On October 14, Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver, stepped out of a steel capsule and fell to earth from the stratosphere, topping the previous record for highest parachute jump, which was set by Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger in 1960. Bold projects like this used to be possible only through government funding. Now the adventure world is dominated by individuals and companies with deep pockets.
Here's a breakdown of Baumgartner's jump:
127,852.4 feet: After a massive helium balloon lifts him 24 miles high, Baumgartner opens the hatch to his eight-foot-diameter capsule and launches into the stratosphere.
91,316 feet: Fifty seconds into free fall, Baumgartner reaches his top speed of 843.6 miles per hour and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier with his body, creating a sonic boom that’s caught on amateur video from the ground.
75,000 feet: Baumgartner enters into an uncontrolled flat spin—one of the greatest concerns going into the mission, since G forces can cause blackouts. After 13 seconds he regains control.
On March 26, 2012, Avatardirector James Cameron piloted his mini sub, the Deepsea Challenger—which he designed with engineer Ron Allum—to the deepest spot in the ocean, the 6.8–mile-down Mariana Trench. It was only the second time mankind had reached that depth, after Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard made the trip in 1960 in the U.S. Navy’s hollow-steel bathyscaphe Trieste. Bold projects like this used to be possible only through government funding. Now the adventure world is dominated by individuals and companies with deep pockets.
These were the stages of James's deep sea dive:
Sea level: Two hundred miles off the coast of Guam, Cameron’s support vessel winches the 24-foot Deepsea Challenger into the Pacific.
650 feet: Descending at a rate of eight feet per second, the Challenger moves through the sunlight zone, where most ocean life resides, and into the twilight zone, where light fades and bioluminescent creatures like lanternfish live.
13,000 feet: Lights out—Cameron enters the pitch-black abyssal zone.
19,700 feet: Three-quarters of the ocean floor lies at this depth. The only deeper points are its trenches.
Touchdown: Two hours and 36 minutes after beginning his dive, Cameron arrives at 35,756 feet, where water pressure is 16,000 pounds per square inch. Before collecting sediment samples for analysis, Cameron sends out a tweet: “Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt. Hitting bottom never felt so good.”
“RUBEN, WHAT'S UP with this, bro? We gonna have to run it over?”
I’m standing in a parking lot at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale campus, across from outdoor exhibits for a Model Hurricane Home and a Restored Everglades Habitat. The tail of an eight-foot-long Burmese python is twisting around my fingers. Forty-five minutes ago, this muscular reptile was shot in the head with a captive-bolt pistol, those nasty-looking guns used in slaughterhouses and by the bad guy in No Country for Old Men. Technically, the snake is dead, but the body of a python can keep moving for up to an hour after its head has been shot or severed. On the pavement, it writhes in desperate coils.
“That bothers me,” says George Brana, 44, part of a two-man snake-hunting team that captured the python, which was brought here for counting and measuring by state wildlife officials. “We’ve been hunting snakes for decades, and we’d never killed a Burmese python until three weeks ago. We caughtour first one and Ramirez was like, ‘You kill it.’ And I was like, ‘No, you kill it.’ So finally, he was like—”
His partner, 40-year-old Ruben Ramirez, cuts in. “I had to build myself up. I was like, ‘Hoo! Hoo!’ I was like, ‘Give me the fucking gun!Give me the goddamn…’ Bam! But once that adrenaline went away—”
I’m here for the final week of the Florida Python Challenge, an effort by the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) to do something about the unpleasant fact that Burmese pythons—an invasive species from Southeast Asia—are slithering around all over the Everglades, wreaking havoc on the birds and small mammals that naturally reside there. A study released last year links a major decrease in small-mammal populations—90 percent over the past 15 years—to the rise of invasive species, including pythons.
The FWC estimates that the Everglades’ python population ranges anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000—the exact number being something of a puzzler, obviously, as is the explanation for how the snakes got established here. (More about that soon.) Last December, state officials invited professional and amateur snake hunters in to kill as many pythons as possible during a monthlong season that began January 12. Since this was a state initiative, Everglades National Park, in southwest Florida, was not part of the hunting ground. Most of the action happened inside a 670,000-acre rectangle of state-owned swamp south of Interstate 75, which runs west out of Fort Lauderdale for 100 miles before cutting almost straight north to Fort Myers. Another huge area—the Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the national park—was open to hunters for just the first two weeks.
The Permit Holders Competition (for professional snake hunters like Brana and Ramirez) constitutes its own division, separate from the General Competition (for amateurs). In each category, hunters are eligible to win $1,500 for the most snakes and $1,000 for the single longest one. FWC officials did not explicitly say that this short-term hunt would solve Florida’s snake problem, but a lot of people seem to have gotten that impression. Before I even landed in Florida, I’d received a stream of e-mails from disillusioned hunters who claimed that the FWC had misled them into thinking the hunting would be easy, that they would be picking pythons up off the road. As the small catch numbers were reported—just 50 snakes in three weeks—FWC officials said that the hunt was really aimed at raising awareness about the state’s bleak struggles with invasive species.
The awareness part certainly worked, but not in the way the FWC had in mind: the moment the Python Challenge was announced last December, it inspired a seemingly endless barrage of Twitter sarcasm. People imagined that tribes of yahoos would be running wild through the woods and muck, as dangerous to each other as they were to the snakes.
“We probably need an ‘Only In Florida’ section of the paper,” the Orlando Sentinel tweeted. “Cash for rustling up wild Burmese #Pythons.”
“As crazy as this Te’o story is,” remarked somebody called @sirbrooks, “it’s still not a statewide python hunt.”
“All my terrors converge,” wrote @rebeccaburns. “Snakes! Swamps! Florida rednecks!”
Mainstream media responded in full force, too. By my count, there were lengthy stories or quick hits about the Python Challenge in or on The New York Times, The Washington Post, Yahoo News, NBC, CNN, Fox, and NPR. And those were just the major outlets.
Not that I had any reason to feel superior. When I heard about the Challenge, I flew to Florida as fast as I could, for the same reasons everybody else did: My hunch was that the snake stomp would be an unforgettable clown show. I had to see it for myself.
THINGS LOOKED DIFFERENT on the ground, though, in a way that didn’t always come through in coverage heavy on the “Florida rednecks” theme. The snake hunters I met were decent people who, like Brana and Ramirez, were not unsympathetic to the pythons, wild creatures who aren’t to blame for what’s happened in the Everglades. The whole spectacle was also a lot sadder than I expected: the futility of the effort, the way the media hype distorted the behavior of the hunters (who were angling for a level of sustained exposure that seemed likely to elude them), and the fact that none of what transpired had much to do with the real problems facing the Everglades.
