The first time I saw him was in the summer when I was thirteen years old, ninety miles north of Fresno in the Sierra National Forest.
We were on a family vacation to visit my father’s half-brother, Gregory, a successful San Francisco-based actuary. A week before we were scheduled to arrive, Uncle Greg decided that a lively – but mostly silent – hiking excursion in the middle of nowhere would be preferable to discussing the particulars of his latest divorce – Aunt Margo had left him for a t’ai-chi instructor named Lotus or something similarly floral – or subjecting us to his undecorated condo with eggshell-colored walls that reeked of the desolation inherent in unforeseen, late-middle-aged bachelordom. I was just happy to get away from Andrea, my first crush, who had recently dumped me over instant messenger in a savage proto-emoji assault.
Today I probably wouldn’t be able to pick Uncle Greg out of a police lineup of pale, foie-gras-livered insurance executives, but I’ll never forget the visual details of that trip: wandering through dense, pine and oak-covered foothills and wildflower-strewn meadows, watching Chinook salmon break water in the Merced River, climbing up to the sparse, chilly tundra. And arguing with my little brother, Gordon (who was still talking at this point), about whose turn it was to use one of the three single-use cameras we’d been allotted.
On the second-to-last day of hiking, we were descending the western slope of a smallish peak, heading back to civilization. Gordy, as usual, was being a ten-year-old shithead, wasting the last of our Kodaks to snap away aimlessly at the dense vegetation on either side of us, creating splatter-pieces that would, once they were developed, probably make Basquiat look like a Dutch master. Around a sharp bend in the trail, I noticed a cool multi-colored rock pile that someone had built to resemble a pyramid. Knowing that there probably only two or three exposures left on the camera, I snatched it from Gordy’s sausage-link fingers and aimed it at the rocks.
“You stupid dingleberry!” he screeched at me in that weird, wavy voice that never ended up dropping to the octave it should have. He scampered away to find my parents, muttering a few more PG-13 curses along the way.
The adults in our party were farther along the trail, out of sight, having what I imagined was a very somber discussion about the three empty bottles of navy-strength gin that had tumbled out of Uncle Greg’s sleeping bag when we’d been packing up camp the previous morning. I had at least a few seconds to myself before Gordy tattled. I squinted into the Kodak’s viewfinder, turned the flash on, and aimed at the rocks.
Before I was ready to snap the picture, I heard rustling in the woods, maybe thirty yards from where I was crouching. Whatever it was, it sounded big, way bigger than the bobcat my dad had spotted scaling a red fir a couple days earlier. I crept into the forest to get a closer shot, my free hand reaching into the pocket of my cargo shorts for the canister of bear mace that my mom had made me promise not to use on my brother.
I wasn’t quiet enough. A massive head and torso emerged from behind a moss-colored log. He was covered in reddish-brown fur, had a wide, simian nose and dark, brooding eyes that pierced me with a combination of curiosity and mild annoyance as he munched on some leaves with teeth the size of wheat crackers. He was standing upright, must have been at least eight feet tall. And even though I couldn’t be sure of his actual gender – “He” just seemed to have some really strong, stoic masculine vibes going on – his species was obvious.
I snapped the last three exposures on the camera’s roll as fast as I could. The Bigfoot stood motionless, silently chewing and pondering the situation, probing the depths of my early-teen soul with a gaze that felt decidedly empathetic. Time suddenly seemed to slow down. To my adrenaline-addled mind, I had found a hairy father figure, one who would understand the pain Andrea’s endless streams of digital frowny faces had caused, and wouldn’t just tell me to suck it up and to disconnect the modem because he needed to use the phone.
As weird as it sounds, we were having a moment.
Until the shrill sounds of Gordy’s increasingly louder whining broke the forest’s silence. I swiveled for a couple seconds to glare back in the direction of the trail. When I turned around, Bigfoot was gone.
Before we left California, my parents took the Kodak to a one-hour-photo place near the airport, just so I’d shut up about what I’d thought I’d seen. I tore open the envelope that contained the developed pictures while were waiting to check our bags. The first picture I’d taken looked like one of Gordy’s: a chaotic sludge of green and brown streaks. The second was only a little better, you could see a blurry but somewhat defined figure that was clearly mammalian, in that it might have resembled anything from a gorilla to a Rottweiler, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
The third picture was a keeper. It wasn’t the clearest shot, the creature seemed a little farther away than I remembered, but you could plainly see the details of his hair, nose, teeth, and, most importantly, his eyes.
