William Dranginis says he saw Bigfoot near Culpeper, Va., on a spring day in 1995. He and two friends were using metal detectors in a field when a seven-foot-tall thing with thick hair and bulging muscles jumped from behind a tree.
Soon afterward, Dranginis reported his sighting to one of the nation's premier Bigfoot researchers in the Pacific Northwest.
Don Wilding of Buena Vista, Pa., checks out Bigfoot plaster foot impressions at the East Coast Bigfoot Conference near Pittsburgh on Saturday.
(Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
The guy laughed at him, Dranginis says. Not because Dranginis was saying that a species of giant primates might be living in America, undetected by modern science.
Dranginis was rebuffed because he was saying they lived in Virginia.
"They basically said I was drinking," Dranginis recalled. " 'Stay out of the woods, you idiot.' "
It was his initiation into the East Coast Bigfoot hunters, a group whose members say they are a put-upon subculture in the already marginalized world of sasquatch researchers.
On the one hand, East Coast Bigfooters say they have to fight discrimination from western colleagues who think the creature doesn't live east of the Rocky Mountains. On the other, they have to deal with sighting reports from a more urban population, which includes some who are unfamiliar with wildlife and apt to mistake a black bear for the missing link.
Through it all, one thought keeps them going: Something really might be out there -- and somebody in the East might find it first.
"The first carcass gets all the marbles," said Bob Chance of Harford County, Md.
Many of the East's leading Bigfoot experts converged Saturday in Jeannette, Pa., a small town outside Pittsburgh, for the 2004 East Coast Bigfoot Conference.
Anybody familiar with the West Coast's last big conference, the International Bigfoot Symposium in September in Willow Creek, Calif., would have noticed the difference. That convention had an admission fee of $125, three days of events and two barbecue dinners.
The East Coast version, held in an empty nightclub, charged $5 and had someone serving hot dogs in the back.
Still, there was no shortage of true belief. Devotees wore Bigfoot T-shirts and hats, and hawked books and plaster casts of supposed sasquatch footprints.
One of the speakers was Travis McHenry of Norfolk, who said beforehand that he aimed to move the East Coast Bigfoot community closer to the West Coast mainstream on one important point.