Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot
(University of Nebraska Press)
US: Feb 2016
Outside a fringe element, any exploration of so-called cryptozoological creatures and phenomena are viewed with more than a little skepticism. Given the often-fantastical nature of those that fall under the cryptid categorization, it’s not hard to understand why the vast majority of the population does not subscribe to the belief in the existence of massive creatures such as Bigfoot roaming the countryside largely undetected. Those who believe in the creature’s existence tend to get lumped in with UFOlogists and purported abductees, seemingly normal individuals possessed of a vivid imagination.
Yet there are still so many who believe so fervently in the existence of not only Bigfoot, but a host of other cryptids that there are countless books and television specials on the phenomena. Rarely taken at face value, these people tend to end up as cultural punch lines that lack the basic common sense to not believe in the existence of a massive ape. Few if any explorations and examinations of the subject approach those behind the unimpeachable belief in the unseen, instead focusing on either the creature itself or the absurd beliefs of the faithful.
At its heart, Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search For Bigfoot is both a character study and an exploration of the effect unwavering faith can have on a person. Ultimately, the belief in anything unseen, mythical or otherwise is based entirely on faith. Be it religion or Bigfoot, each is made up of a cadre of believers who are constantly under fire from the non-believers. The argument is presented that those who spend their days scouring the woods for Bigfoot and its myriad derivations are no different from those who put their full trust and belief in an all-seeing, all-knowing deity in the sky.
When viewed in this context, the parallels become all too apparent and impossible to dismiss. It’s just that organized religions, their traditions and sacred practices, are embraced by the majority of the population and thus deemed a socially acceptable form of faith. Despite the obvious similarities, the Bigfoot faithful are labeled as crazy and/or dismissed as full of absurd ideas, chasing shadows and flights of fancy through the woods of North America.
Because of this, the easy option is always to resort to humor, poking fun at the faithful as they go about their work with an unbridled passion. By painting holistic pictures of a handful of these individuals, Joe Gisondi helps to humanize and in fact normalize their beliefs and practices. Throughout, Gisondi explores the motivation behind those who spend exorbitant amounts of time and money on high tech gadgetry, travel and research materials. He attempts to discern what drives these people to engage in behavior that, to the majority of the population, is little more than a fool’s errand.
Along the way, Gisondi finds his own faith in the mythic creature tested through a series of inexplicable events witnessed first hand while tailing along with a few of those who’ve devoted their lives to solving the mystery. Yet like the numerous television specials on Bigfoot that are referenced throughout, no solid conclusions are ever reached and thus the reader is filled with a sense of wonderment and anticipation throughout, only to be let down by a somewhat complacent dénouement. Little blame can be placed on Gisondi, however, as he simply attempts to document his experience amongst these people to the best of his abilities, honestly presenting both what he is told and what he experiences.
Unfortunately, he too often goes for the low hanging fruit, dismissing those he previously sought to explain and support as fools jumping at shadows. It’s hard to tell if this is due to frustration with the subject matter or with the subjects themselves, many of whose trust he loses over the course of the decade or so chronicled in the book. Gisondi himself tends to come across as at times clearly jaded and at other times unabashedly optimistic, leaving much of the text with a disjointed feel as his opinions and beliefs are shaped and reshaped through experience.
Presented essentially in what seems to be a sort of non-linear real time, Monster Trek often wanders off from a narrative standpoint. It’s as though Gisondi became bored with the task at hand and allowed his mind and keyboard to wander. It’s a distracting approach that detracts from an otherwise fascinating premise. In his exploration of Don Young, a former hunting guide from Wisconsin, he presents someone so sure of what he has seen and experienced that it quite literally became his ruin. His reputation shot, his business dried up and himself a local laughing stock, he still steadfastly maintains his belief in Bigfoot and unceasingly continues his, as the book’s sub-header implies, obsessive search.
Monster Trek ultimately proves as elusive and frustrating as the creature at the heart of each story. Unable to settle on a tone and wavering in its approach to both the creature and those who seek to prove, often for little more than their own satisfaction, its existence, Gisondi’s work, while fascinating in its premise, ultimately feels as hollow and unfulfilling as your average Bigfoot television special. Given the early presence of Matt Moneymaker, head of the Big Foot Research Organization, star of the Animal Planet series Finding Bigfoot and clearly someone pursuing Bigfoot for financial gains, this front-loaded approach tends to cheapen some of the more affecting profiles that ultimately get lost in the shuffle. Intriguing, frustrating and ultimately enjoyable, Monster Trek offers yet another look at the ever-expanding study of crytids, this time placing greater emphasis on those who devote their lives and stake their reputation on an exercise in faith.
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