Ashley Membree, Michael Rugg and Ralph Jack hunt for a Bigfoot around Felton. (Chip Scheuer)
It doesn’t take more than a couple of hours before I see exactly what Rugg is talking about. A couple in their early thirties comes into the museum, and the guy tells Rugg he saw a Bigfoot seven years earlier in Big Basin. He’s kept this experience a secret from everyone in his life except his girlfriend for fear of being ridiculed.
Rugg patiently listens to a detailed account of the sighting, then tells the man about other such sightings in the Santa Cruz Mountains and comments on how similar their descriptions of Bigfoot have been to his.
“I didn’t know other people were seeing Bigfoots out here,” the man says, clearly feeling better.
“We’re advocates for eye-witnesses,” Rugg tells me later. “We’re saying people that claim that they’ve seen little green men and stuff like that might be telling the truth. How can you be so goddamn sure they didn’t?”
It’s not surprising this topic gets Rugg riled up. He’s had his fair share of negative experiences for being so candid about his belief in Bigfoot. The one experience that angers him the most, he says, happened in the mid-1960s when he was a student at Stanford. Rugg wanted to write his final paper for a physical anthropology class on Bigfoot. The professor objected, telling Rugg point blank that Bigfoot wasn’t real. Rugg, of course, insisted, and the professor told him he could write the paper so long as he provided a bibliography that didn’t include True Magazine or Argosy, both popular pulp magazines of the ’60s.
Rugg went to work with a vengeance, turning in a 38-page tome with a four-page bibliography instead of the required seven pages total. He got a C and a note saying, “I don’t think you’ve made a case. This is still in the realm of UFOs.”
Forty years later, Rugg still deals with people’s teasing and harassing.
“I get the one-finger salute quite often walking down the street,” Rugs says. “People driving by, they flip me off and yell, ‘Bigfoot sucks!’ I’ve had people stuff notes in the door saying, ‘Good luck with your scam.’ I’ve had rocks heaved at the museum.”
He hopes at least that he can help other people dealing with these sorts of things by making his museum a sanctuary for people with experiences of the unexplainable.
“People have been talking about sentient beings that they come in contact with that seem to be coming from some other place or reality for centuries. It sounds crazy. It sounds impossible. So those people are shoved aside. They’re marginalized. They’re considered to be nutcases and some of them end up in insane asylums,” says Rugg. “I think some of them have had genuine events that we don’t understand. I’m not going to call those people all fools and liars.”
Rugg isn’t without people anxious to help him keep the museum alive. One of them is Kepi Ghoulie, former lead singer for the pop-punk band the Groovie Ghoulies, who were famous for singing songs about ghosts, vampires and, yes, Bigfoots. Three years ago, Ghoulie put together a fundraising concert at the Bigfoot Museum with several bands. The year after that, he held it at the Crepe Place. While he couldn’t do one last year, he is tentatively planning to do one this year in August.
“I love the museum,” Ghoulie says. “I love Michael. I love the idea of it. I love roadside America. I want to do whatever I can to keep that thing stay open. I love having faith or belief in magic or whatever you want to call it. Why not? If you want to believe, then you can go to the Bigfoot Museum.”
Going Against The Grainy
Avid discussion of sasquatches isn’t anything new. People have been talking about large hairy bipeds hiding in the woods for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bigfoot reports made the mainstream media and had people all over the world talking about them. In 1967, footage dubbed the Patterson Film was shot in the mountains of Northern California allegedly capturing an actual Bigfoot walking through the woods. Whether the film was a hoax or the real thing is a subject of great controversy. But there’s no question in Rugg’s mind. He has the footage playing on an iMac in the museum on continuous repeat.
“I accept that film as a type specimen. To me that’s as good as a dead one on a slab. It’s still the single best piece of evidence for Bigfoot,” Rugg says.
But Rugg understands that this footage alone isn’t good enough for everyone. He hopes to find actual DNA evidence, which he’d like to see tested, vetted and written about in a scientific journal so he can end the Bigfoot debate once and for all. He says he’s confident this will happen, and whether he’s the person to do it or someone else doesn’t matter, just so long as it happens in his lifetime. In fact, Rugg announced a couple years back that he would not cut his hair till someone proves Bigfoot’s existence.
The decision to open the museum and devote 100 percent of his time to Bigfoot came after a brief stint in the corporate world. After graduating Stanford in 1968 with a degree in art history, Rugg spent most of his life living like a bohemian, selling handmade dulcimers and doing freelance graphic design work to make ends meet. But in 1997 he landed a lucrative full-time position doing graphic design for Cintara, a brand building company in Silicon Valley. In 2000, when the dot-com bubble burst, he, like a lot of people, was out of work. He spent a couple years re-evaluating his life.
“I came to what you might call a mid-life crisis. I was getting older. I didn’t want my headstone to say, ‘He was another idiot that chased Bigfoot.’ I want it to say, ‘He told you so,’” Rugg says.
In other words, Bigfoot could no longer be a part-time pursuit. From that point on he would eat, sleep and dream Bigfoot.
One thing Rugg hadn’t counted on was that he would meet so many people that had seen Bigfoots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Rugg writes down every story people tell him about a Bigfoot sighting in Santa Cruz County. He has a large map in his museum and puts pins at the locations of the most compelling sightings.
One former Santa Cruz resident, Colette Alexander, told Rugg she saw a Bigfoot in 1999 up Highway 9, just one mile from downtown Santa Cruz. She related her story to me.
“I was eating lunch with a friend. I looked over into the bushes and I saw this young juvenile Bigfoot. I was shocked cause it was actually mimicking me eating my sandwich,” Alexander said. “It looked strangely human.”
Before this encounter, Alexander says she didn’t have an opinion one way or the other on whether Bigfoots were real or not. She found Rugg on the Internet and contacted him.
“It was absolutely insane. I thought this was kind of weird, like, I don’t know, a Bigfoot near downtown Santa Cruz. I talked to Michael and he told me about other people that had sightings in the area,” Alexander said.
Rugg hears stories like this every day. He’s heard so many, he’s altered his theories on the intelligence capacity of Bigfoots.
“It doesn’t seem logical that a dumb ape could be so adept at hiding and so aware of us and our relationship to them,” Rugg says.
THE BIGFOOT DISCOVERY MUSEUM is at 5497 Highway 9 in Felton. http://www.bigfootdiscoveryproject.com/