One of the world’s most famous and beautiful natural habitats, the Everglades is made up of roughly 2,350 square miles of marsh and prairie, penned in by highways that break it up into four quadrants, with development on all sides. To the east of where the Challenge took place there’s Miami, rising above a horizon of haze. To the north, a tall chain-link and barbed-wire fence prevents the jungly Everglades from literally swallowing up I-75. Guys in coveralls park on the shoulder and fish right off the side of the highway.
The 1,800-mile canal system that cuts through the Everglades was dredged in the early 1900s, partially draining the wetlands and stopping the natural flow of water southward to the sea. As a result, the Everglades have receded, the estuaries have become saltier, and the ecosystem has long been in its death throes.
In his 2006 book The Swamp, Michael Grunwald explains that much of the development in the Everglades happened thanks to midcentury land prospectors who recognized that “northerners yearned for a piece of Florida the way bald men yearned for hair.” What’s left today barely resembles what was there 100 years ago. “America’s war on nature has left a tattered battlefield in south Florida,” Grunwald wrote. “Half the Everglades is gone. The other half is an ecological mess. … Algal blooms are exploding in its lakes and estuaries, massacring its dolphins, oysters, and manatees. … [P]aradise has been sullied by sprawl, and by overcrowded schools, hospitals, and highways.”
The suburbs of Miami and Fort Lauderdale have steadily eaten away at what remains on the eastern boundary. Development and agriculture around and inside the Everglades’ perimeter, particularly the production of cane sugar on farmlands to the north, have caused pollution problems, mainly from leached pesticides. The diminished swamp, which used to absorb storm surges and minimize flooding, now provides less buffer for the houses that have been built on former marshlands. The water has been sucked out of the peat and caused the ground to fall away, leaving many older homes on bare piles, like stilt walkers.
The federal government is 13 years into a multibillion-dollar, 30-year Everglades restoration project, which aims to halt the ecosystem’s precipitous decline. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. National Research Council condemned its progress as unacceptably slow, giving most parts of the project C’s and D’s, and one an F for allowing nearly irreversible damage.
The habitat destruction has, unfortunately, enabled exotic species to outcompete many natives. The tree islands with their hardwood hammocks, which used to break up the swamp, are now gone from large areas of the Everglades, along with 95 percent of wading birds. Seventy percent of the fish in the canals are nonnative, and the canals themselves provide a breeding ground for invasive clams, water hyacinth, and snails. The levees, built of limestone, dredged from the swamp create a habitat that encourages nests of fire ants and Florida’s pesky population of Burmese pythons, which locals call Burms.
There are two main theories on how the snakes got here. One is that several of them escaped from a South Florida breeding facility that was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Another is that the wild snake population resulted from the slow release of pet pythons by people who obtained them, legally and illegally, and got tired of them.
In Fort Lauderdale, Ramirez and Brana, the snake-hunting pros, tell me that they believe both things happened. Then Ramirez says something odd. “Maybe Everglades National Park decided to throw 100 of ’em in there to eradicate some other kind of rat and it just blew up,” he says. “Who knows! They have introduced species to get rid of another one, and then that one becomes a problem.”
Brana, who, like Ramirez, is suntanned and dressed in baggy cotton outdoor clothing, agrees. “Especially in the canals, y’know?” he says. “They released the peacock bass from the Amazon in the eighties to get rid of this other invasive fish, and now it’s taken over everything.”
“Just like the cane toads,” Ramirez says. Cane toads, massive natives of Central and South America, were introduced to Florida in the 1930s and 1940s as “natural” pest protection for the burgeoning fields of sugarcane. It didn’t work, but that program and a later, accidental release established a population. Now they’re such a menace that the FWC recommends killing them on sight.
“So why aren’t we out hunting those invasives, too?” I ask.
“’Cause people hate snakes,” Brana says.
“You know the feral cats that are all over the place?” Ramirez says. “That’s more of a problem. But go ahead and shoot one: You’ll go to jail. They’ll kill you. You know what sort of reaction a TV show about killing cats would get?”
“Pythons are a problem,” Brana continues, “but they just add to the problems that are already here. Nobody likes to see a ten-foot snake in their backyard. You see a lizard, like a Nile monitor or a tegu, and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s an iguana! No big deal.’ But those things are mean and as big as Komodo dragons. Even the wildlife guys will admit they’re a bigger problem than pythons.”
THE NEXT DAY, as the sun goes down, I pull up to a gravel boat ramp 30 minutes outside Miami, off Highway 41, just as a different group of hunters I’ve driven out to meet—Bill Booth, Duane Clark, and Dusty Crum—are coming in on their flat-bottomed swamp boat. Booth and Clark look like hunters, clad in muted long-sleeved shirts and sensible long pants and muddy boots, while Crum’s getup could be described as Gator meets Dances with Wolves. He’s barefoot, with a scraggly beard and aviator sunglasses, and he wears feathers in his blond hair, which tumbles down his back. Is he auditioning for something?
Sort of. Booth and his crew shoot hunting films part-time for Bill Booth Outdoors, a production company he owns. Booth thinks the combination of python hunting and Crum might attract people who produce big-budget reality TV.
Booth and the guys are competing in the Challenge’s nonprofessional category, but they’re the only people I’ve found besides Brana and Ramirez who’ve taken an entire month off work to hunt. They’ve been going at it 14 hours a day, averaging 12 miles each on foot. They’re camping out at a nearby tent site and are leading the nonpro standings with five snakes. (They had six, Booth says ruefully, but one got away when they were showing it off to a camera crew.) Clark has been trying a new technique—mountain biking on top of the levees, covering 40 to 50 miles every day—but it hasn’t helped. It’s been seven days since they caught anything, a fact that has everybody frustrated, especially since Ramirez, who’s become something of a mentor to them, keeps calling in to talk about his latest catch.
Booth, like Ramirez, says the media blitz has been nonstop. His team was shadowed for a few days by a seven-person film crew from National Geographic, and Booth once had five different outlets call his cell during a 25-minute drive between the campsite and the put-in. Even so, he’s friendly to all comers and invites me back to the campsite for burgers and beer.
Once we’re settled in, Booth puts down his Budweiser and takes a plastic bag from a cooler. It’s filled with what look like cod steaks—until he pulls one out, unrolls it, and lays it flat. Two eight-foot-long python skins glisten in the light from his headlamp. The scales are smooth, almost like newly treated leather, but harder. He picks up the partially detached head and points out the rows of needle-like teeth, which pythons have instead of fangs. Booth hasn’t decided what he’ll do with the skins, but he’s an experienced taxidermist, so he may mount them. They could sell for pretty good money.
