AFTON, Va. — There was a time in Denver Riggleman's life when he sat on the banks of a creek that reeked of dead fish and peered through night-vision goggles into the thick of the Olympic National Forest.

He was looking for Bigfoot.

Or at least, others in his group were. Riggleman, a nonbeliever who was then a National Security Agency defense contractor, had come along for the ride, paying thousands of dollars in 2004 to indulge a lifelong fascination: Why do people — what kind of people — believe in Bigfoot?

Now in one of his last acts as a Republican congressman from Virginia, Riggleman is asking the same questions of supporters of QAnon and deniers of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Months after his ouster by Rep.-elect Bob Good (R) in a contentious GOP convention, Riggleman has become one of the loudest voices in Congress warning of the infiltration of conspiracy theories into political discourse.

And he is surely the only voice to have made the point after self-publishing a book about Bigfoot beliefs.

To Riggleman, the book, “Bigfoot . . . It’s Complicated,” mirrors the way pockets of the country are falling into conspiracy wormholes — everything from extremist fringe groups such as QAnon and the “boogaloo” movement to President Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud.

Like the Bigfoot hunters in the Olympic National Forest, they see what they want to see.

“I always say the [Bigfoot] expedition leader and Rudy Giuliani are very similar people,” Riggleman said of Trump’s conspiracy-theory-spinning lawyer, during a recent interview at his distillery in Afton, Va.

Bigfoot believers have plenty in common with political extremists on both the far right and the far left, Riggleman said, lambasting a political ecosystem where, oftentimes, “facts don’t matter.”

“They’re all bat---- crazy. Right?” he said, not really joking. “All of them ascribe to a team mythology that might or might not be true. And they stay on that team regardless. And that is what’s so dangerous about politics today. That’s what I’ve been trying to say.”

A 'lark' turns into a book

Riggleman’s Bigfoot story begins in 1980, when he was 10. Something his grandfather described only as “mighty peculiar” chased them in the West Virginia woods back to his grandfather’s trailer.

Was it Bigfoot? Probably not, Riggleman now knows.

But it gave him his own sense of how a kernel of suspicion could snowball into an unshakable conviction.

Years later, his fascination with belief systems was cemented halfway across the world. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Eastern European foreign affairs, Riggleman became an Air Force intelligence officer and ended up stationed on the Serbian-Romanian border during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s.

“There was religious violence, ethnic strife. But what really touched me there was the way the Romanians treated the Roma, or the gypsies,” Riggleman said. “It was subhuman. What I saw was belief systems that thought the other belief system was wrong, based on no evidence whatsoever.”

He finished out his counterterrorism career as a defense contractor with the National Security Agency before starting his own contracting company, Analyst Warehouse, and later working as a consultant at the Pentagon.

All the while, he dabbled in Bigfoot beliefs as a personal hobby. In 2004, he flew to Washington state with his wife, Christine, and his best friend, a Michigan state trooper, to go on a Bigfoot-hunting expedition, the first of several he would take over the years for his book. At the time it was only a lark, basically a prank vacation.

He had told his wife they were going on an “exotic” hiking trip for their anniversary.

“It was not the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he says now.

In the woods, they listened to Bigfoot-believing women sing nursery rhymes, banking on the widely held theory that women’s singing voices would lure the hairy, behemoth forest dweller from the shadows. Around a campfire, they humored other group members’ stories of Bigfoot sightings.

Some attendees debated, with almost religion-like conviction, whether Bigfoot had a gluten allergy, or questioned how big his penis was. (Yep, that’s in the book. And if it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Riggleman’s Democratic opponent in 2018 accused him of being a “devotee of Bigfoot erotica”; Riggleman had joked online about Bigfoot genitalia and “why women want” him.)

By the end of the trip, Riggleman, and especially his wife, couldn’t believe he had dropped more than $5,000 — much of which he paid to the expedition leader.

As he recalls the expense today, Riggleman said it doesn’t feel much different from Trump’s allies seeking donations from fervent Trump voters to help his campaign’s legal challenge of the election results.

