Bob Gimlin was a small town cowboy when his friend coaxed him into hunting the famous mythical creature 50 years ago. Today, as the legend of Bigfoot has grown, Gimlin is viewed by the community of believers around the country as something of a prophet.
For weeks in the fall of 1967 the cowboys rode from sunrise to sunset in search of the creature no one had ever captured on film. Two rodeo men from Washington’s apple country, they’d traveled to Northern California’s thick forest. They’d read headlines of unidentifiable footprints. The smaller cowboy was driven by a long obsession with the mythic beast known as Bigfoot; the other liked to see things for himself.
One late October afternoon near Bluff Creek, the men trundled on horseback, half a day’s ride from the nearest signs of civilization. The sun shone bright, lighting the leaves all around them in a grand finale of orange and red and yellow. Roger Patterson rode in front, pausing his quarter horse to point his lens toward the leaves, the film chattering inside his rented 16mm Cine Kodak camera. When he finished, he tucked the camera into his saddlebag, leaving the leather flap open.
Bob Gimlin brought up the rear. He rode a quarter horse, leading a pony loaded with supplies behind him.* Patterson navigated around a bend where a large tree had fallen and jammed up the nearby creek—its root system upturned and exposed, like blind fingers reaching for an anchor.
The horses saw it first. Patterson’s reared, kicking and protesting, then Gimlin’s. Less than 100 feet away, the men saw why: a hulking gorilla-like figure covered in dark hair hurried on two legs along the creekbed. Its sloped head and torso were pushed forward, its upper back hunched, thigh muscles rippling, long arms swinging, breasts exposed.
Patterson scrambled off his spooked animal, holding its reins just long enough to reach inside his saddlebag for the camera. Gimlin, a cowboy famous through the Yakima Valley for taming wild colts and running in breakneck “suicide races” (in which riders careen down steep slopes), dropped the packhorse’s rope and gripped the reins of his frightened pony to steady it.
Patterson scrambled across the uneven ground, waving the camera in one hand, the film blurry as he ran. He stopped to crouch and steady himself, then trained the lens on the strange figure, the camera shaking from his breathing. “Bob! Cover me!” he yelled over his shoulder to Gimlin, who rode toward the creek, dismounting his horse and drawing his rifle.
The picture steadied as the creature, mid-stride, turned to look over its right shoulder—just a glance—before it disappeared into the forest. A skunky, rank odor hung heavy in the air. The whole affair was over in less than a minute.
The final 59.5-second film, which the men would airmail back home to be developed, would soon become the world-famous Patterson-Gimlin film—arguably one of the most scrutinized pieces of video footage ever made. It is the cryptozoological equivalent to the Kennedy assassination’s Zapruder film. The film met immediate criticisms accusing Patterson and Gimlin of being master pranksters who simply filmed a man in an ape suit and laid fake footprints in the mud.
The film tore Patterson’s and Gimlin’s friendship apart. Patterson partnered with his brother-in-law, Al DeAtley, to take the film on a national tour as a way to raise funds for a full-fledged expedition back at Bluff Creek. The three took equal shares in the film, but soon Gimlin felt edged out, and sold his share of the rights for less than $10 to another Bigfoot researcher.
After five years estranged, Patterson and Gimlin made amends in 1972 as Patterson lay on his deathbed, dying of cancer at age 38. Patterson apologized for ousting Gimlin, pleading with him that when he recovered that they would go back to California and catch Bigfoot. He died the next day.
More than 40 years later, the film has never been conclusively debunked. It has withstood scrutiny from scientists, forensic analysts, Hollywood special effects experts, and costume designers. No one can quite explain it—except those who believe in folklore. In that time, Bigfoot has evolved into a full-fledged American myth, propagated by a national congregation of believers who regard Gimlin as a kind of prophet.
“Meeting Bob Gimlin, to a Bigfooter, is like meeting the President of the United States to an American,” says Cindy Rose Caddell, a researcher and author. “Or what meeting the Pope is to a Catholic.”
The 84-year-old cowboy wore a black cattleman’s hat and sunglasses, an off-white coat with “Bob” embroidered in blue thread at the chest. His boots stated their intentions across the tile entryway of a roadside diner in Union Gap, in central Washington, pausing as he held the door for an elderly woman in a pink jacket.
“Come on in, young lady,” he said, his baritone voice all campfire smoke and truck engines. Bob Gimlin wears big hats and big belt buckles and drives a big pickup. He talks slow with a heavy drawl and seems to find a way to turn almost any conversation toward horses.
In a booth with vinyl seats, Gimlin ordered coffee and dumped in two creams, and told the waitress he wouldn’t be eating. For the next six hours, he told his story: who he was before he saw Bigfoot, who he became after, and why he stayed quiet for four decades after the film’s debut.
Before he had ever heard of Bigfoot, Gimlin had led the life of a man who feared nothing, who thrived on dares and several times cheated death. The first time was at age seven when his appendix burst. He missed a year of school as he recovered in the Ozark mountains cabin in Missouri where he was born.