“Right now, Duane is usually digging arrowheads somewhere,” Booth tells me, by way of explaining that snake hunting isn’t such a bad temporary employment option. Duane Clark served time for growing marijuana in the 1980s. He was eventually busted and thrown in prison. Since he got out, a few years ago, he’s been on the move, crisscrossing the country. Once, he hiked the Continental Divide in 80-some days. He’d probably be great on reality TV.
“Right now,” Crum points out, “Duane is over there washing his nuts.” I look up: he isn’t kidding. Later, when I ask what Crum’s hair feathers are for, Booth says, “Attention.”
“He was playing it up for NatGeo with the barefoot thing,” he says. “The girl was all over it, but I know that’s what they’re after.”
On his Canon, Crum shows me a few rough cuts from the past couple of weeks. In one scene, he puts the camera in so tight that a python lunges and rips off the mic’s fuzzy windscreen. “Close!” Clark says. “But if you were actually the guy to get bit, you’d be on Letterman.”
“If I get a 14-foot snake, I’d let it bite me and wrap me up a few times,” Crum says. “That would be solid gold—to sacrifice myself for the camera.”
The men have hunted wild hogs and massive alligators for Bill Booth Outdoors, but when they started coming out for the Python Challenge, they were winging it like everybody else. “We had no idea what we was doing,” Crum says, describing the first python they caught. “I was holding the camera, and Duane threw a sweatshirt over its head. We didn’t know how to kill it. We didn’t have knives or guns or nothing. So Duane was running along with it around his neck, and he was like, ‘It’s choking me out!’”
Crum says there’s a market for python meat, though it’s under the table. “Some Chinese dude drove 650 miles all the way from Atlanta,” he says. “Said he was going to make medicine with it.” Python dishes and medicinal soups are a popular delicacy in Chinese cuisine, but a buyer wouldn’t be likely to admit serving it, since the python hunters aren’t licensed to handle food. “We were drunk, so we let him have all of it for his first offer—$17 a pound,” Crum says. They later found out that the going rate for python meat is at least twice that.
“What about the mercury?” I ask.
Shortly after announcing the Challenge, the FWC released a report warning that the Florida Burmese python had been found to contain dangerously high quantities of mercury per pound. Some environmental groups have tied the results to the mercury-binding sulfites that are used to fertilize the sugarcane fields. “Well,” Crum shrugs, “nobody’s got sick.”
The next day, I go to a place in Fort Myers that advertises python pizza. Booth asked me to check and see if they’re buying. There’s an Everglades pizza for sale, featuring inch-long slivers of python meat—which look like yellow onion—set amid frog legs, bits of gator sausage, and “swamp cabbage” (hearts of palm). I tell the owner about Booth and ask if he’s in the market.
“It’s not legal,” he says. “The stuff I buy is from Vietnam.” He shows me a frozen vacuum-sealed package that looks like salmon. “Cost me sixty-six bucks. One pound.”
I’M IN THE BOAT with the guys the next morning, scanning the banks of the canal as we shoot down the middle. Around 9 A.M. we pull in to a levee bank; Booth lifts the propeller to avoid dinging it on the rocks. The canal is clear, and Booth tells me that Clark, who’s taken off on the bike, drinks from it. He claims the whole swamp acts as a giant filter.
Booth takes a Charlie’s Angels–style picture of the team with various guns, then we all set off up the levee. Booth and I motor five more miles to a separate put-in, so we can walk toward everybody else and meet them in the middle.
As I soon discover, snake hunting isn’t about wading through the swamp or crawling through mud on your belly. Mainly, you just walk a lot, on a hot, dry road, waiting for something to happen, which usually doesn’t. “Nobody knows how to do this well,” Booth says. “There’s this one guy we kept running into, a kid on a bicycle with a lacrosse net. He had his earbuds in, listening to music, riding along. We just catch ’em by hand.”
“Sometimes you’ll hear ’em before you see ’em,” he says, dragging his boot through the grass to mimic the sound. “But you can’t get into the weeds—they’re too thick, and it’ll wear you down.” We stick to the top of the dusty levee, scanning the banks for dark shapes and any hint of motion.
When we stop for a minute, I notice a low drone from some far-off place. Booth says it’s probably planes taking off from the airport. He points to a hazy urban outline. “You can see Miami,” he says. “Opposing worlds. The city’s such a rat race, but here there’s no one.” Booth has lost 12 pounds since the Challenge started, and he says he’d like to quit his job entirely, that “staying inside and getting fat” gives him anxiety. “Being outdoors is a gift in itself,” he says. “We live on such a beautiful planet.”
I notice dozens of dead turtles on either side of the levee and ask Booth if he knows what’s killing them. “I dunno. There are so many that have just died in their shells not too long ago—if you go over to those islands over there, every one of them has three or four dead turtles on it. I think we’ve only seen a couple alive.” He pauses. “I wonder about it. Maybe they’re keeping it hush-hush, because I talked to one of those FWC officers, and he’s like, ‘Well, something’s eatin’ ’em.’ And I’m like, ‘No, nothing’s eatin’ ’em.’”
Booth hasn’t seen much of anything alive on the levee. “Maybe it’s pythons, but maybe it’s the same thing that’s killing the turtles. Runoff from some of these sugarcane fields. All that water runs through the Everglades, and it could be chemicals or something.” I’m surprised at the distrust of the FWC, but Booth cites all the introduced species—like the cane toad—and says, “You never know what people are doing. What the FWC is doing.”
We fall silent. It’s humid and still, except for the unearthly breathing of the saw grass.
“Hear that?” he says suddenly. We crouch on the side of the levee, listening. “It might just be a bird,” he whispers. “But a bird makes a noise and then stops.” We’re quiet for two minutes. Finally, Booth throws a rock that hits with a plunk. A finch shudders out of the grass.
He sighs. “I’ve walked this so much, I almost fall asleep walking. You think, ‘Just a little bit further, there’s gotta be one,’ and it keeps pushing you along until suddenly you’ve walked five miles. The longer you’re out, the more you think, ‘I have to hit it soon.’ Like gambling.”
Booth and his crew cover 42 miles on foot and bike, and all they find is a Florida king snake. Booth holds it up: it’s lovely, thin, and about four feet long. “Them pythons are gentle like this, too,” he says. “After you catch ’em they settle down. It all depends on how you handle ’em.”
RAMIREZ LIVES A FEW BLOCKS from Brana in an east Miami suburb, just a 20-minute drive from Booth’s usual put-in. Here, the sea of grass blends quickly into shopping malls and suburban ranch houses with tile roofs. Ramirez still lives in the house where he grew up. When he was a child, the area was all Everglades, which is how he got into snake hunting. “Starting when I was 12,” he says. “My mom used to drop me off in a field and say, ‘When I beep, you come running.’”
