In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch
By John Zada
Grove Atlantic, 2019
The subtitle of John Zada’s new book In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond charts its fate: “In Search of the Sasquatch.” Zada travels to the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia and spends time with the people of the Bella Coola Valley, describing their world in often lyrical prose and presenting the long and detailed folklore of Bigfoot in carefully-controlled increments designed both to inform the reader and to increase the book’s tension expertly as the quest continues. The fact that Zada has written a book as eloquent and big-hearted as, for instance, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard turns out to be bitterly inconsequential, for one simple reason: snow leopards have been filmed, and their carcasses have been produced and dissected. Despite innumerable tracks and hair samples of Sasquatch, there is famously no carcass, and the authenticity of the 1967 film of a Sasquatch made by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin in northern California has been hotly debated for half a century.
The snow leopard is, in other words, real. And according to empirical science, the Sasquatch, conceived as a large unknown species of anthropoid, isn’t real.
Zada is keenly aware of this split:
I go over the arguments for and against the creature’s existence in an attempt to ground myself. In doing so, I’m reminded of how intractable the debate is. On one side you have the disciples of the rational notion that anything that can’t be shown to exist physically cannot exist. On the other is the view that when something can’t be seen, or can’t be shown to exist, this doesn’t prove it’s not there. As with the scripted debates between parliamentarians, the Sisyphean back-and-forth between the two always reaches an impasse; just when one side seems to get the upper hand, the other has a comment or answer that parries it, or a maneuver to deflect it, and everyone is back to square one.
This kind of phrasing will be a balm to believers, although it isn’t true. There’s no Sisyphean back-and-forth on this issue, at least from the viewpoint of science; that which can’t be shown to exist physically doesn’t exist physically. Films can be faked (costume designer Philip Morris regularly gave crowd-pleasing presentations talking about how he sold Bob Gimlin the ape costume in the famous film strip); autopsies (pace the JFK conspiracy community) settle the matter, and there’s never been a Bigfoot autopsy.
And yet, the folklore has persisted for centuries in places like the Bella Coola Valley, much of it very consistent: large, smelly, hairy, intelligent man-like beings living in the deep forest, wary of humans but prone to interactions. The annals of researchers are filled with hundreds of eyewitness accounts of these interactions; vacationing families, hikers, hunters all over the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) have reported meeting this creature and feeling the particular paralyzing dread of the encounter. While out hiking with some of his interview subjects, Zada experiences that paralyzing dread with immediate (and perhaps inadvertently telling) proximity:
And then everything comes undone. Suddenly, and without any sense of transition, there is a large grizzly sow with a cub forty feet ahead of us at the edge of the clearing. The sow is flailing, roaring, and gnashing her teeth. She is a blur of rippling brown fur and beady eyes set in a wide head. The cub is dancing skittishly around her. I stand there looking at everything blankly, not understanding, trying to process what is going on - and how it came to pass. The moment of surprise is drawn out and stupefying.
Yes indeed, although Bigfoot believers don’t like to think about it: grizzlies are enormous, they’re covered in thick fur, they’re accompanied by a pungent scent, they make a variety of piercing sounds, they have a terrifying ability to appear out of thin air, they frequently stand on their hind legs, and they sometimes walk on their hind legs. And they tend to create a moment of stupefaction. They are and always have been prime candidates in the Sasquatch police lineup.
The scene is one of dozens crafted with vivid skill throughout the book, including many scattered throughout the book’s footnotes (in one, Zada mentions that in the wake of the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980, there were apocryphal stories of US Army helicopters “venturing into the disaster zone” and “airlifting out Sasquatch corpses to undisclosed military facilities” ... apocryphal stories also have Army personnel bringing emergency aid to living Sasquatches - in cryptozoology as in all other branches of the imaginative fringe, the Army always knows everything).
Despite the towering creature at its heart, the genius of In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond is most often its human pathos. Some of that pathos is served up in candy colors that aren’t strictly believable (“You some kinda a writer fellah?” “Them no-good tofu-munching scientist-types” and so on), but even so, it’s the plain old humans who provide some of the book’s most memorable moments. “Look around you!” one man rants at our author after learning that yet another writer had come to the area in search of Sasquatch. “We’re hurting here! There aren’t any jobs. Groceries are expensive. Do you know how much it costs to buy a bottle of ketchup? Ten bucks! And that was back when we had ketchup! Our goddamn band store just burned down and no government is lifting a finger to help us. The next-nearest supermarket is a hundred miles away!”
It’s of course not a valid criticism of the search for a great unknown, but it speaks to the odd, winning gravitas that runs through In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond. The shelf of serious, beautifully done Bigfoot books isn’t exactly a crowded one, but it now has an indisputable classic.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.