In 1940, the promise of sprawling green ranchlands and orchards set against the towering Cascades pulled his farmer father and mother westward.** In Washington, Gimlin roped wild horses with native boys on the nearby Yakima Reservation, crawling onto their backs and hanging on for dear life. “I was ready to ride,” he says. “Even at a very young age I wanted to ride anything that bucked, jumped, moved, run, or whatever.” He became a natural rodeo man: quick to bounce back, never letting a cast or a sling keep him from a horse. He raced caravans and chariots through mountain passes, hurtled down cliffsides. He gained a reputation as a daredevil (though he declined Evel Knievel’s offer to join him in for-profit “daredevilin’”).
At age 18, Gimlin joined the Army reserves; later he enlisted in the Navy. After two tours in the Korean War, he and three other sailors were in a car accident that left one dead when the driver smashed into a power pole. His head slammed into the dash and the motor of the car pinned his body in the vehicle. “I lost half my face,” he says. Gimlin underwent several plastic surgeries to repair his nose. He spent two years recovering in a hospital in California. Once he received his discharge papers, Gimlin headed back home to Yakima.
Life, for Gimlin, continued on a normal course: he married, had children, divorced, then married “the sassiest thing I’d ever met”—his wife of 52 years, Judy. In 1967, Gimlin, then 35, was scraping together a living driving trucks, roofing, and riding and taming horses. There was nothing significant about the day he pulled into a Union Gap service station and ran into his old rodeo pal, Roger Patterson.
Patterson was recovering from a bout with cancer. As they spoke, Patterson told Gimlin of his interest in supposed Bigfoot sightings. “He said, ‘Let me show you something,’” Gimlin recalls. “He went over to the truck and brought out a plaster cast of a big foot.” Patterson asked Gimlin if he would be interested in searching Mount St. Helens on horseback with him for evidence of a Bigfoot. “I said, ‘Roger, I just don’t have time.’”
By the late 1960s, Bigfoot had been tromping through Northwestern lore for hundreds of years. Several Native American tribes tell of looming, furry beasts reeking of scorched hair who stole trout from fishermen. In the early 20th century, newspaper articles reporting sightings read like spooky stories to tell around a campfire. In one such report, from 1924, a clan of rock-throwing ape-men ambushed a group of miners on Mt. St. Helens. The place is now called Ape Canyon. (Skeptics said the beasts were just YMCA campers playing a prank.) Ivan Sanderson’s 1961 book, Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life, read like the stuff of a B movie.
But there were few opportunities for Patterson to commune with other believers. So he talked to Gimlin: the men formed a bond, riding horses through Washington’s backcountry. Patterson continued to regale Gimlin with Bigfoot lore, playing him recorded testimonies of real-life encounters and lending him books on the topic, despite Gimlin’s insistence that he did not care. (Patterson self-published a book in 1966, titled Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?)
Then, in August 1967, Patterson told Gimlin about a logging road construction crew spotting tracks and having their equipment inexplicably disassembled deep in the Six Rivers National Forest. He begged Gimlin to drive the two men and their horses to Northern California to search. Gimlin was skeptical that anything existed, but he was intrigued, and he wasn’t the sort of man to turn away from a good adventure. “I wanted to see these footprints that these people talked about,” he says.
The film the men produced gave the murky myth shape: suddenly, Bigfoot was manifested in flesh and blood. It had a loping gait and, with the twist of its torso, it looked over its shoulder before disappearing again into the wilderness. It even had a name: Patty.
Patty, arguably, created the Bigfoot industry. Today, the apelike figure—frozen in its signature turn—adorns car air fresheners and infant onesies that read, “Believe.” It looks back from coffee cups, Christmas ornaments, guitar picks, and Band Aids. There’s a Patty-shaped Chia Pet. Bigfoot even has a home on reality TV: Animal Planet launched Finding Bigfoot in 2011, starring Washington’s Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO). BFRO members lead guided backwoods expeditions—with a price tag of up to $500—throughout the U.S. where participants scour the forests for a look at the fabled beast.
But looking back on the trip today, Gimlin wishes he’d said no. That he’d turned away from Patterson that day at the service station and never looked back.
That trip to California changed him.
“It ruined me.”
By 1972, Patterson had died. Gimlin alone faced the scourge of detractors that were emerging around the country—some even confronted he and his wife in their hometown. Yakima was the place where Gimlin had become known for his fearlessness and strength, and suddenly he was a seen as crazy. His word, his handshake—currency around this part of the state—was in doubt.
“My wife was a teller at a savings and loan institution. Of course, she was sitting right there and the public would come in and make smart remarks,” Gimlin says. “This went on and on and on until she come home crying. She’d say, ‘I’m not tough enough.’ A couple times we were going to split up over this.”
Some nights, cars would screech by the Gimlins’ house. “They’d come driving in my driveway all times of the night and go ‘Bob! We want to go out Bigfoot hunting!’” he says. They’d speed away before he could run outside.
