The Making of—and Effort to Save—the Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Is it just me, or does everyone have a first recollection of hearing about Bigfoot? OK, yeah, it’s just me.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, my parents were childbirth instructors. Every Wednesday, they would have pregnant couples over to coach them on the ins and outs (literally) of what to expect on the big day. We kids would be shuttled off to the neighbors for the duration of the class. Next door, we were allowed to watch all kinds of television that were not permitted in Casa de Otter: What’s Happening!, Good Times and even M*A*S*H. Amid this hit parade were repeats of the 1970s serial In Search Of…
In case you are not familiar with this show, it was a weekly program devoted to investigating the mysterious. The Loch Ness monster, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle all had an episode devoted to them in the first season. Hosted by none other than Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, the eerie synth theme song set the viewer up for a creepy half-hour in front of the tube. Everyone in my fourth-grade class was allowed to watch it but me, so I hit the jackpot when our night at the neighbors’ house aligned with the airing of the show. The episode that was on that night? “In Search of…Bigfoot.”
I had never heard or seen anything so creepy in my nine years of life. The next day, school was abuzz with kids talking about the show. Our teacher Mr. Levy called us all around to discuss what we had seen. In an experience that seems totally improbable now—but of course made perfect sense then—he regaled the class with the story of his own run-in with the legendary creature. On a camping trip, Mr. Levy had heard strange vocalizations during the night that had freaked him out. In the morning, he claimed to have seen huge prints all around his tent.
This double-dip of cryptozoology in less than 24 hours had a profound impact on me. It made me terrified to ever sleep out in the woods again, and simultaneously kick-started my lifelong fascination with the weird and wacky—although I was primed for it by my childhood surroundings. The Santa Cruz I grew up in was a place where anything and everything was possible, where being unapologetically yourself was not only tolerated but encouraged.
As an adult, finding out about the existence of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum (BDM) within Santa Cruz County lines seemed a beacon of hope, a confirmation that the ethos I remembered was still thriving. I had to go check it out.
Pulling up to the Felton establishment in fall 2019, the rustic redwood cabin that houses the museum seemed the perfect exterior for an homage to the Pacific Coast Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch. Several large wood carvings of the creature greet you as you walk in, making for the perfect selfie opportunity. Once inside, it becomes clear that the museum is a Valentine to the unknown. A pastiche of Bigfoot-themed toys, lunch boxes and other related ephemera line the walls and fill the cabinets, mixed in with casts of very large feet, skulls and pictures. Cover stories from various grocery store tabloids are framed throughout, featuring screaming headlines of Bigfoot love triangles. A huge map of Santa Cruz County occupies one wall. Different coloured pins are stuck around it, indicating various ’Squatch sightings and events in the identified zones. On constant repeat from a blue, bubble iMac Apple monitor is the famous 1967 Patterson–Gimlin film. Shot alongside Bluff Creek in Northern California, the 60-second clip shows a mysterious hairy being walking through the forest at a fast pace. A bookcase crammed far beyond capacity fills up the back of the building. Taking it all in, the overall effect may not be the most formal of artefact presentation—but it’s for sure one of the most fun I have ever seen.
As I walk to the end of the room, I am greeted by the man behind the museum, Michael Rugg. Sporting a look that is a heady mix of outdoor adventurer Bear Grylls and Santa Claus, Rugg is open and friendly, ready to take on my questions about the infamous creature. While I am there, he tells me that the BDM is in danger of being closed forever because of an overdue mortgage payment on the building which houses the collection. Entry to the museum is free, with a donation of $2 to $5 appreciated. With these slim margins, it seems surprising that Rugg has managed to keep the place going since he and co-owner Paula Yarr officially opened in 2006. During our chat, Rugg shared with me that his vision is starting to fail him, which seemed particularly heartbreaking and unfair for a man who has dedicated so much time and effort to looking for the often unobserved.
Legend of the Bigfoot Museum
For months after my visit, I could not get the BDM out of my head. I had returned to where I currently live in London, England, but found myself telling everyone who would listen about the museum and Rugg. I started trying to get in touch with the curious curator, wanting to do an interview to learn more about the fate of the BDM and see what I could do to help save it. However, getting in touch with Rugg again became seemingly as difficult as finding Bigfoot itself. Covid-19 had hit, and, like every other museum, it was closed down, making contact nearly impossible.
