depth and brim with loftiness. Because, from a distance, they conceal far more than they reveal, mountains insinuate mystery and beckon one to explore them.
The Cascade and Coast ranges always struck me as the most mystical of mountains. Their primeval forests, volcanoes, and snowcapped peaks seemed to be tailor-made for giants. When I looked at old pictures of Washington State’s Mount Saint Helen’s, or California’s Mount Shasta, I intuited a spirit and wildness tied to them that spoke to the ineffable magic of life. I think Sasquatches are the personification of those same essences, which is why they’re so often associated with the Pacific Northwest.
TM: In the book, you note that John Burns, a writer for Maclean’s magazine, wrote dozens of “articles about the [Sasquatch] creatures, which he wholeheartedly believed in and whose protection he later advocated for—but which he never once saw.” Later, you admit that “stories of monsters, the fairy-tale landscapes, and the novelty of travel mix to form an intoxicating cocktail…The thrill of the chase is a high. And I want something to show for it.” In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond is full of dramatic, tense chase scenes—the book is, quite literally, an adventure story. How did you negotiate being an objective journalist with the pull of adventure? Is such negotiation even necessary?
JZ: At a certain point in the journey I realized that the book couldn’t be a work of pure, classical journalism in which I doggedly cling to a dualistic, black-and-white, and very left-brained investigation into whether—or not—Sasquatches exist. I agree with British scholar Iain McGilchrist, who writes in his book, The Master and His Emissary: “The nature of attention one brings to bear on anything alters what one finds; what we aim to understand changes its nature with the context in which it lies.”
In other words, in this case, you’re going to limit what you understand a Sasquatch to be— what you see in Sasquatch—by looking at it solely from one specific viewpoint. There was too much to unpack subjectively and experientially on that journey, including my own struggle with the Bigfoot obsession, to push it all aside in favour of a very logical and formal investigation that would yield just one of two pre-determined answers. Anyhow, a journalistic work need not be “objective”—a word which, in that field, describes an artificial pretense of neutrality—for it to qualify as journalism.
TM: You make some mention of it in your book, but what is your opinion of the brief but iconic 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film as evidence of Bigfoot, and as a cultural document?
JZ: I’m no expert in bipedal locomotion or primate anatomy, and I can’t speak for the loads of analysis done on the film that argues for its authenticity. What does strike me about the purported creature in the film is its seeming body mass and musculature. As the creature retreats you see its muscles move and ripple. That 16mm footage came at a time when Hollywood started producing Planet of the Apes movies that featured more or less straight cut costumes. By contrast there’s something fluid and organic about the Patterson-Gimlin film that defies what we might expect from a gorilla suit made in the 1960s—or from the undeniable hoaxes we see online today. You see the female creature’s breasts move—an unexpected and superfluous detail for a hoax. The guys who shot that film were also men of modest means to say the least. There was no money to put to elaborate cutting-edge costumes. That’s what strikes me the most. I know that there are questions lingering about Patterson’s motives and credibility.
The Patterson film, our dependence on it for either ultimate proof or disproof of the Sasquatch, is a good illustration of our culture-wide mentality that something can only exist to the extent we can visually or physically show it to. It’s a monument to our unshakeable materialism.
TM: As you consider the various reasons for the preponderance of Bigfoot sightings across cultures and time periods, you note that “People who regard Bigfoot as real and who go looking for it, as well as eyewitnesses who become obsessed by it, are chasing a symbol, a mental representation of their own or someone else’s experience.” If Bigfoot is a “psychocultural or metaphysical phenomenon,” why has it taken the particular shape that it does—of a humanoid whose gaze disarms even hunters who have the creatures in their rifle sights?
JZ: One of the possibilities I put forward in the book, in addition to Sasquatches being real animals, is that some people who “see” or otherwise encounter a Bigfoot are experiencing emanations of nature for which their minds have no pre-set mental patterns, or templates. It’s as if they are experiencing, ever slightly, an altered state. That idea, I admit, is more of a philosophical or phenomenological assertion than a purely scientific one. Nonetheless, perhaps the mind, in an attempt to understand the subtle yet powerful frequencies of a living, sentient, forest, ends up personifying it somehow. Nature presents, and we re-present it—and then chase the latter bi-product. Or perhaps there is a pattern within us, an ancient one, of how we once were and appeared, which is brought out under those circumstances. A deep, deep memory of some kind.
TM: As the book develops, you become more and more invested in your quest for Sasquatch—and engage various theories of how we process reality and retain memory (including the work of Bruce Wexler and V.S. Ramachandran). These scientific and theoretical interludes never feel clinical. At what point in your writing of the book did you encounter or research these theories, and why do you see these sections as important to In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond?