“Bear,” my dad said, looking over my shoulder as he handed me my plane ticket.
“Definitely a bear, hon,” my mom said, giving me another half-hearted scolding for leaving the trail before returning to rummaging the confines of a carry-on bag for her in-flight vampire romance novel.
Gordy cupped his hand around my ear and craned his head in my direction. “I believe you, Vance,” he whispered defiantly, which almost made me stop hating him for breaking the bond Bigfoot and I had so briefly shared.
The lukewarm response to the photograph did little to quiet my manic enthusiasm. When we got back home to Connecticut, I sent photocopies of the picture to the zoology departments of all the local colleges and a handful of promising-sounding “research” organizations – the North American Bigfoot Alliance, the Sasquatch Exploration Society, et cetera. I got their addresses from a mulleted thirtysomething named Todd who played Magic: The Gathering at the local library (until a couple months later when a custodian found the cameras he’d been hiding in the bathrooms near the children’s section).
Though the colleges never got back to me, the non-academic response was more than anything I expected. Not only did the higher-ups at the organizations I’d contacted believe me, they wanted to know more. Was I able to collect any hair or stool samples? Had I heard any distinct vocalizations prior to making visual contact? Did I know the exact GPS coordinates of the sighting?
Unfortunately the picture was the only tangible thing I had to offer, but nevertheless, I was asked to be interviewed, invited to join online chat forums and to attend biannual gatherings, and offered the chance to go on an all-expenses-paid scientific expedition, retracing the hike I’d taken through the Sierra National Forest with a rogue primatologist who called himself Abominable Andy. For the first time I felt like I was part of something special, a community, albeit one that seemed to contain more than a few greasy basement-dwellers, the type of men who, like Todd, probably had pictures of a much different variety hidden on secret hard drives somewhere.
This was also right around the time that Gordy stopped talking. One day he came home from school and walked upstairs without his daily ritual of begging for a forbidden pre-dinner Pudding Pop, which was strange, but not an immediate cause for concern. For the next five hours he sat on his bed staring at nothing, totally emotionless, an activity that would become his preferred pastime for the better part of three decades.
Initially the consensus was that he was faking it, that the zombie routine was just another baby-of-the-family cry for attention, that it would run its course. The first few days followed a similar routine. Gordy would get sent home from school early for insubordination, he’d go up to his room and sit there while one or both of my parents would threaten, then plead, then beg for him to stop messing around, that the joke or the protest or whatever it was had gone on long enough.
I tried a more aggressive approach. About a week into his silence, I walked into Gordy’s room and jacked him between his stomach rolls, hard, a gut-shot that normally would have caused a five-alarm screeching session. He made a quiet whooshing noise and hunched over a little, but that was it. I opened his dresser and pulled out a handful of his sacred comics. I held Captain America #443 in front of his face and slowly tore the cover in half, followed by the rest of the pages in the book. No response. I crushed Venom #1, Gordy’s all-time favorite, into a ball and whipped it at his head, hitting him square between the eyes. He didn’t flinch.
He wasn’t faking anything.
It’s not like he became a full-on vegetable. He would sit at the dining room table and slowly shove food into his mouth, staring at his plate the entire time. He would turn on the TV and plop down in front of it, cross-legged, but you couldn’t tell if he was looking at the screen or something beyond it that the rest of us couldn’t see. It was quickly decided that going to school would be an impossibility for him, but Gordy didn’t seem to mind my parents dragging him to an ever increasing number of appointments with psychologists, neurologists, hypnotherapists, and any other –ist that might offer up something better than “I don’t know.”
Instead of deflating them, my brother’s condition seemed to energize my parents. They joined committees, attended symposiums, organized charity bicycle rides, and contemplated the merits of rubbing shoulders with the anti-vaxxer crowd. They cocooned themselves in a constant stream of questions – Where was he on the spectrum? Which spectrum? Would the medication help? Would the medication hurt? What about a third opinion? A fourth? – that were asked with the steadfastness of caregivers who had accepted their reality and were choosing to thrive in it.
My own reality was more complicated. What good was being a perfectly healthy son to parents who had suddenly transformed themselves into bleeding-heart champions of the disabled? What good was being an older brother if you couldn’t even protect your younger sibling from himself?