I complained about this to my friend Will Sergeant, from the iconic post-punk band Echo and the Bunnymen. He just laughed at me, as he had tried to go and visit the BDM last year when the group was on tour in Santa Cruz, but it had been closed. I asked him why he had attempted to make the pilgrimage to the BDM on one of the few coveted afternoons off from performing.
“I love the idea that such a creature as Bigfoot—aka Yeti, Sasquatch, Almasty, or my favourite, the rather Californian-weed-delivery-service-sounding Grassman—exists, hidden away in the few remaining unspoiled and impenetrable areas left on this dustbin of a planet,” said Sergeant. “The mystery of Bigfoot is more than likely better than the reality. After all, the latest thinking on that other cryptozoological money spinner, the Loch Ness monster, is that it’s just a chubby eel that’s let itself go a bit. Bigfoot will be a disgruntled monkey man with an unhealthy fascination with Marlene Dietrich. They are better left alone and away from us. I hope the poor buggers never get found.”
I continued trying to track down the elusive Rugg. Finally, one of my friends who works at Felton Music Hall took pity on me and went to the museum. Though shuttered, she found that the BDM was doing a GoFundMe campaign in a bid to be able to afford to reopen once it was allowed to by county health guidelines. Through the GoFundMe page, I was at last able to get Rugg on the phone.
Making the Museum
From the start of our chat, I could not help but see some parallels between the birth of the Bigfoot museum and the current unsettled mire we find ourselves in as a society. After the Silicon Valley company he worked for downsized during the first dot-com bubble-burst, Rugg—with the support of his partner, Paula Yarr—decided the time had come for him to turn his passion into a career.
“I noticed that people I had gone to high school with were dying,” he tells me over a Skype call. “There were also men dying who had been hunting Bigfoot all their life. They died broken men because they never could prove it. And they had sacrificed a lot. I decided, ‘Well, I’m gonna get this figured out before I die, but I better put my own self into the pursuit fully.”
Rugg’s lifelong love of the unexplained had culminated in a vast personal collection of items—enough to fill the small building off of Highway 9 that he had originally inherited from his mother. Rugg took inspiration from the natural surroundings of redwood trees and the property’s close proximity to Henry Cowell State Park, as well as the roadside-attraction craze which hit its height of popularity over two decades in the mid-20th century. Those old enough or well-versed in Santa Cruz history may remember other such quirky spots from the past in the area, such as the life-size dinosaurs of Scotts Valley’s Lost World and the strange twisted shapes of the Tree Circus.
“I figured it was a way to make people stop on impulse,” says Rugg of the museum’s exterior. “Being right here by the State Park is a perfect location.”
His hunch was correct. Almost immediately after opening the doors, “people started coming in from the local area and reporting Bigfoot sightings in their backyards right in the San Lorenzo Valley,” Rugg says. “I was totally blown away.”
Rugg’s interest in the hairy bipedal began after he had an encounter with what he believes was a Bigfoot. “When I was a child, I was camping with my mom and dad. My father was a fisherman, and he would catch trout and serve them up for breakfast. I wasn’t too keen on that. So I went stomping off and followed the trail on the edge of the river. I stepped through the brush onto a sandbar out in the middle of the river. I turned back toward the forest from whence I come. There was this giant hairy man standing there looking at me,” Rugg recalls.
This was no ordinary Bigfoot. “What made him extremely unique as far as Sasquatches go was that he had the remnants of a shirt hanging off of one shoulder. It kind of reminded me of the Hulk—you know, after he ‘Hulks out.’ I did research on that and I found another half-a-dozen references to a Bigfoot wearing clothing.”
While this may have caused most of us to pee ourselves in fear, Rugg remembers being “in awe” during his run-in with the beast, as he had “never heard of anything like it.” After holding eye contact with it for several seconds, Rugg ran back to camp and told his parents about what he had seen. They followed him to the sandbar, only to find nothing there.
“They told me not to worry about it, that it was probably a homeless person. Well, that was the biggest, hairiest homeless person I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure,” he says.
The incident sparked a quest to figure out what he had seen. Rugg started gathering all the Bigfoot-related articles, images and artifacts he could get his hands on. He carried the interest into college, when he studied palaeoanthropology at Stanford University. Unlike a lot of people, whose sense of wonder and curiosity often wanes with each passing year, Rugg’s enthusiasm for the paranormal has never ceased. He has been actively involved in researching the unknown, investigating UFOs, crop circles and other mysterious phenomena—all of this ignited by the childhood incident near the water.
