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.
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.
The point: On the West Coast, many believe Bigfoot to be a flesh-and-blood animal, not a ghost or an alien. But he did offer this compromise: Couldn't there be ghosts of dead Bigfoots roaming around as well?
This kind of talk reinforces the view of researchers in the West that the East is an amateur scene, said Matt Moneymaker of California, who heads the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.
"They're kind of at the stage where Bigfoot research . . . had been stuck in, like, the mid-'80s," he said.
The West's Bigfoot movement is older and larger and provided some of the movement's most cherished evidence, including many footprints and a famous 1967 film purporting to show a Bigfoot walking through a California forest.
But folks on the East Coast say there is no shortage of sightings here. Mark Opsasnick, an author from Prince George's County, notes in his Maryland Bigfoot Digest that hairy beasts were spotted near Baltimore in the 1970s: the Sykesville Monster in 1973, the Harewood Park Monster in '76 and a string of sightings in Harford County.
More recently, construction workers building Arundel Mills in Hanover in 2000 said they saw a 12-foot-tall animal with glowing red eyes in nearby woods.
For those intent on finding the creature, however, "sasquatchery" in the East is not easy.
First, there is the time constraint: They need hours to spend in the woods looking for evidence. But most everybody has a day job. Dranginis designs surveillance equipment, Chance sells Christmas trees, and McHenry is an intelligence analyst for the Navy.
Another problem, the researchers say, is that many people in the East aren't familiar with either the Bigfoot legend or the forests the creature might inhabit. McHenry recalled one woman who called to say she saw a werewolf.
He and others reassured her that it was probably a sasquatch. "She was glad, because to her Bigfoot was something more real than a werewolf," he said.
Then there are the insults from their Western counterparts, who scoff at the notion that the same species of sasquatch spotted there -- or perhaps a three-toed cousin called the skunk ape -- might live on the East Coast.
But the biggest difficulty of Bigfoot-watching, here and in the West, remains the elusiveness of the quarry.
Nobody knows this better than Dranginis. After being snubbed when he tried to report his sighting, the Manassas man used his expertise in surveillance to turn a minibus into the $50,000 Mobile Bigfoot Research Lab.
The vehicle, with the license plate VA YETI -- a reference to the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas -- has infrared cameras and night-vision cameras on board. Dranginis also has tiny cameras and microphones that can be left in the woods. He has spent years deploying this equipment.
So far, no Bigfoot.
Instead, Dranginis says he has found clues that might be near-misses: a leaf placed over his camera lens, a clump of smelly, red hair on the forest floor.
"I came on board thinking I could solve this problem in a couple years," he said. "But they end up winning."