You need an unassuming, unobtrusive car to hunt for the big guy. Tiptoe forward, Volvo V90...
Stood on a giant downed tree some 40 feet in the air and dressed like a compost heap with a face, I can’t help thinking that James Bond was an idiot. As spies go, he totally sucked. Yes, I know he has the get-out clause of being fictional, but despite the fact that he’s made-up, he still grates. Why? Because he’s rubbish at hiding – one of the essential skills of a spy – yet no one ever calls him out on it. And I’m here, in a Redwood forest in the very northern reaches of California, being very good at hiding, and thinking about a game of hide and seek that’s been going on for nearly 60 years. Sorry, this is getting confusing already.
I’d better explain.
Words: Tom Ford
Photography: Mark Riccioni
The thinking so far goes something like this: if you want to hide in plain sight, you do so by being utterly, painfully normal. So glassily nothing that you slide off someone’s consciousness like soap off stainless steel. You certainly don’t turn up everywhere with your Aston Martin cocked at a jaunty angle and your libido spraying everywhere.
Equally, if you’re going to sneak up on something, be quiet. Be unobtrusive. Move slowly, and be dull to the senses. If you’re unexciting to both eyes and emotions, chances are, you’ll be able to get close to your target without being spotted. This week, therefore, I must be the anti-Bond, because I must be both the sneaker and sneakee. I’m going to try to paparazzi a notoriously shy-yet-legendary celebrity, an individual who has a particular penchant for living on a rather large forested estate, and does not do photocalls even when asked nicely. He doesn’t do publicity at all. Partly because he’s not fond of the camera, and partly because he might not actually be y’know… real.
We’re going to find Bigfoot. In a Volvo.
Yeah. Said that out loud. And we’re going to do it by being boring. And practical. And a bit Zen. We’re going to rely on a joyous and confusing pudding of cognitive dissonance, lazy brand prejudice and blind hope. We’re going to use a Volvo and a florist’s onesie. It’s obvious, really: if you need to do the unnoticed thing, you inevitably conclude a Volvo is suitably dull. Not fast or slow, not expensive or cheap. A grey Volvo 4cyl estate is perfectly anonymous. Fabulously anodyne. Even better, it turns out there is a new version, a V90 Cross Country with some light off-road capability, which makes it even more low-key suitable.
This car can build traction like a Land Rover
And it is, it has to be said, pretty damn perfect when you’re the newest unaffiliated members of the BFRO – the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organisation (a trove of information, should you wish to find out more about our furry hominid friend) and you find yourself in the Redwood forests of Northern California trying to catch a glimpse of what is probably the planet’s most famous hair-monger. And it works by being a kind of lightning rod to the romantic notion of a secret population of hairy myths that live in a giant forest. Mainly because Volvos don’t do romance or adventure. They chime with beige and knowing scepticism, practicality, and proven world views.
Except they don’t. First problem; the V90 Cross Country is not boring-looking, dammit. It’s a mildly lifted V90 wagon (up 2.3in on standard and only an inch or so shy of a steel-sprung XC90) with both extra height and plastic arches, and it looks annoyingly handsome and well resolved. People look at it. They appreciate it. They notice it. Which won’t do at all. It’s also not really got the stealthy slowness that I was looking for – this one’s a T6 petrol, which provides 316bhp/295lb ft from a turbo- and supercharged 2.0-litre 4cyl engine and actual performance figures. We would be much less obvious in some sort of Eighties pickup if we really wanted to blend in. Still, you work with what you have and, at least on the long, endless schlep up the Pacific Coast Highway, the V90 proves to be the kind of gently compliant that leaves you with a comfortable glassy amnesia about the journey.
It is utterly brilliant at distance; it has the kind of pothole-soaking ability and absorbent seats that make you glad to be old enough not to care about what people think, and the interior is by far the least intimidating and most emotionally pleasing of the major makers, though the functionality doesn’t match some of the German’s relentless efficiency. It is, however, constantly surprising: at one point on the trip, we find a beach called Pismo Dunes, pay our five bucks and follow a Baja Beetle down onto the sand, the Volvo filtering some of its 4x4-ness into the slippery surface. And far from being a show pony, the V90 CC actually turns out to have some off-road chops. No, it’s not going to be stumpjumping and ditch crossing, but on a very loose surface, this car can build traction like a Land Rover. It’s comforting to know – especially when you start splashing through the Pacific in sand with the tensile properties of a bagful of marbles. Suffice it to say though, Bigfoot was not found on the beach.
Still, thanks to the CC’s ability to almost teleport distance, it’s not long before we’re into wine country, a place where, when it isn’t being 100-acre almond groves, turns into a kind of extreme rolling hills arrangement, etched with the ranks of vines ready to produce next year’s Chardonnay. But even this falls away as the waist of the world thickens and the hills rise, the trees crowding the horizon. And the trees are getting bigger. Mile by mile, town by town, the Redwood forests take over. The roads start to swoop, and the Volvo starts to demonstrate that it can handle bends. And then, suddenly it happens… and we get mugged by serious arbors.