In the late afternoon light, Ramirez shakes out a pillowcase on the front lawn. A nine-foot python slumps into the grass. His crew caught it this morning, with a Washington Post reporter tagging along.
A friend from down the street sneers at it. “Feisty little shithead, aren’t you?” It’s still alive, undulating across the grass. Its size is dizzying.
“Go, try your training!” Brana says to me. He’s aware that I took the FWC’s online course, which supposedly teaches an amateur how to hunt snakes. “It doesn’t tell you what to do when you come across a python, does it?”
We hop into Ramirez’s truck, which has the words FLORIDA PYTHON HUNTERS printed on the cab’s rear window, the name of the hunting club he founded.
About 20 minutes later, at a gated entrance to another series of levees known as the Rocky Glades, we meet up with one of the other club members, Blake Russ, and his friend Steve. It’s a hot evening, which Ramirez says could be good. We divide up the route, with Russ and Steve covering a different levee in their SUV.
Russ, who’s studying construction at Florida International University (“No money in biology,” he says), currently holds the record for the largest snake caught during the Challenge: 11 feet 11 inches. Since the catches are all part of the Florida Python Hunters’ combined bag, the club will collectively win every prize if current positions hold.
Brana kneels on the covered truck bed and uses a flashlight to check the ditches that run beside the levees. It’s a technique that he says he learned from “real old-timers” who hunt snakes for a living.
Just seconds into it, Brana pounds on the top of the truck. He jumps off and yells that he saw something slither into the water. “Sneak up slowly, bro,” shouts Ramirez. “If you see the head, just jump in, bro!”
It’s too late. Whatever was there is gone. We get back in the truck.
Ramirez keeps looking ahead and occasionally yells, “Shine there, Georgie!” When he gets excited, he calls out, “Look at that big black thing—watch that Big Bertha!”
But the levee is quiet tonight. Ramirez points to the area on the other side of the canal where big homes and lawns run right up to the water. “Big-time changes. It’s sad, the development. There used to be so many native snakes everywhere, even just 15 years ago. You’d see a snake every thousand feet. Route 41 used to be full of snakes.”
The whole time I’m with Ramirez, his phone never stops ringing. “This guy from the Palm Beach Post won’t leave me alone,” he says. “He just texted: ‘You’re breaking my heart. Could have got you catching.’” Ramirez always responds to the media, though, because his team is also hoping for a TV show. A month before the Challenge was announced, Florida Python Hunters signed on with the production company that makes Swamp People and Stormchasers. Now they’re waiting for their agent to sell a deal.
In the dark, the car’s lights make sticks and rocks momentarily look like snakes. Slippery white dust from the loose limestone of the levee gets on everything. It leaves a thin film on the dash and in your lungs; Ramirez is always clearing his throat. “Road cruising” feels less like hunting and more like a test drive. And an expensive one at that. Ramirez, like Booth, says they’ve each spent well over the $1,500 bounty in gas alone.
In the headlights, we see a group of kids on trick bikes hanging out. They crowd around the truck. They say that another group of kids was fishing in the canal last night, saw a python, and shot it with BBs. It slithered away to die. Ramirez shakes his head as we drive on. He speculates that the snake might still be nearby. Then we get the call from Russ. He’s got one.
We meet up with Russ a few minutes later. He drops his snake in the lights of some diesel-refueling tanks, which are there to power the pumps for the canals. Nine muscular feet. It uncurls slowly.
“We walked all the way around and way out into the cattails,” Russ says. “It was right along the rock line.”
A moth settles on the python’s beaming scales. It looks around slowly, quietly hissing.
WHEN THE PYTHON CHALLENGE results were announced in mid-February, only 68 snakes had been bagged. No one was surprised that Ramirez and Brana clinched first in the Python Permit Holders’ division, with 18. Blake Russ took second with five. Russ also held on to his lead in the longest-python category with his 11-foot-11-inch catch. Paul Shannon, a guy in the non-licensed category, bagged a monster at fourteen-three.
The $1,500 grand prize for the most pythons went to Brian Barrows, a lesser known hunter from Fort Myers. Booth took home a conciliatory $750, but it must have been devastating that Barrows won with six snakes, the same number Booth would have had if one hadn’t escaped during the photo shoot.
The last time I saw Booth’s crew, they had been up since three in the morning, with no success. I told them that a man at the general store said he’d given two pythons—which had been lying on the grass outside—to a blond guy with a crew cut. Maybe it was Barrows.
After the results were publicized, I spoke with Frank Mazzotti, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida and the official who performed necropsies on the submitted snakes. He was brusque, audibly tired of being the FWC’s go-to guy for journalists.
I told him about the turtles, dead in their shells. “No, that shouldn’t happen,” he insisted. “Turtles are like tanks. They can withstand lots of stuff. It’s definitely cause for concern. They tend to be very good indicators of contaminants. Turtles live at Superfund sites.”
I asked him about Duane Clark drinking unfiltered Everglades water. To my surprise, he said that this practice is generally safe to do. When I asked about “other” invasive species, his sentences became curt and emphatic.
“Pythons are the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There are 140 species of introduced reptiles and amphibians in Florida. Pythons are the poster child for the problem.”
“Does it really make sense to make pythons the main culprit?” I asked.
“What we’re getting out of Burmese pythons is the poster child we would have never gotten any other way,” he said. “We’ve been telling people about tegus for well over a year now, and it’s fallen on deaf ears. We were at a meeting of government agencies this week, and everybody got up and said that probably the biggest problem we’re facing is tegus, not pythons. But the whole meeting was called because of pythons,” he stressed, his voice rising. “If we were focused on Cuban tree frogs, none of this would’ve happened.”
The FWC was vocal that the 68 snakes were nothing to sneer at. But the actual impact of the Challenge will be harder to assess. The FWC is trying to figure it out, with a voluntary questionnaire it sent to all participants, asking how much they spent on gas, flights, food, etc. Once they’re totted up, officials will have a better idea of how much an ongoing snake hunt would cost. Based on the hunters I talked to, who came from far and wide, the expenses should be pretty impressive.
Ramirez and Booth will show up on National Geographic programming next month, but the Florida Python Hunters’ production company hasn’t been able to sell its pilot. And Booth’s crew is still waiting for an offer. Russ suggested to me that the poor catch numbers might have dampened the media’s enthusiasm, that people are over the story.
Unfortunately, that may also be true in a larger, more important sense. “The thing with these conservation battles,” Michael Grunwald told me, “is you need to win and win and win. You lose once and you’ve lost.”
