Before YouTube and memes, fake news and viral content, there was a shaky home movie the world couldn’t stop watching. In a thick, brambled forest deep in the California backcountry, a couple hours south of the Oregon border, a jumpy camera captures two young cowboys, riding on horseback through the woods. As they reach a clearing, the camera catches a dark figure in the distance.
The cowboys are not alone.
Striding across a dry creek bed is a loping, gorilla-like creature covered in fur, long arms swinging, back hunched, breasts exposed. Just before it disappears from the frame, the being glances back over its shoulder toward the men. And then she’s gone.
Eventually, she would become known as “Patty”; the home movie is the Patterson-Gimlin Film. Shot on October 20, 1967, by Yakima cowboys Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the home movie is widely considered to be the gold standard of Bigfoot films. And for five decades, the footage has stood up to the scrutiny of special effects experts, forensic analysts, and scientists. Nobody has definitively proven that the creature on the film is fake.
And, really, does it matter? Because in the 50 years since that fall day, an entire regional industry has popped up around that one sighting. In the gift aisles of New Seasons stores, Patty lives on—via magnets, mugs, and cards. Bigfoot strides across car bumpers and back windows, peeks out from T-shirts and socks.
Seattle-based novelty company Archie McPhee dominates the Bigfoot market, producing everything from Bigfoot lunch boxes and bandages to Christmas ornaments and “Bigfoot Research Kits” crammed with membership cards and scat collection bags.
“We have made many different cryptozoological products: Loch Ness Monsters, jackalopes, and mermaids,” says Shana Iverson, the “High Priestess of Rubber Chickens” at Archie McPhee. But Bigfoot is everyone’s favorite cryptid—especially around here. “We in the Northwest are known for being somewhat cold and reclusive,” Iverson says. “Many locals relate to him (or her), and just want to be left alone.”
Archie McPhee also makes Bigfoot air fresheners shaped like Patty. The first time I saw one of those was last year on a reporting trip. It was hanging from the mirror of a pickup driven by my interviewee, Bob Gimlin.
Gimlin, who lives in the Yakima area, turns 86 this October. Though he sold his rights to the film for less than $10 in the years immediately following its creation, he continues to appear at Bigfoot conferences around the country and was on an episode of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. In April, he attended the dedication of Gimlin Way, a street named for him not far from where he and Patterson made their film.
I spoke to Gimlin again this summer, and he told me the film changed his life. “I have so many friends throughout the world over this,” he said. “I’m so grateful for all of the people that have honored me and come to talk to me and share their experiences with the forest people.”
That’s what Gimlin calls them—forest people. He’s spent most of his life looking to find another Patty. And he hopes that one day, he’ll see her again.
“I’m always looking,” he says.