I didn’t want to look for answers. Instead, I retreated deeper into a world that was far beyond the scope of what stuffy science types and the doctors who probed my brother would consider possible, a world that the picture I’d taken in California proved was the real deal.
I expanded my Bigfoot research to include every unsubstantiated creature I could get information about, from the Loch Ness Monster and Jersey Devil to the Man-eating Tree of Madagascar and Iceland’s Lagarfljót Worm. I subscribed to every unconventional magazine I could afford, planned unfeasible multi-continental excursions, and spent countless hours scouring internet chat rooms and message boards with the focus of a monk pouring over scriptures. I understood how lucky I’d been on the hike; I don’t think that I ever really believed it would happen again, that I’d come face to face with a Nessie slowly emerging from the lake in all its scaly glory, or hear the notoriously chilling shrieks of the Honey Island Swamp Monster. But the idea of something like that being possible awoke a hopefulness in me that I couldn’t find anywhere else, a feeling that died a little whenever I saw Gordy strapped onto an examination chair with spider webs of nodes crisscrossing his skull and tubes coming out of his bruised arms that already looked like a junkie’s. A feeling that stayed with me once I stopped going to the doctors’ offices.
My budding career as a cryptozoologist was short-lived, however. High school (and puberty) came and I learned early on that lecturing about the alleged human menstrual blood involved in Chupacabra mating rituals or the impressive length of a recently discovered Yeti turd wouldn’t get you into Maggie Furman’s jeans or get you invited to your first raid of an unguarded liquor cabinet. There were plenty of discoveries to be made that didn’t involve trekking through malaria-ridden jungles or holding sonar equipment over the side of a flimsy canoe for hours at a time. You only had to have a decent excuse to borrow Mom’s Subaru, and a knowledge of whose parents were out of town for the weekend and/or who had the pot with the least amount of seeds in it. Information that was easy to come by for someone with as much well-honed online communication experience as myself.
By the time I finished my first semester at a well-known hipster haven in Upstate New York, the (mostly) legendary monsters of my pre-adolescence had almost disappeared from my memory, replaced by a steady, pseudo-spiritual diet of Beat poets, the Tao of Whoever, and abundant helpings of LSD and mushrooms. I found myself tapped into a mysterious, invisible world that existed everywhere, even among the growing piles of Taco Bell wrappers and bong-water stains of my dorm room. One that could be accessed easily if you knew the right combination of substances to introduce to your bloodstream. The real adventure is in your mind, bro! No, wait, the adventure IS your mind!
The only problem with college is that it ends. Your brain, even when it’s hopped up on enough acid to make Antiques Roadshow tolerable, doesn’t have the ability to instantly vaporize thousands of dollars of student loan debt. I graduated and moved to Manhattan, got a job doing PR and marketing for a swanky art gallery in the Financial District frequented by generations of moneyed douches and their trout-lipped better halves. I was paying my bills and helping to rip off the corrupt corporate overlords. Win-win situation!
But this was early 2008, which meant that in a few months the economy would collapse, and every suit on Wall Street would be far more concerned about saving his own ass than about which Haring print would best complement his collection of coke mirrors. I would be laid-off, faced with the very real possibility of moving back into my parents’ house, of spending the foreseeable future sharing a bathroom with my conversationally challenged brother.
Luckily, it didn’t come to that.
The owner of Fat Frank’s, a crusty Upper West Side pub where I was rapidly spending my unemployment checks took pity on me, offering to make me his new apprentice bartender. What I thought would be a stop-gap gig was only the first in what would become a decade-long trudge through the recession-proof (but not pain-free) world of booze-slinging.
Many people who have spent any significant time working in a fast food restaurant will tell you that the aroma of deeply fried chemical-meats becomes intolerable after a while, that they’d rather swallow roach poison than eat a Big Mac. Bartending isn’t like that, at least it wasn’t for me. After-shift beers quickly turned into before-and-after-shift-beers, which turned into Jameson shots whenever I felt like it, or whenever Mr. Francis (the bar’s owner) and the neighborhood bar flies who congregated around him felt like it. Which was pretty much constantly.