Credit the Labrador and the horn hunters that Troy James Knapp, 45, the infamous Mountain Man of southern Utah, is currently cooling his heels in the Sanpete County Jail in Manti. On March 29, Good Friday, Dale Fuller and his 15-year-old son, Jordan, were scouting for shed elk antlers below Skyline Ridge on the eastern side of the 10,000-foot Wasatch Plateau in Emery County. Walking down the narrow Dairy Trail, they came across a man loaded for bear and headed upcountry. He was scruffy, in his mid-forties, with a gray-and-blond beard. He carried a fully loaded pack. His sidearm was not unusual in Utah, but what was noticeable was the assault rifle slung over one shoulder. Jordan’s two-year-old brown Lab, Duke, growled—and continued growling for the whole encounter, even after Jordan tried to quiet him.
“The guy seemed way friendly,” Jordan told me. They talked about snowpack levels—this area was at 60 percent of normal, and the trail was an Easter succotash of mud, corn snow and vegetation—and whether or not they’d seen anyone else in the area. Dale asked what he was doing headed into the high country. “Going camping,” Knapp responded. “I’m a mountain man.” Either that or, “I’m the Mountain Man”—the Fullers couldn’t tell.
“I don’t plan on shooting you guys,” Knapp continued when Duke would not stop growling.
Nobody had mentioned shooting anyone. But of course, the Fullers—who were armed themselves, but lightly in comparison to the assault rifle—had heard of the Mountain Man, and when they got within cell service, they called a friend who is married to an Emery County sheriff’s deputy; the deputy forwarded them photos.
It was him all right. For nearly seven years, the Mountain Man had lived off the fat of the landowners in the southern half of Utah, breaking into cabins, stealing firearms, and roaming on foot between 3,000 and 10,000 feet in a nine-county area the size of Delaware—wild country made wilder by winter mountain weather. South to north, his territory covered 180 miles. In the southwestern counties of Iron, Kane, and Garfield—his main range for much of that time—Knapp was suspected of dozens of cabin burglaries. He faced 19 felony charges and ten misdemeanor burglary and theft charges in those three counties alone.
That was before he shot at the helicopter.
Over the Easter weekend several Emery County residents opening up their cabins after the winter discovered evidence of an unwanted guest. Investigators fingered Knapp for a break-in near Joe’s Valley Reservoir—about 15 miles north of the Fullers’ encounter, near the border with Sanpete County—where a crowbar was left at the scene. On Easter Sunday, they responded to another break-in report in the same area; this time guns had been taken.
The Fullers’ sighting gave authorities the fresh lead they needed. Officers on snowshoes slowly tracked Knapp over three days and 15 miles; his bear paws led into Sanpete County and to a cluster of 13 cabins near 9,000 feet at Ferron Reservoir, on the shoulder of Ferron Mountain.
On Monday, April Fool’s Day, a 50-person task force that included members of seven county sheriff departments, the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS), Adult Probation and Parole, and a half-dozen federal agents from the U.S. Marshals Service, gathered at the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Department to strategize. Emery County detective Garrett Conover told me that they discussed the February cabin standoff in California that ended with the death of ex–Los Angeles policeman-turned-murderer Christopher Dorner. When authorities located Dorner in a cabin near Big Bear Lake, a firefight ensued; tear-gas canisters caused a fire that burned the structure to the ground. Dorner was found dead. That’s the scenario the Utah team most wanted to avoid.
The next morning, April 2, just after midnight, the lawmen headed into Ferron Canyon in snowcats and on snowmobiles with two Utah DPS helicopters at the ready, then quietly took position on snowshoes in the frozen dark, even though they weren’t yet sure which of the cabins Knapp was inhabiting.
It was part of the plan that the racket from one of the helicopters would alert Knapp. It did. The first helicopter came in from the east; they could see Knapp on a cabin’s porch. “At about nine in the morning, Knapp is out chopping wood for his morning fire when this big-ass bird comes in over the trees,” U.S. Marshal Michael Wingert, the lead federal agent assigned to Knapp’s case, told me. “He grabs his rifle and shoots at the bird.”
Knapp, who was also armed with a handgun, squeezed off several rifle rounds. The men in the helicopter saw him reload. The fugitive strapped into his snowshoes, grabbed his rifle, and took off running to the south. After an exhausting 100-yard dash, he encountered Emery County Sheriff Greg Funk. Knapp raised his rifle. Funk fired and missed. Knapp broke back to the north and ran into a line of lawmen. Knapp realized he was heavily outgunned—and surrendered.
The high-country cat-and-mouse game was finally over. But for seven years, Knapp had had an incredible run in the wilderness. Here was a lone man on snowshoes running circles around sheriffs and marshals with little but his physical fitness and backcountry savvy—an alpine athlete living on rabbit and Dinty Moore stew. He’d earned a sort of grudging admiration from the men on his tail; Knapp seemed to understand that you didn’t have to outrun the dogs, you merely had to outrun the handlers. He was good at staying ahead of the handlers.
FROM MEDIA COVEREAGE AND REACTION IN UTAH, you might have thought the authorities had captured Bigfoot. Wanted posters had been tacked up in gas stations from Kanab to Payson. Hikers and hunters grew leery of heading into the high country, and families became shy about visiting their weekend cabins. The fugitive had even acquired a Facebook page, set up by an admirer, filled with mountain-man poetry and clumsy odes to outlaws and Waylon Jennings. The name Unabomber was bandied about. Some recalled the Olympic Park Bomber, 46-year-old Eric Rudolph, who hid for five years in the North Carolina woods, dumpster diving and swiping vegetables from gardens. Or fellow Utah fugitive Lance Leeroy Arellano, who disappeared into the desert in his silver Pontiac after shooting a state ranger in 2010.
Knapp didn’t have a known history of that kind of violence, but he commanded respect. “I could take every cop in Utah who’s comfortable on a pair of snowshoes up there right now and not find him,” U.S. Marshal Wingert told me last year. In a year and a half of tailing Knapp, Wingert became the Pat Garrett to his Billy the Kid. “You give this guy a day and he’s 15 or 20 miles away. There’s people who can survive a night out—say they break a snowshoe binding or lose the track on a snowmobile,” Wingert said, “but to actually stay out there for months and months and years on end—this guy is as close to Jim Bridger as we’re ever gonna see.”
In summer, Knapp lived in his own homemade camps; over the years deputies found bivouacs, usually with a blue tarp, in the aspen trees, stocked with guns and, in one, a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Several of his high camps were discovered by cougar hunters, who hunt in high, rocky terrain. As far up as 9,000 feet, they were relatively sophisticated shelters with framed doors and rocks and wood and earth.
