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A cold rain beats steadily in the deep forest of the Big Thicket as Bobby Hamilton slogs down a muddy trail, peering into the swamps in search of Bigfoot.
Hamilton, 38, is one of Texas's most intrepid Bigfoot hunters. A former professional wrestler, he lives in a double-wide trailer with his wife and four children on 20 acres of woods outside Warren, about 125 miles northeast of Houston. Hamilton is obsessed with the hairy, stinky creatures he says he has seen on four occasions and frequently has heard crying out to each other on his property.
Hamilton saw his first Bigfoot when he was only five. He tells of it appearing at the window of his bedroom and motioning with its finger for him to come closer. His two older brothers speak of similar encounters.
"I think he may have been looking for an easy meal, and thought he could catch a child," Hamilton says. "Or maybe it was a female Bigfoot who had lost a baby and was trying to take a human away to replace it. I had no idea what it was. I thought I had seen the devil."
Within a year, Bigfoot had driven Hamilton's family from its deep-woods homestead in Nacogdoches County. An unknown animal killed his pet calf. Monstrous screams in the night and loud banging on the house terrified his mother and aunt, he remembers. The family's perfectly good horse went crazy -- Hamilton believes from terror -- and could no longer be ridden.
"My dad was working offshore, and my mother called and told him he had better come move us out of there or she was going to do it herself. Bigfoot ran us away from our home."
Hamilton took to sleeping with a sharp hunting knife in his hand, a tomahawk under his pillow and a baseball bat by his side. His mother would wake him by calling from the bedroom door, because she was afraid if she approached, he would attack.
"I wanted to keep my gun by my bed, but my parents wouldn't let me," he says.
At the time, Hamilton had no idea what he had seen motioning to him through the window. The East Texas backwoods are full of tales of monsters, demons and "haints." Now he's convinced he saw nothing more mysterious than a primate, a gorillalike creature as yet unrecognized and unclassified by science, but that a handful of scientists are sure exists.
Renowned primate expert Jane Goodall said in a September 27, 2002, interview with National Public Radio that she is certain Bigfoot exists, and is excited by the prospect that hair said to be from a Bigfoot came back from DNA testing as belonging to no known species.
"There are a lot of weird beliefs about Bigfoot, and I don't hold with none of them," Hamilton says. "He isn't from outer space. He ain't a shape-shifter. And he certainly isn't going to come in the house, sit in your La-Z-Boy, eat microwave popcorn and watch Perry Mason with you. It's a wild animal."
How could a large, hairy, smelly ape live for years undiscovered in the forests of East Texas? Though seldom far from a farm, a trailer or a man on horseback, parts of the woods are covered in brambles, vines and swampland that protect it even from experienced backwoodsmen like Hamilton.
This is where Bigfoot lives, Hamilton is convinced, sometimes ranging into more populated areas, as close to Houston as Conroe, to find food.
Tales abound in East Texas of a so-called Wild Man or Monkey Man who's tall and hairy like an ape and roams the swamplands. Hamilton wonders why a stream in Cherokee County, where a number of Bigfoot sightings have taken place, was named Monkey Creek. He is certain that it's because for many years a reclusive primate has remained hidden along its banks.
When Hamilton was eight, he saw a book on Bigfoot at a little country store and came to the conclusion that his family had been driven away from its home not by a monster but by a wild animal.
"I knew then and there that I was going to devote my life to hunting Bigfoot," he says.
As a teenage boy, his interests strayed to easier excitements. The professional wrestling circuit later diverted him, and he flashed his smile weekly on Dallas television, as a wrestler sporting neon duds and shoulder-length, Mel Gibson-style hair. In 1988, he started a construction company.
"I had enough money where I could do anything I wanted to. So I started hunting Bigfoot," he says.
He has since put tens of thousands of dollars into the search, buying fancy cameras, infrared lights, high-powered pickups and guns that can kill a rhinoceros in one shot. Yes, he admits, he is afraid of Bigfoot.
"If he were at the end of the road, he could be over here and have you before you say, 'Don't do it to me, darlin',''' Hamilton says. "They can run biped or quadruped. They are about eight feet tall and they kill deer by breaking their backs with their bare hands."