JZ: I don’t think you can approach a subject like this and not explore psychology, perception, and the nature of reality. I thought it would be beneficial on so many levels to include this material in the book. The research not only helps explain why some people see and believe in Sasquatches, but it also sheds light on why so many people might not see Bigfoots—if they exist and live around us.
Similarly, the material sheds light on how and why Sasquatch proponents construct and then defend (with such vehemence) their models of reality. But that applies too to hard-core skeptics, debunkers, and closed-minded scientists. I wasn’t picking just on Sasquatch enthusiasts. I wanted to shed light on all the players in this mystery. If in the process we can understand the deeper, unconscious machinations of our minds, we move that much closer towards self-knowledge. That, to me anyways, is a greater prize than even finding the Sasquatch.
TM: Your book is about Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and other humanoid creatures and legends, but it is also about culture and tradition. Part of the book takes place in Bella Bella, British Columbia, which is the seat of the Heiltsuk First Nation. During one scene at a backyard bonfire, a man says to you: “You’re on an Indian reservation and [Sasquatch] is the kind of thing you want to write about?” The man continues: “Look around you! We’re hurting here! There aren’t any jobs.” Do you think this represents the perspective of the majority of First Nation citizens—that outsider interest in Sasquatch stories is for reasons of entertainment, rather than genuine care?
JZ: Yes, a little bit. I think many residents of the places I visited get annoyed when people come to their communities with an obsessively singular mindset, ignoring all else those people and places have to offer. Bigfoot obsessives included. At the same time, there is so much interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch in those towns and villages, and so many people with experiences, that having a serious, open mind created an instant talking point, or bond, with people there.
The context to the bonfire scene was that the community was distraught and traumatized by a tragic fire that had just destroyed their supermarket and other facilities. The town was in a state of crisis at the time. The man’s criticism, both valid and poignant, was an object lesson in the psychology of perception I later write about. It showed the extent to which I had marginalized that crisis because of my Bigfoot tunnel vision. I wonder if something similar happens to Bigfoot researchers when they are in the forest looking for Sasquatch sign. Because their minds are fixated on one thing, they lose sight of much else around them.
TM: I love that this is a book about wilderness. You make the great point that “How far-fetched (or not) we deem the Sasquatch might also hinge on our perception of space. Bigfoots may be unbelievable to so many people simply because most of us are disconnected from the true depths and expanses of the earth and its wild areas.” We don’t understand the wilderness—much of which “is dense, overgrown, and obstacle-littered, with little visibility and sometimes rent with cliffs, gorges, gullies, and canyons.” What—if anything—can be done to help people appreciate the authentic wilderness?
JZ: There is no better antidote to the urban-centric illusion of a human-conquered planet than to bushwhack a mile, off-trail (at your own risk), through a dense, mountainous rainforest. And then see how long it takes. There are many ways to consider space. I once read that many people who get lost in the bush don’t actually wander very far from where they originally became disoriented. They walk in squiggly lines and circles along a kind of infinite trajectory of their own making, through old surroundings that are unrecognizable because they appear different from different angles.
One’s introduction to the wild needn’t be that extreme. A period spent hiking, trekking, or otherwise traversing greater than normal distances on foot, where the pace of movement is slow enough to allow the appreciation of very small details, can reveal something of the immensity of a given landscape. That kind of journey may hint at, but will never truly convey, an entire region that is greater than the sum of its parts since our narrow trajectories are thin slices of a place. That applies just as much to brief travels to foreign cultures as much as to a five-day hike from one end of a park to another.
TM: You write: “In First Nations cultures, the creatures associated with Bigfoot, even if they are also flesh-and-blood animals, are imbued with religious and supernatural significance.”Do you see these religious and spiritual elements appearing in other cultures who report Bigfoot, including American culture?
JZ: I think the interest in the creatures among non-indigenous people in North America also largely stems from an impulse which we could call religious—maybe not in the conventional sense of the word, but where it denotes our deep yearning for something otherworldly and beyond the pale. As our thirst for that magic has deepened over time, running in parallel with the soulless mechanization of our species and the exploitation of nature, our depiction of the creature has become ever more complex and bizarre. Sasquatches in the 1960s were not associated with mysterious orbs of light or were not thought to dematerialize. Proponents of those views would say we simply know more about Bigfoots now. Perhaps. But I can’t help but feel those sentiments are both a sign of our turbulent times and a reflection of a deep, unmet need.
I do think it’s similar elsewhere in the world. Wildmen are a bridge and a connection with the unknown and unobservable universe that deep down we feel is right there, right beside us, but which we can’t see or articulate properly. Whether it does or doesn’t physically exist as an animal, that may be the Sasquatch’s deepest significance: what it tells about ourselves.