In winter, the Mountain Man made himself at home. His usual mode of entry was to break a window or door pane, twist the lock, and let himself in. Sometimes he’d wipe his boots, sometimes he wouldn’t. He made soup from cans and helped himself to coffee. Knapp liked sardines, mayonnaise, and especially liquor: if there was a bottle of spirits, he might drink it and rend the place with bullet holes. He might replace the firewood he burned. Sometimes he did his dishes, but he never put them away. He liked to steal radios, listening on local AM stations to erroneous reports of his own whereabouts.
For much of that time, the Mountain Man behaved in a Robin Hood-esque manner. He took from the relatively wealthy cabin owners and gave to—well, he gave to himself, a poor guy living by his wits and fitness on the land. Then, in early 2012, when Knapp’s identity was verified by investigators and reported by local media, his reputation as a harmless survivalist began to slide. In the cabin of a former Las Vegas police officer, he made a crucifix with knives on the bed. At times he appeared angry at Mormons—he shot holes in a portrait of Joseph Smith and ripped up the Book of Mormon. He cost one cabin owner thousands of dollars in smoke damage when he closed the flue before vamoosing. He traded guns with another—leaving his old .303 British and taking a sexier Remington. He crowbarred into a gun safe, laid all the arms on a table, and took none. In another cabin, he removed the grips from all the guns, but left them. He placed food cans behind kitchen drawers so they wouldn’t close. He defecated on a porch; he also shat in a pan and left it on somebody’s kitchen floor.
Authorities labeled him ‘armed and dangerous’ in January 2012, reporting that the Mountain Man had been leaving threatening notes in cabins or outside scrawled in the dirt. The tune was always the same: “Get off my mountain.”
FOR MOST OF THOSE SEVEN YEARS, lawmen were hunting a ghost. As early as 2007, they suspected that one man was breaking into properties over a big area, but damned if they knew who. “Even when we got a tip, we were always one week behind,” Kane County Chief Deputy Tracy Glover told me. The Mountain Man stuck to ridge tops, avoiding established trails. He walked on vegetation to avoid leaving an easy track. He slipped from heavy hunting boots into size-10 sneakers to minimize his footprints.
Up until last year, Knapp mainly roamed 1,000 square miles of southwestern Utah, from the Arizona border north into Zion National Park and onto Cedar Mountain above Cedar City. His habitat ranged from alpine forests to the sparsely populated desert. He was known to walk to town—St. George and Cedar City—and hang out with the homeless population and make phone calls to his mother in Moscow, Idaho, then head back into the wild.
Then investigators got a break in December 2011, when a motion-activated camera outside a cabin in Kane County captured the image of a man with neck and hand tattoos and a ginger goatee. The man wore forest-camo hunting outerwear that hung on him. A camo fleece beanie. A Remington 600 bolt-action rifle. A long hunting knife in a leather sheath. Purple aluminum snowshoes.
A month later, fingerprints obtained from a broken window pane in 2009 matched with then-44-year-old Troy James Knapp, five feet ten inches tall, approximately 150 pounds, with hazel eyes. This led the cops to mug shots taken in Inyo County, California, in 2000. Knapp’s hand and chain-link neck tattoos matched the Mountain Man’s.
Knapp had been in trouble since his high-school-dropout days in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where in 1986 he was incarcerated for four years for breaking and entering and receiving stolen property. After that, he drifted, working odd jobs and living for a time with one girlfriend and then fathering a daughter with another in 1995. He was charged with harassment in Seattle in 1997 (that charge was eventually dismissed with prejudice). He lived briefly in Salt Lake City in 1999.
His stepdad, Bruce Knapp, a sportsman, had taught young Troy wilderness skills—hunting, trapping—and that became Knapp’s M.O. In September 2000, he began living the outlaw life in Inyo County, camping near the town of Bishop. There he was arrested on charges of felony burglary for stealing from the Inyo County Solid Waste facility and the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery in Independence. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Knapp stole a pair of boots from a game warden’s pickup near the hatchery, even as they were looking for him. A deputy’s report from 2000 quotes Knapp: “I did not want to hurt anyone.” Then, in 2004, after spending four years in jail, Knapp broke parole.
Southern Utah, his next stop, is a lot like Inyo County: It is high alpine, but also full of slot canyons and rock chicanery and deserts side by side. One day it’s sunburn, the next, frostbite. In Inyo County, the Sierras quickly drop to Death Valley. And the county had its own backcountry badass: the Ballarat Bandit, George Robert Johnston, who eluded law enforcement for years while camping and squatting in remote southeastern California and western Nevada before he shot himself in the head with a .22 in July 2004.
Utah authorities thought they were hot on Knapp’s trail in late February 2012, when a resident shoveling snow spotted a camo-clad man with a large-caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. A two-day manhunt went down above Cedar City, including Iron County Sheriff’s deputies, Cedar City Police, and even the campus cops from Southern Utah University. A helicopter scoured a ten-mile radius.
In the end, the manhunt only fueled the myth. Locals were left wondering how anyone could have eluded a helicopter with infrared technology and 30 men on foot.
By this time, I’d become obsessed with the Mountain Man myself. I grew up on stories of the Mad Trapper of Rat River, a legendary Canadian survivalist fugitive from the 1930s, and Claude Dallas, the poacher who evaded capture for over a year after killing two game wardens in 1981 on the Idaho–Nevada border. Fifteen years ago, my wife and I lived in a remote cabin in northern Utah, where we’d ski up to and peer into the fancy vacation cabins that hibernated over winter. What a resource, I thought, for a homeless person with just a little wilderness savvy. That’s where I’d head, I figured, if a private apocalypse got bad enough. I didn’t see it as survivalist prepping, rather temporary existing. You could escape the grid there, go analog, at least for a while.
So this past April, I traveled to Knapp country. At that point, I’d been tracking him—via wire stories and local knowledge—for nearly four months. I had a wall map full of enough Knapp-sighting pins it looked like a game of Battleship. One thing was for certain: the guy was in fighting shape. I watched him grow thinner from mug shot to moose camera to security surveillance digital images. But still he was capable of humping a heavy pack over mountains for twenty miles a day, many days in a row.
KANE COUNTY IS 4,000 square miles, the size of Hawaii’s Big Island, but there are just over 7,000 people living there, half of them in the county seat of Kanab. The sheriff’s department boasts 13 sworn officers, not including the uniformed mannequins in the marked SUVs parked at the city limits of Mount Carmel and Orderville to discourage speeders. This part of the state has become Mexican cartel marijuana country, and I was reminded of what Marshal Wingert had told me before I arrived: “If we have trouble finding cartel-size grow operations in that country, imagine trying to find one camouflaged guy on foot who doesn’t want to be caught.”