Stop, and the megaforest pauses with you, watching
These aren’t trees, they are wooden tower blocks; 30- and 40-foot boles, creviced and cracked with a thousand years of seasons. Megaflora. Alive. The world’s biggest and tallest trees, and some of the world’s largest living entities. The V90 looks like a toy. Stop, and the megaforest pauses with you, watching, breathing, silent. As if it’s considering your next move. And then, when it decides you’re not a threat, it gently revives itself; birds start singing, there are rustles and flutters from too many angles to count, life, gnawing, chittering, chirping life. But there’s a feeling here – I swear I’m not making this up – of the forest being present in more than just the sense that it’s full of great big trees. A 40ft tree trunk is impressive, but when you think that these things are hundreds – if not thousands (some of the sequoia are thought to have seen 3,000-years-plus on this planet) – of years old, and they’re alive, you get the feeling that sentience isn’t that far a jump to make.
Or maybe it’s just imagination. After all, if these behemoths were conscious, it would be on a timescale so vast that we’d flutter too fast to be noticed, not even a blur in an aeons-long photographic exposure. But there’s something going on, in the same way that concrete city centres feel innately brutal and dead and sharp-cornered. The forest is alive. Am I being watched? Of course I am. There’s a crow cycling its head from side to side to figure out if I may drop some tasty morsel, some sort of squirrel off to my left, and just moments ago I saw a cat-sized ball of greyish fur shotgun into the undergrowth. It’s a place made for legends. And we, as humans, love a bit of legend.
It goes a bit like this: folklore all over the world often refers to ape-like man-creatures living in out-of-the-way places. There’s the most famous, our North American Bigfoot – or Sasquatch (a First Nation Halkomelem word anglicised and warped around western syllables), the Florida “Skunk Ape” – named after the nose-wrinkling stench that it supposedly carries with it – and in more defiantly foreign climes (Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet), the Yeti. But these are just the best-known – there have always been legends of wild men and ape-men and things that walk on two legs that aren’t quite human. But the reason we struck north from Los Angeles has nothing to do with American Indian legends and more to do with a much debated and hotly defended/derided short film shot up here by two men who claimed to have captured documentary evidence of Bigfoot. It’s called the Patterson-Gimlin film, and it was shot in 1967. Blurry, shaky footage that apparently shows a two-legged ape-thing striding confidently along through the woods and looking back at the camera. A film that has caused raging debate, although I’m afraid it looks shambolically fake to me.
But there’s still science to be had here. Bigfoot is a cryptid, according to the Oxford English “an animal whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated; any animal of interest to a cryptozoologist”… the key words I’m going for here are “disputed” and “unsubstantiated” – because they don’t say “fake”. So off we head to the big forest, towards a place called Willow Creek in Humboldt County, the place where Bigfoot was first sighted in 1958. To a place called the Bigfoot Scenic Highway. Which sounds like as good a place to start as any…
Unfortunately, the world’s biggest museum of Bigfoot in Willow Creek is… er… shut. So we decide to mount our own random search and simply head out into the forest. To disguise myself, I have purchased a thing called a ghillie suit – which is my ridiculous lawn-spec tracksuit. High fashion in the forest, apparently. And lightly remarkable: watch me walk into the forest and turn so that you can’t see my face or my boots, and… I’ve gone. I’m not even wearing deodorant, thinking that the strong smell of Lynx Africa might give the game away to sensitive Sasquatchian noses.
It is at this point I remember that in August 2012, a man in Montana was killed by a car while “perpetrating a Bigfoot hoax using a ghillie suit”. There is another documented case of a man being accidentally shot by inebriated friends while pretending to be Bigfoot, and I decide that running as fast as I am able through the Redwoods is possibly not the best idea I have ever had.
We drove past the point of no return on sheet ice and hope
So I stick to the Volvo as a means of observance, and head down as many off-road tracks as inhumanly possible. All of them. Memorably one road. Well, more of a track. Maybe if you look at it in the right way, kind of a trail. But it wound up and away from the road and toward the mountain top. Which means there might be a better vantage. So we drove. Now, it’s probably wise to point out that the Volvo isn’t on snow tyres, just the all-season rubber it came on. Volvo doesn’t expect you to need something as rufty-tufty as an actual spare tyre, so it hasn’t got one. And the track became a trail became a trial very quickly. You know when you reach a point that you might as well keep going because it can’t be any worse than going back the way you came? We reached that point. And drove past it, on sheet ice and hope, until we came to a point where the road was closed and only snowmobiles had gone further. The Volvo was majestic. Very little wheelspin going up, and with hill-descent engaged on the way down, only the least important of the panics – when I realised that the car was slipping gently sideways off a cliff and the “guardrail” consisted of a foot of semi-frozen slush.
Bigfoot was not up this mountain.
In fact, the Hairy One wasn’t up the mountain in the snow, or on the beach, or variously in Humboldt County, the Redwood National and State Parks, Shasta Trinity National Forest or indeed the Pacific Coast Ranges. After three days of searching, we are forced to give up. It was perhaps a little hopeful to think we’d discover and document Bigfoot’s existence in under a week, when the hunt has been going on for more than half a century, but there’s nothing wrong with trying. I also think the real reason we didn’t find him is because the Volvo hasn’t been very good at being all the things we wanted it to be. It’s not boring or slow or forgettable. It’s too brilliant and passionate and striking. Which makes it a useless stalking horse. Which is where, I think, we came in. I don’t think the Big Hairy is really any good at hiding. I just think he’s good at being anonymous, possessing an innate ability to steer people away from their remembrances. The art of unmemory… Volvo used to be able to do that, but has now completely lost the ability to move through a crowd unnoticed. And while we didn’t find the legend we came looking for, I reckon we may have found a new one.