Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Michael Rugg lives in Bigfoot country.
True, it's only a half hour from popular Pacific Ocean surf spots, sunny beaches and an amusement pier. A half hour in the other direction lies Silicon Valley. But make no mistake -- Bigfoot lurks among the coastal redwoods and forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Michael Rugg is an expert on the legends, theories, and facts pertaining to the elusive race of hairy bipeds. He operates his Bigfoot Discovery Museum to help visitors examine the evidence with open minds, temporarily away from the sniggers and guffaws of a skeptical world.
A line of wood carvings of creatures stand outside the museum; the modest structure might be assumed to be one of the area's many crafts shops if it didn't feature a sign with a big green foot on it. The Bigfoot Discovery Museum mixes educational displays and serious evidence with a couple of generations of pop culture exploitation artifacts. In movies and fiction, Bigfoot has often been represented as the most amicable of monsters, a goofy wilderness dweller who avoids human contact.
The museum displays all manner of Bigfoot memorabilia: matchbooks, buttons, lighters, miniatures, and toys. "I Had Bigfoot's Baby" screams the headline on an old Weekly World News.
Glass cases contain skull reproductions, bit and pieces of compelling evidence, a fragment of a Bigfoot tooth, and some greenish, mulchy clump that we guess is sasquatch scat (the museum newsletter mentions bowel movement samples submitted for the all-important DNA testing).
The wall of books behind a wooden counter are part of Michael's research library. The range of titles shows a broad appreciation of monster literature: The Mothman Prophecies, Creatures of the Goblin World, Bigfoot Observer's Field Manual, Sasquatch - The Ape Among Us. There's a program from the 2011 Sasquatch Summit...
When he isn't conducting a tour, Michael sits behind the counter, where he can easily grab a work of reference or direct visitors to a relevant exhibit.
A Lifetime Collecting
Michael has been avidly amassing Bigfoot-related items since he was a kid in the 1950s and '60s. "I got my interest in Bigfoot back when the word first hit in the Western newspapers about the Abominable Snowman. This is when western Americana became aware of mystery primates. Prior to that it was only people in Canada talking about it and in some of the countries around the Himalayas. People in Canada were calling it a Sasquatch, but I don't think they're the same as the Yeti. They're two different species."
The museum was inevitable, as Michael sees it. "All along, as I was going through life, picking up Bigfoot stuff here and there, there was a little voice in the back of my head saying this is all going to go to use, sometime. That someday I will pull this all together for a reason."
He's organized into three research areas: Mythical Bigfoot (legends and tales); Biological Bigfoot (physical and witness evidence of the creature's continuing existence); and Paranormal Bigfoot (the strangest category, involving UFOs, invisibility and other dimensions).
Michael Rugg is no dope -- he's a 1968 graduate of Stanford University, and was the editor of the campus humor magazine, the Stanford Chaparral (he pulled out an old issue to share with us, a magazine parody named "Groin"). His humorous side came out as we probed him with questions about Bigfoot calls and what noises the creatures make, but Michael's interest is serious -- the museum is not a parody.
The longtime Felton resident collaborated with his brother for 20 years making musical instruments in the wood shop next door to the museum. Michael had a lucrative computer-related career, daily commuting to Silicon Valley, until the dotcom bubble burst. He opened the museum in 2005.
Creature Captured on Film
Long before that, Michael started his quest to find Bigfoot. The milestone moment for almost any Bigfoot seeker is the "Patterson film." In cryptozoology circles this is equivalent to JFK's Zapruder film, controversial, endlessly parsed and analyzed. In 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were on horseback in northern California when they spotted a creature striding on two legs in the woods. Patterson's amateur film has been hailed as definite proof that Bigfoot exists, and also debunked as a man in a creature suit staged as a hoax.
At the museum this short, shaky film clip loops continuously on a monitor. A sign advises: "The Bigfoot Discovery Project (BDP) accepts the Patterson/Gimlin Film of Oct 20, 1967 as THE type specimen for the Northwestern Bigfoot or Sasquatch."
Big plaster footprints made by Patterson are part of the display. "Patterson cast that in '64, three years before he made the movie," said Michael. "So he showed Gimlin that cast, trying to evangelize him as a believer to help him in his search for proof. Gimlin never did cross that threshold until the day he saw [Bigfoot]. From then on he was a believer, you betcha."
The Patterson film was shot 400 miles north of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, so we wondered whether Santa Cruz is optimal for capturing Bigfoot interest, if not the smelly brute itself. Michael told us that after college he inherited access to the location where the museum sits, and he points out that there are plenty of local Bigfoot sightings -- over 150. Color pushpins mark a large topographic wall map of the surrounding mountains.
"I've investigated every one of these. I will put my reputation, and everything I own I will bet on the fact that the Bigfoot really is in Santa Cruz as much as they are anywhere else. That I'm sure of."
The museum is cluttered, but intimate. Michael reveals his personal history of research in displays: there's his college Anthropology term paper on "A History and Discussion of the Abominable Snowman Question," and a letter regretfully informing him that Patterson's "Abominable Snowman Club of America has been terminated," and returning his dues.
He observes that some visitors are tight-lipped at first, but then open up. "Almost every person that comes in with [their own] sighting prefaces it with 'I don't talk about this. I speak of this very little, because when I do, I get ridiculed. I haven't told anyone of this for years'... or 'I've never told anyone about this.' They look around to make sure they're alone, and then they tell me their story. Sometimes I feel like I'm a shrink."
"I'll say 'calm down, it's okay, take a look at this map and you'll see you're not alone.'"
Outside the museum are more displays about bigfoot, other cryptids, even fanciful creatures such as the Jackalope and the Fiji Mermaid. A shed contains an old Bigfoot diorama. It was exhibited at the Bigfoot Mystery Museum in Seattle from 1976-80, then put in storage until Mike obtained it and shipped it here. The explanatory sign notes that the face is monkey-like. "Figures done today would have a much more human-like face." The diorama scene is murky during the day, barely visible through the plexiglass viewing windows.
The display is a reminder that a Bigfoot-themed museum is not a guarantee of enduring success. There are no government grants, and the bigfoot "community" is sketchy at best. Rugg has to stoke interest regularly to keep the lights on and the rent paid. Visitors help with donations (Suggested: $2/person, or $5 if he gives you the tour) and souvenir purchases. Michael is an accomplished illustrator, and sells his prints and t-shirt designs.
Conceptions of the biological Bigfoot continue to shift, and Mike is clearly excited about the latest applicable scientific revelations. "The views about evolution are totally changing now -- it's in flux," he said.
He pulled out a hardcover book, The Upright Ape - A New Origin of the Species by Dr. Aaron G. Filler. "Bigfoot now is right in the middle of it," Michael said, "because Bigfoot fits into the current theories and the current evidence, in just the last decade."
"Fifteen years ago, scientists could just laugh about Bigfoot, because there really wasn't anything they could look at that would even convince them of the plausibility of Bigfoot, really. Until we found out Neanderthals mated with humans. The latest DNA test -- just published yesterday -- claims what they are is a hybrid cross between a human and a caveman. That is what the Bigfoot is going to turn out to be."