The bull’s-eye of Knapp country seemed to be the Cedar Mountain area above Cedar City, where hundreds of seasonal cabins are tightly surrounded by Dixie National Forest land. The area includes 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak, the Brian Head ski resort, and Duck Creek, a little village where you can hire four-wheelers or snowmobiles and a guide.
Since the first WANTED posters went up in Duck Creek in January 2012, the Mountain Man had become something of a cross between Sasquatch and Jeremiah Johnson. Cougar hunters saw him walking a ridgetop before he vanished. A cowboy reported running into a “suspicious” mountain man packing his gear on a pair of mules. Strange campfires were seen on the mountain above Cedar City at night. Dozens of people saw the Mountain Man riding his mountain bike through town. Kids liked to spot him in trees. My favorite was a dog let outside at 4:30 every morning that returned at 6:30 reeking of campfire smoke.
In Duck Creek, a sledhead at a snowmobile shop told me that I needed to find Rosey Canyon, up the North Fork of the Virgin River, because that’s where I’d find a guy named Ken Moffett, the caretaker for several cabins. Back in February, he said, Moffett had tracked the Mountain Man in the snow, on foot, for seven miles. This would make Moffett, at the time, the guy with the closest encounter with Knapp. “But honk your horn at the mouth of the canyon,” I was warned, “otherwise he might think you’re the Mountain Man and shoot ya.”
The road led through Springdale, the gateway village to Zion National Park. At a bar and restaurant called The Spotted Dog, I met two cabin owners, Robert “Roberto” Dennis, 40, and his sister Wendy Dennis, 41. Like many of the locals, they were curious and a little anxious and wanted to check the family hunting cabin to see if anyone had broken in. “We keep guns up there,” Wendy told me. “They’re our shitguns, but still.”
We climbed into Roberto’s 1994 GMC pickup. Wendy took the jump seat; Duke, the Lab-pit mix, got the middle, where he slobbered on my maps. Southern Utes do not leave home without some kind of firearm, but Roberto packed light—a toy-size .22 caliber short-barrel Beretta he called a hooker gun. We were headed 25 miles higher up, toward Cedar Mountain. It was drier than a Mormon wedding and the truck left a veil of dust.
Roberto and Wendy had found something odd in the forest the hunting season before: a Hefty bag hanging in a 40-foot ponderosa pine. They thought it was trash, but the bag contained a knit beanie. Felt boot liners. A camo sleeping bag. A pair of nearly-new size-10 sneakers. Matches and chainsaw sharpeners. This didn’t say hunter or Boy Scout. It said transient—alpine homeless. But why up here, so far from Interstate 15?
Many of the cabins we passed were homogenous: attractive, clean, and new. The Dennis cabin was different, a cobbled utilitarian compound with a generator shed where they hang the venison and an antique propane refrigerator that sealed the silverware and some warm Budweisers from the mice.
Something had been inside the Dennis cabin for certain, but it wasn’t human. There were rifle cartridges and Tammy Wynette eight-track-tape cartridges strung from hell to breakfast. Turds the size of licorice snaps were strewn all over the kitchen table, like a taunt. Wendy located a dusty green bottle of Jägermeister. “Gotta take a shot at the cabin,” she said and did. The mood was one of light relief, but mostly disappointment—disappointment that a varmint had ransacked the place, but also that the infamous Mountain Man had skipped it for a stay-over.
We got back in the truck and turned upcountry to Rosey Canyon, driving 15 more miles, over dirty snow drifts and through braided streams, until we came upon a man standing in the middle of the two-track road.
“Are you Moffett?” I said through the truck window.
“Yes I am,” he said.
Moffett, 61, was clean-shaven with long gray hair. “We’ve had a problem now for seven years,” he said. His encounter had taken place six weeks prior, in mid-February, a week before Knapp was fingered by name. “I caught these weird tracks,” Moffett said. “This guy was sneakin’ around bushes,” he said as he pointed up the road toward the neighbor’s place. “Sure enough,” Moffett said, “there’s these tracks going around all their windows.”
Moffett had hopped on his four-wheeler and motored up the road. “Went up to check on the Stuckers’ place,” he said. He’d walked the property and circled back. Then Moffett told us the strange thing. “I noticed there were carefully placed snowshoe tracks on top of my boot tracks.” The mountain man had sent Moffett a message in the snow.
Moffett is the kind of Abbey-esque new-western character who might have appreciated Knapp’s gift at surviving solo, but he too had tired of the Mountain Man’s antics. “Give him a can of soup, who cares,” Moffett said. “But I think he’s getting more and more disturbed. He’s progressively upped the ante here. It’s like he’s getting paranoid now. I don’t wanna walk up on him and I don’t want one of my neighbors getting shot.”
THAT'S WHAT IT SEEMED LIKE was going to happen, as Knapp got angrier and messier. After he was ID’d, he left several seemingly drunken notes, including this one from a cabin in Kane County: “Hey sheriff; fuck you! Gonna put you in the ground! It’s better, these times, to be a ditch digger, septic cleaner than a pig.”
Authorities were unsure, however, how violent Knapp was. Marshal Wingert told me about a homeless man in Washington County, along the Virgin River, who in 2010 said that he was brutally beaten by Knapp with a rock over some camping gear. The man declined to press charges.
Knapp’s time on Cedar Mountain also coincided with a strange, cold-case homicide straight out of a Coen brothers’ movie. In 2007, during hunting season, the partially buried body of 69-year-old Kennard Martin Honore of San Clemente, California—who’d leased a cabin from the Forest Service—was found in the cinder pits near Navajo Lake, west of Duck Creek. Honore had died from a single gunshot wound from a small-caliber rifle and been hastily buried. Kane County deputies could find no motive and no sign of robbery. There were a lot of hunters in the area, so it could have been a stray round. But the small caliber doesn’t make sense for deer, and the quick gravework doesn’t make stray-shot sense. No evidence connects Knapp to the case except that he is believed to have been in the area at the time. Still, Wingert told me, “It’s kind of an unusual coincidence.”
Last April, I spoke to criminal psychologist Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University in Fresno. “The isolation is probably costing him,” said Hickey, who worked as a consultant on the Unabomber case. I told him about how Knapp’s bad behavior had seemed to escalate, about his threatening note to the sheriff and the pan of scat in the kitchen. “Most people are not good at being isolated like that. He’s acting out. I suspect he has no control.” Hickey said the scat in the pan was a signal. “This is a signature.”
“The truth is,” said Hickey, “if law enforcement decides to go after him, they can track him. I guarantee, if he hurts somebody they’ll go after him.” But he didn’t, and Knapp’s trail was cold all last summer.