“I had a fixation, and I didn’t even know why until many years later. I read an account in the book about a woman in Eureka in 1950, seeing a Sasquatch with clothing, and bam! I had my flashback memory. At first I was skeptical. Did I just make it up in my head? Was it just my imagination? Maybe? No. Now I’ve talked to so many people that I gave myself permission to admit that I’ve seen one.”
The current pop culture boom has made other people more open to the idea that Sasquatch may be among us.
“When I opened, people were way more skeptical than they are now,” Rugg says of the museum. “We’ve had a decade of television programs dedicated to Bigfoot. When those shows go into towns, they find all these people in the audience that come in raising their hand because they saw a Sasquatch. People at home watching the TV show get the idea now that there’s just thousands of people out there who are seeing these things. If you continue to deny their existence just because you haven’t seen one when you have all these hundreds of others who say they have, you are very pig-headed! After you’ve talked to hundreds of witnesses, you just lose all your skepticism. It’s real simple.”
Sasquatch in Soquel Creek
Rugg is eager to educate visitors to the museum on the existence of Bigfoot. “I can go on and on for about four hours expounding on why I’m sure there’s a Bigfoot. And I do quite often!” he says with a laugh. “I like educating them. When I first started, I was real susceptible to the skepticism, and I took it personally. It used to bother me badly, but I have gotten used to it. And now I’m just so sure they exist.”
I ask Rugg why we have never found any definitive Bigfoot bodies or corpses. Surely we could have found one somewhere after it has died?
“These things are sentient beings. Bigfoot travel in small nuclear-family groups. Mom, dad, the kids, maybe an uncle, maybe a grandparent—they will find an area that’s fairly secluded from human beings, but still near certain things. For example, up above Loch Lomond, there are Bigfoot. They know we’re looking for them. They’re hiding from us deliberately. If you’re hiding, you don’t leave your dad laying around if he passes away. If one of them dies, the rest of them will take care of the body. If there’s one that’s out someplace and it dies by itself, an animal that dies in the woods is completely turned to dust within a week from all the predators.”
Does he think Santa Cruz is still a hotspot for Sasquatch?
“There are Sasquatches in the coastal mountains between here and Half Moon Bay,” Rugg tells me. “There are Sasquatches over on Stevens Creek. There was a sighting in Soquel Creek. There’s a little footbridge that goes over the water at that point. The footbridge ends up at the back of the elementary school. A man was there at three in the morning to do some meditation. He happened to look down from the bridge and he saw Sasquatch. That was within the last few years.”
When asked if there are Sasquatch up in the redwoods around UCSC (a personal fear/phobia of mine since Mr. Levy’s class), Rugg confidently responds, “Oh, yes.”
In Search of … Funding
The museum’s future is still as unknown as Bigfoot’s exact whereabouts. The current GoFundMe has brought in $6,000 of the $92,000 goal needed to ensure the museum and research of the Sasquatch continues. Rugg has been able to find an investor to temporarily pay for the museum’s mortgage, giving him a four-year runway to find the rest of the money. It is a mission Rugg is determined to fulfill. “This is a passion I’ve had all my life, and a mystery I want to solve,” he says adamantly.
Finally, I ask Rugg why so many of us are still so enamored and fascinated by the idea of something, someone, that we cannot definitively prove exists?
“Bigfoot is a big part of the world of mysteries and wonders. I think that if we open the door and prove that Bigfoot is real, it will be like opening Pandora’s box because then people start considering if lots of other things that we’ve been told do not exist that maybe do,” he says. “We hope that the museum can continue and that the people will bring their stories in. We hope that eventually we can figure out what’s going on with Bigfoot and maybe be friends with some in the local area.”
His response sums up why the museum—and belief in the seemingly unbelievable—may be so important. It reminds me of the old days of having to unplug the phone to dial up an internet connection. Today’s virtually connected world was unimaginable; the idea of being able to just stand untethered in the street and have access to an entire universe of information unfathomable in the same way that Bigfoot’s existence may seem impossible to naysayers. But it is this continued engagement with enigmas big or small that fuels the imagination and captures our creativity. The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is a physical manifestation of the exploration and pursuit of the unchartered, making it—even for Sasquatch non-believers—an important and vital part of the community. I just don’t want to run into one while on a visit to KZSC.
If you want to help keep the search for ’Squatch up and running, donations to the Bigfoot Discovery Museum can be made at gofundme.com/f/Save-the-Bigfoot-Discovery-Museum/donate.The Museum is located at 5497 Highway 9, Felton.
Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a Santa Cruz native, living in London, but 100% obsessed with her hometown, which she believes is the greatest place in the universe.