Weeks became months and then years, and I became a dive bar all-star. I got to know most of the regulars and the semi-frequent drunks better than my own family. If I couldn’t remember your name, I’d still remember your drink of choice, and I’d have it ready for you before you took your seat. I could pour up to six beers at once while reciting the recipes for an entire pantheon of disgustingly sugary shooters, from Buttery Nipples and Redheaded Sluts to Kamikazes and Russian Woo Woos. My efficiency had nothing to do with trying to get better tips. The less time it took me to interact with people meant more time to sip my own Jack-and-gingers, to fiddle with the music playlist, or to sneak a glance at the Yankees or Knicks game beaming above my head. The customers I should have been so eager to please were little more than minor pests on the periphery of my vision, annoying but brief pauses in the whiskey-tinged party I was having mostly with myself.
Fat Frank’s became such an extension of my being that I stopped noticing the casualties: the former classmates who were initially so pumped to be friends with someone who had the power to douse them in free drinks, the girl I’d been dating off and on since graduation, the girls I went home with after work who I’d never see again. They all became ghosts, abandoned by an attention span that lasted as long as it took me to pour another shitty domestic draft, or to slug another shot.
The lifestyle was antisocial and viciously unhealthy, but it was steady money if you had the stomach for it. Which I did, as long as I didn’t have to get up before two-thirty or work anything resembling a sober shift.
During the afternoons, when the hangover demons were spitting shards of fire into the deepest parts of my dehydrated brain matter, when crawling from my bed to the toilet seemed like an impossible, Odyssean journey, I would occasionally curse my position in life. How had things gotten to this point? I’d come to New York with a promising career, a healthy social life, and something vaguely resembling hope for the future, only to have it all swept out from under me.
The government and the banks were obvious scumbags, sure, but I couldn’t help but think that something bigger was going on, something that went beyond a few Washington, D.C. lobbyists, beyond the interest rates and subprime mortgages that the talking heads kept harping on. Starting the research was as easy as a few keystrokes on the crud-stained laptop that lived on the floor next to my bed. The internet had grown exponentially since my days as a monster junkie in the late nineties; there were countless alternative news and history sites dedicated to secret worlds that went far deeper than anything CNN or the BBC had ever reported, narratives that were far crazier than anything my alcohol-dulled mind could concoct on its own. I pored over alleged evidence of systematic fluoride poisoning, the Vatican’s knowledge of ancient aliens, libido-altering chemicals infused into meat products, mysterious experiments and underwater pyramids in the Bermuda Triangle, secret Nazi bases in Antarctica, staged moon landings, thousands of false flag operations, underground fake news factories in rural Virginia, centuries-old elitist cabals ruled by reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system who had orchestrated everything from the fall of Rome to 9/11. All that I’d taken for granted about history and my own daily life now seemed to ripple with sinister undertones, the feeling that I was a tiny, unwitting cog in a machine I could barely comprehend.
I’d wanted something, anything, to break the monotony of my literally and figuratively wasted days and nights, and I’d found it in a big way. But what did it all mean? Where was the White Rabbit (my search engine) taking me?
The longer I spent trying to untangle the Great Conspiracy Mindfuck Rubik Cube, the more I kept coming back to the same date: December 21, 2012. It marked the end of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, but its significance didn’t end with a few star-obsessed Mayan priests trying to make sense of the heavens. There were New Agers who thought that the winter solstice would bring a major physical and spiritual change to the Earth, that we would all be ushered into a new, ostensibly trippier age. Ancient astronaut theorists spoke enthusiastically about the Independence Day-style return of the Annunaki, an alien race worshipped as gods by the Sumerians, who now lived on a seldom-appearing planet called Nibiru. Proof of the End Times could be found just about everywhere, from the writings of Nostradamus to patterns of mass extinctions supposedly observed in the fossil record. A retired tour guide in Arizona announced that he would jump off a cliff near his house and into an intergalactically aligned portal that would open at exactly midnight on the twenty-first, saving him from whatever catastrophe might befall our doomed civilization.
Something was coming. I didn’t know what it was, but I would be ready for it.
I whittled my drinking down to a minimum, started taking Krav Maga lessons in Brooklyn and urban survival classes in Central Park, did pushups until my palms bled. I filled my apartment and a nearby storage unit with camping gear, fire starters, first-aid kits, gallons of bottled water, machetes I bought on eBay, throwing stars I found in Chinatown, and enough cans of Spam, tuna fish, and baked beans to feed me through at least three apocalypses. I spent the quieter hours at work glued to my phone, studying evacuation routes and off-grid living strategies. I took practice escape hikes through the Bronx and over the George Washington Bridge, cruising the wilds of northern New Jersey and Westchester County until my feet blistered and peeled.