“If you look at the Giulianis or the Sidney Powells of the world, they’re making money off the grift because they’re asking for donations to help in a mythological quest of things that can’t be proven,” he said, referring to a former member of Trump’s legal team. “I saw it with Bigfoot. I’m seeing it with QAnon. It’s about money. And sometimes crazy and money live in the same space.”

'Ideological purity test'

It’s dusk on Riggleman’s back porch in Afton, overlooking the Rockfish River at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains — the kind of night when Riggleman typically pours a glass of bourbon, has a cigar, sits outside and feels kind of happy to be leaving Washington.

He lives walking distance from Silverback Distillery, which he and Christine founded in 2013 and Christine now runs with their daughter. On a tour of the grounds, he stops at their barrel warehouse and points to a bench at the top of a hill.

“That’s where Stephen Colbert made fun of me,” he said, referring to Colbert’s 2018 late-night spoof of Riggleman’s “Bigfoot erotica” campaign controversy, which featured Riggleman looking pensive on his picturesque bench.

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) said the controversy largely fizzled after Riggleman got to work in Congress, in part because Riggleman “embraced” his unusual hobby. He wore Bigfoot socks. He put Bigfoot figurines in his office. And he proved himself a “live-and-let-live Republican” unafraid to speak his mind, said Reschenthaler, who has purchased copies of Riggleman’s Bigfoot book to give to friends.

Riggleman’s mentor, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), who is chief deputy whip, described the one-term lawmaker’s voting record as among the most conservative in Congress but said his mind-set was always “wrapped in a Libertarian wrapper.”

He said Riggleman “built a reputation as an honest broker,” someone he could trust to reach out to members across the political spectrum to whip votes.

Riggleman worked with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) on rural broadband access, and with Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) — “my hero,” Riggleman said — to pass $9 billion opioid addiction legislation, an issue personal to each of them after both lost a relative to an overdose.

“Denver has empathy,” Trone said. “But he also has this bigger-than-life personality and this inquisitive mind. And he’s not afraid to challenge the status quo. . . . Others just lack the courage; they’re concerned about reelection.”

That trait didn’t always go over well with factions of the Republican Party in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, however — an experience that has left Riggleman cynical about the two-party political system and questioning whether he has a home in the GOP.

He landed in hot water with social conservatives after officiating a same-sex wedding between two of his campaign staffers and supporting increases in visas for foreign workers. During the Republican primary campaign, Good, a religious conservative, lashed Riggleman for voting to condemn the Trump administration’s lawsuit seeking a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Riggleman said he didn’t want to “play the game” — or ascribe to a team mythology — to get reelected. “I think what you have is this ideological purity test I refuse to meet for the GOP in Virginia,” he said.

In the months after his loss, he co-led a House resolution condemning QAnon and, later, went after Trump on cable news for promoting a QAnon conspiracy on Twitter about an Osama bin Laden body double. He openly flirted with not voting for Trump’s reelection bid and says he’ll never tell whom he did vote for.

Since the election, he has blasted the president’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud — saying there is probably “more proof of alien abductions” than of fantastical theories about rigged voting machines, Venezuelan influence or plotting by Democratic operatives to fix mail-in voting for Biden.

John Fredericks, chairman of Trump’s Virginia convention delegation, said Riggleman’s comments attacking Trump on live television amounted to a betrayal of the president’s 2 million Virginia supporters — and Trump’s previous support for the congressman. Fredericks said he will never back Riggleman in politics again because of it.

Riggleman said he doesn’t care about the political consequences of his comments.

He has tossed around the possibility of running as an independent for governor — about as convincingly as someone who will “maybe” attend your Zoom networking event next Tuesday night.

But he has his sights set on other opportunities, too.

His outspokenness on extremism caught the eye of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which maps the online spread of disinformation and coded language used by extremist groups, including antifa, the Proud Boys and more. Joel Finkelstein, the institute’s founder, said Riggleman’s background as an intelligence officer and his passion for rooting out conspiracy theories made him “the guy we’ve been waiting for.”

A few months ago, Finkelstein met the congressman in Washington. They talked about his book on Bigfoot, about QAnon, about his time on the Serbian-Romanian border.

Finkelstein offered him an advisory role and a chance to co-write upcoming papers. Riggleman accepted.

“This is what I’ve done my whole life,” he said.