Peter Matthiessen won the National Book Award three times and co-founded the influential literary journal Paris Review.
The author of “Shadow Country” and “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” was an ardent environmentalist, heralded as “our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition.” Early in his career, he worked as an undercover agent for the CIA.
He also believed in Bigfoot.
Sasquatch has recently returned to the public consciousness, leading to the publication of new books on the subject and even the Indian army announcing it had discovered “Mysterious Footprints” that could belong to Yeti, Bigfoot’s “abominable snowman” cousin.
And so now Matthiessen’s nephew, science journalist Jeff Wheelwright, has delved into his uncle’s little-known Bigfoot obsession in an essay for Yale Review. It turns out that in 1976, while kicking around the Pacific Northwest, Matthiessen saw “a tall, bipedal figure run across the road and disappear into the trees.” You think sasquatches are big, clumsy, ape-like creatures? The one Matthiessen spotted “jumped a tangle of stumps and logs with the ease of a deer.”
“Wary to the end, Peter never published anything substantive about [sasquatches], but he clearly intended to,” Wheelwright writes. “He labored on a Bigfoot book on and off for some 30 years. It was the last work on his desk when he died, in 2014.”
Matthiessen apparently became fascinated with Bigfoot while hiking through Nepal in 1973, a trip he recounts in his nonfiction magnum opus, “The Snow Leopard.” Indeed, anyone who’s read the book will not be entirely shocked that Matthiessen was a Bigfoot adherent, for the author mentions Sasquatch’s Far East relative in the work.
“In the half century since big, upright creatures, leaving hundreds of tracks, were seen in a high snowfield on the north side of Mount Everest by a band of British mountaineers, the ye-teh, or yeti, has met with a storm of disapproval from upset scientists around the world,” he wrote in “The Snow Leopard.” “But as with the sasquatch of the vast rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, the case against the existence of the yeti — entirely speculative, and necessarily based on the assumptions of foolishness or mendacity in many observers of good reputation — is even less ‘scientific’ than the evidence that it exists. Photographs and casts of the yeti footprint are consistent — a very odd, broad primate foot — and so are the sight records, most of which come from the populous Sherpa country of eastern Nepal.”
His interest sparked, Matthiessen attended a Bigfoot conference in British Columbia in 1978 and struck up a correspondence with well-known sasquatch hunter Peter Byrne. Wheelwright recently talked to Byrne, now 93, about his uncle’s interest in Bigfoot.
“I thought he’d go out into the bush and join the work,” Byrne said of Matthiessen. “I thought he’d come out and write something. It’s a pity he didn’t.”
Wheelwright muses that Matthiessen, a long-time Zen devotee, considered the possibility that Bigfoot might be a shape-shifting creature. Wheelwright writes that his uncle embraced an African legend “about a marauding hyena that, when finally it is killed, is found on the ground as a human corpse.” The story, Matthiessen wrote, is “mythic and rings true, whether or not it actually took place.”
Through the 1980s and ’90s Matthiessen kept doing sasquatch research. “The Bigfoot notes and drafts simmered on the back burner, neither fiction nor nonfiction,” Wheelwright writes. “He was simply unsure.”
He would never be sure enough to publish his Bigfoot tome. His final book, published shortly after his death at age 86, was the novel “In Paradise,” about the legacy of the Holocaust and evil.
Matthiessen kept returning to his sasquatch notes to the very end, though. “The creature colored everything he believed about the natural world,” Wheelwright writes. “Most of all he longed for Bigfoot to be true.”