The closer it got to The Big Day, the more prepared I felt. I barely recognized the confident, chiseled human who stared back at me through the bathroom mirror every morning, and neither did the patrons of Fat Frank’s. I was handed more napkins and credit card receipts with phone numbers scribbled on them in the first four months of 2012 than in the previous four years combined.
The attention did little to break my focus. Whenever I was asked about my improved physique and stoic, non-bleary-eyed demeanor, I’d mumble something about training for a half-marathon and quickly change the subject. I wasn’t dumb enough to share my beliefs with people who thought that the Military-Industrial Complex was the name of an electronic music festival, and it wasn’t like I could bring any prospective hookup back to a fifth-floor walk-up that now looked like the ideal bunker in a doomsday prepper’s wet dream.
I had one goal: witness some wild, world-changing shit – whatever that might be – and figure out how to survive it. Nothing else mattered.
As September, October, and November rolled by, I stayed quiet, kept my head down, and finished my preparations. Every afternoon when I came home from the gym, I cleaned and catalogued my growing weapons and food stockpiles. When I wasn’t doing Yoga or tinkering with homemade squirrel traps, I kept my eyes glued to every form of media available. But besides the occasional rehashed History Channel “documentary” or someone claiming on their blog that they’d seen a massive dark object enter the solar system through their hobby telescope, there wasn’t much new information to be gleaned.
The calm before the storm, I told myself.
December twentieth was a Thursday, but Fat Frank’s was oddly quiet, even during happy hour. Which was fine by me. I set up my laptop, two tablets and my phone behind the bar, each one tuned to a different obscure message board or subreddit. I turned three of the TVs to mainstream news networks of various sociopolitical persuasions. My bug-out bag was parked next to my feet, stuffed with enough supplies to weather society’s collapse, or at least get me out of New York.
The hours went by and I focused on the screens, unconsciously pouring drinks and not caring if anyone paid for them. The main news stories on the TVs were about health care legislation, an increase in botched plastic surgeries, and a decrease in teen smoking rates. The conspiracy sites were maddeningly quiet. A small sliver of anxiety rose from my stomach, then another, building until I felt like the kid who spends all night working on a history paper and wakes up realizing she forgot about her first-period calculus test. Or maybe school had been cancelled and I was the only one who didn’t know about it.
Then it was midnight.
A newscaster made a joke about putting his “survival ark” on eBay. A live feed of the retiree in Arizona showed him peering over the edge of cliff, shrugging and walking off-screen, past several of his clearly disappointed followers. Someone on a preppers forum posted an apology for mistaking a Nutella smudge on his laptop screen as a fiery gateway to the underworld enveloping his Google Earth maps.
Outside, a snarling bum pressed his bare chest against one of the bar’s windows, manipulating it seductively in a counter-clockwise motion.
I frantically studied the monitors for a few more minutes, my anxiety at full-throttle, before looking up to scan the room I’d been neglecting. There was Mina, the heavily tattooed waitress from the Asian tapas place across the street, a trio of flush-cheeked finance bros, and a scrawny, asthmatic ecstasy peddler named Big Rickey. They stared mindlessly at their phones or at the basketball game I’d left on one of the TVs. Their spirits hadn’t suddenly ascended to a higher level of consciousness. They were the same boring, willfully ignorant sheep they’d always been. But that made them smarter than me. They hadn’t spent the last several years suckered into the false belief that anything truly interesting could ever happen. And they definitely hadn’t spent the better part of a week comparing deer urine and crossbow prices on Amazon.
I sighed, grabbed two bottles from the well and placed them on the bar.
“Who’s trying to get fucked up?” I asked, rhetorically, before taking a monstrous slug of cheap tequila that my now-healed liver was only too happy to accommodate.
The next two or three hours were a collection of blurry snapshots: handing out shots of whiskey, shots of rum, shots of vodka, shots of whatever was left on the quickly dwindling shelves behind the bar. Pretending to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail by flipping bottles behind my back, then watching those bottles shatter on the floor in slow motion. Mistaking Mina’s enthusiasm for my antics as an invitation to make out. Rickey and two of the bros going into the bathroom and staying there for a long time. New people coming and going, faceless and unimportant. Someone cutting me off mid-sentence and saying, “At least with Y2K there was some credible evidence,” and me half-heartedly trying to stab his or her hand with a wine opener.
I took the last bottle of Jameson off the shelf, poured a glassful, and disappeared into it.