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."
When on a research trip, Hamilton makes sure Bigfoot knows he is there by urinating around the edges of his campground, being sure to pee on trees that will hold the smell. He literally is trying to piss off Bigfoot.
"I'm saying, 'I'm the alpha male here.' "
Almost invariably, it works. The Bigfoot come out of the woods and howl and scream, tear branches from the trees and throw things at the tent, he says.
"After a while, I say, 'Enough of this.' I go outside and confront them. I can hear them howling, but they don't show their faces."
Once, when he ran into a Bigfoot just over the Louisiana state line, he said he was terrified as it let out a horrible stench, a smell Hamilton believes to be related to scents frightened gorillas emit as territorial warnings.
"I dropped my video camera, ran to the truck and came back with a shotgun, a rifle and a pistol. All the hairs on my body were standing up. I was nauseated for hours afterward. He definitely was trying to send me a message."
Interest in Bigfoot is increasing with the rise of the Internet, says Hamilton, who e-mails believers as far away as Australia, where the Bigfoot are known as Yowies. After experiencing frustration with some other Internet Bigfoot groups, he bought a book and taught himself HTML. He started his own site, the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization, in 1998. He posts sightings, hosts forums and leads camping trips into Bigfoot country. Members boast that they're willing to take polygraph tests regarding their sightings.
Despite their insistence that Bigfoot exists, there may be another explanation for some of the howling heard by them -- it could be coming from skeptical locals.
Jesse Wolf, chief deputy of the Tyler County Sheriff's Department in Woodville, was asked about the authenticity of the claims made by Hamilton and his followers.
"The only Bigfoot around here is the one you're talking to," he said. Wolf, a former football pro for the Miami Dolphins, stands six foot eight and wears a size 17 shoe.
"I was born in 1952, and that's about the time when he come around. If people have seen big footprints in their yard, it was probably me. The only difference is, Bigfoot ain't wearing Nikes."
Bigfoot hunters have had to face even more ridicule than usual since the December 2002 death of logger and Bigfoot hoaxer Ray Wallace in Seattle.
When Wallace died, his sons revealed he had been playing pranks about Bigfoot since 1958, making tracks with giant carved feet, filming himself in a gorilla suit and cutting a record of Bigfoot sounds. He even offered to sell a Bigfoot to Texas millionaire Tom Slick and had to back out when Slick made a serious offer.
The announcement that Bigfoot was dead led to anger and disbelief among many who had grown up watching movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek. Los Angeles songwriter Danny Freyer, who has never had a Bigfoot encounter, responded in a bluesy swamp-rock song called Bigfoot Blues, that begins like this: "Well I still believe in Bigfoot / Don't care what they say / Still believe in apple pie, and the good ol' USA / Now they claim it was a hoax by a wise old fool / That those 16-inch footprints were carved with an iron tool / But we all saw the movie of a Bigfoot mama struttin' / Walking past the camera just like Dolly Parton / Well if it was a hoax then I want back my $5 / I swear at night in the woods I've heard them Bigfoot holler."
Freyer said it would be sad if Bigfoot were nothing more than a hoax.
"It is one of our American myths. I don't want to see it die out."
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Hamilton's faith was unshaken by the disclosures about Wallace.
"I know it wasn't Ray Wallace hoaxing around our homestead back in 1969," Hamilton says. "If some guy shows up prancing around in a gorilla suit in these parts, he's going to have a hole put through him sooner rather than later."
Hamilton believes the scientists will step in after men like him have taken the risks.
"Some guy in a white lab coat isn't going to be the one to find Bigfoot," he says. "It's going to be guys like me, that know the woods. I'm going to be the one to prove it. I have to touch one. I have to run my hands through its fur and touch its leathery face."