Then, in October, he resurfaced. Knapp had moved north—almost 120 miles north. He was seen near Fish Lake Reservoir, a high-alpine lake on the Fishlake National Forest in southern Sevier County, and again north of there in Sanpete County, which borders on the Wasatch Front, the mountain playground for Salt Lake City. Gaunt and clean-shaven, he appeared on another security camera, this time at night, waving his arms to feel out an alarm; he broke in, but took nothing. Then, in November, an elk hunter reported seeing Knapp in Sevier County. That sighting mustered a 40-officer cabin-to-cabin manhunt that again turned up goose eggs. What followed was a long, cold winter of no news until the horn-hunting Fullers encountered the Mountain Man on the Dairy Trail.
KNAPP IS LUCKY HE WASN'T GUNNED DOWN in the shadow of the Wasatch Plateau when he opened fire at the helicopter, an outcome detective Conover attributes to “dumb luck.”
Shooting at a law-enforcement helicopter certainly amplified his woes. Now, in addition to the six felonies and five misdemeanors he was charged with on April 4 in Sanpete County—including assorted counts of burglary, theft, criminal mischief, and unauthorized use of a firearm—he could face charges of assault on law-enforcement officers and discharging a weapon at an aircraft. “The cabin burglaries,” Wingert said, “will turn out to be the least of his worries.”
But Knapp seemed at peace with his capture. In wire photos he appeared relieved, even grinning slightly at times. He told deputies he was tired of the elements—that he was getting older and the winters were getting colder—and that he didn’t hate people, but he didn’t especially like them either. He mentioned Robin Hood by name, pointing out that he’d simply tapped resources—food, firewood, guns—that weren’t being used.
Sanpete County authorities got him a shower, a new striped jumpsuit, and some pizza, then got out the maps and let Knapp draw lines between all the places he’s been. When you haven’t talked to many people for nearly seven years, apparently it builds up. Knapp didn’t appear concerned about lawyering up; he sang to officers like a proud jailbird.
Troy James Knapp had a closet full of baggage, I know, and I wish he was more Robin Hood and less just hood. I wish he’d only left thank-you notes instead of threats, and never shat in a pan. But his capture last week made me a little sad. Utah needs, as the Grateful Dead song goes, its friends of the devil spending the night in a cave—or cabin—up in the hills.
Some of the lawmen who participated in the manhunt don’t think Knapp was trying to hit the chopper with his rifle—just deter it. Why do you say that, I asked detective Conover. Because that’s what he told us, he said. I get the sense that they enjoyed talking with the Mountain Man, too—that though he’d become southern Utah’s public enemy number one, part of them admired something in his pluck.
“It’s a good thing you got me when you did,” Knapp told the men on the ground. “I was gonna move tomorrow.”
Just off Main Street in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, there is a 12-foot-tall stainless steel statue that looks like a chrome mosquito, but with bat wings and human legs and an incredibly chiseled abdomen. The spot it stands in used to be called Gunn Park, but the name was changed to honor the statue and the figure it represents. Now they call it Mothman Park.
The statue was supposed to be even weirder. The original plan—developed by the town in 2001, after the release of the movie version of the John Keel book The Mothman Prophecies brought national attention to what was once strictly a local legend— called for the statue of the hometown monster-hero to be a towering 20 feet tall. The Mothman’s bulbous red eyes were supposed to light up at night, but funding ran short and the statue’s football-sized eyes were left dull and glassy.
Accross the street is the Mothman Museum and Gift Shop, which sells copies of The Mothman Prophecies on DVD, as well as touristy schlock like Mothman t-shirts and keychains. I so love the idea that a person can keep a whole store in business based solely on the idea that nearly 50 years ago, a couple of residents in Point Pleasant thought they might have seen a flying man with giant wings and eyes that glowed red in the dark.
It helps the Mothman’s case that it was first seen by a group rather than the standard lone eccentric. The first sighting dates back to November 12, 1966, when five men, who were digging a grave in a cemetery at the time, said they saw a “brown human being” fly right over their heads from a grove of trees.
Four days later, a second, more memorable sighting was reported in the Point Pleasant Register. Two young couples—Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette—were driving together in Roger Scarberry’s car from the "TNT area," a decommissioned explosives factory from World War II, when they spotted a six- or seven-foot-tall, white creature with red eyes and large wings standing near the road. It followed them as they drove out, but it seemed afraid of the car’s headlights. They later told the Register that the thing, whatever it was, appeared to fly at speeds of about “100 miles per hour.”
One of the young men narrowed down potential suspects for the creature thusly: “It was a bird ... or something. It definitely wasn't a flying saucer." So we know that much.
Unsurprisingly, a number of people living in Point Pleasant at the time of the sightings did not accept the Mothman theory on its silvery, red-eyed face. The county sheriff is said to have dismissed the creature as a type of heron he called a “shitepoke,” and an article printed in the Gettysburg Times that winter quotes a Dr. Robert L. Smith, then-associate professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University, as saying the creature was most likely a sandhill crane—a bird not typically found in the area, but one whose size (around six feet), wingspan (over seven feet), and circles of reddish flesh around the eyes approximate some of the physical descriptions of the would-be Mothman.
Whatever it was, it didn’t stick around for very long. A number of sightings echoing the first few were reported over the next several months, but they came to a sudden and dramatic stop when, on December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge—connecting Point Pleasant with Kanauga, Ohio, across the Ohio River—collapsed during rush hour, killing 46 people. The chronological proximity of the Mothman’s appearance in town to the Silver Bridge tragedy led some to believe the two were connected. One exceptionally creative theory held that the collapse was caused by “a sonic boom from the Mothman’s wings,” but the predominant belief held that the creature’s arrival had been an omen, sent to warn the people of Point Pleasant—in what seems, at best, a very confusing and indirect manner—about poor infrastructure.
It’s nice to think that he was nice, that if something that looks like that town center statue ever came for us, it could be because he wanted to help. It makes you as fond of the guy as you are frightened of him. It's like the Mothman pizza that you can get in Point Pleasant—red and green pepper eyes, mushroom wings, pepperoni body. It’s probably cute and funny to take pictures of, but you’ll also eat it extra-quickly, just in case.
Like any good legend, Mothman continues to make guest appearances out of town. In 2006, a handful of people in LaCrosse, Wisconsin reported sighting a similar creature, which they dubbed the Man-Bat. The creature—long, with a large wingspan and yellow eyes—reportedly flew over the car of a man and his son, both of whom became sick to their stomachs afterward.
Granted, that strange side effect was never reported with the original, so maybe it isn’t the same guy. But once you’ve accepted one giant winged, man-like creature with glowing eyes, is it so implausible to think there might be more hidden around the country, emerging only to swoop over people's cars at night?