The couple felt isolated, and Gimlin found himself for the first time in the predicament that came to define his life for decades: if he acknowledged that he saw Bigfoot, he was the town loon; if he stayed quiet, people assumed he was lying.
“I can understand why they don’t believe in it—because I didn’t believe it either,” Gimlin recalls telling John Green, a prominent Canadian Bigfoot researcher, on a phone call during this period. “But I saw one. And I know what I saw. And I know it wasn’t a man in a suit. It couldn’t have been!”
In 1968, the year after Patterson and Gimlin returned, the Gimlins swore to never speak of Bigfoot again. But the video was out, and Gimlin was—and remains—stuck to the center of the debate, anchored like the sun in a growing solar system with believers and skeptics orbiting around him.
Reports of sightings filtered in from all over the Northwest. Bigfoot was traipsing through lush coastal woods and rocky mountainsides in Oregon. Its glowing red eyes peered from the understory in Olympic National Forest in Washington. It stalked the Dark Divide, the massive roadless area between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. It ran across a road near Vancouver. It left footprints in the snow outside Walla Walla.
Believers cropped up in Texas and Ohio, then as far afield as New York, Georgia, and Florida. In the past 40 years, people have produced supposed Bigfoot hairs, DNA tests, footprints, and piles of scat—not to mention the countless photographs and video clips (most of which have turned out to be hoaxes)—as scientific evidence of the creature’s existence. To many, the notion of “belief” is irrelevant among the myriad stories, sightings, and artifacts.
“No, I don't believe in Bigfoot,” says Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology and anatomy professor at Idaho State University who is one of the foremost experts on foot morphology in the world. He was 11 years old in 1968 when he watched Patterson-Gimlin’s Bigfoot walk across the screen at the Spokane Coliseum in Eastern Washington. Today, he’s the keeper of the largest archive of Bigfoot footprint casts and author of the book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. “Belief usually connotes a position of faith, a conviction held in the absence of evidence,” Meldrum says. “I, for one, am convinced by the evidence I have studied at length.”
Cynics, however, don’t just question the “evidence,” they question Patterson’s and Gimlin’s credibility. In 2004, Greg Long, author of one of the most oft-cited pieces of skepticism about the Patterson-Gimlin Film—a book called The Making of Bigfoot—taunted Gimlin from the final pages of his book: “Will he ever confess?” Long wrote.
“I’m going to be blunt with you,” Long said recently over the phone. “I consider Bob Gimlin a liar. I think he’s a con artist.”
But Long’s arguments seem just as flimsy as believers’ proof. His book is filled with circumstantial evidence: a costume maker named Philip Morris in the early 2000s said he sold Patterson the suit but couldn’t provide any evidence of the sale; a Yakima man named Bob Hieronimus said he was the one that wore it. Neither claim is backed by concrete proof.
“‘They can’t exist, therefore they don’t exist,’” is the message Meldrum has received from skeptics, he says. “That was the actual retort hurled at me by an anthropology colleague.”
With Bigfoot having grown into an industry, Long says there’s no reason to believe anyone invested in the debate is telling the truth. “They need it to be real,” he says. The people who truly believe and search, he adds, “are driven emotionally, I believe, to find Bigfoot.”
In the face of skepticism and mockery, a large community of believers views Gimlin as the original seer: the man who witnessed the unthinkable, who lived to tell the tale, and who has been harassed for what he swore was real. These people congregate at Bigfoot conventions around the world to swap stories, trade evidence-gathering techniques and commune with kinfolk. Together they can be “out” about their beliefs.
Gimlin first appeared at a convention in California in 2003. Through his years of silence, Gimlin maintained contact with several prominent Bigfoot aficionados, including Swiss researcher Rene Dahinden and a Russian author named Dmitri Bayonov. After years of urging Gimlin to come to Russia to speak about the film, Bayonov arranged to come to America. With Green’s help, the pair convinced Gimlin to attend the Willow Creek International Bigfoot Symposium: an event that promised to bring all the biggest scientific names into one room (including Jane Goodall, a primatologist and Bigfoot believer, who canceled her appearance last minute) in the very same area where Patterson and Gimlin made their film decades before.
To Gimlin, walking into the conference was like entering a church. “It’s not a fairy tale to them. It’s serious business,” he says. “When I met those people down there, they accepted me with what you call open arms.”
There, Gimlin spoke of Bigfoot for the first time in years. “There wasn’t a sound in the room while I was talking,” he says. “I thought, ‘I can’t really believe this. This is almost like seeing Bigfoot.’ God, I felt like I was 10 feet tall.”
When he finished, the room rose to its feet.
“They just stood up and applauded and applauded,” Gimlin says. “I thought, ‘Why have I gone 35 years through a bunch of ridicule?’”
Gimlin appears at conventions across the country. He signs shirts and plaster foot casts, tells and retells the story of he and Patterson’s encounter. He is no stranger to standing ovations.
“They want to talk to me, they want to tell me about their experience,” he says. “This turned my whole life around.”
At home in Central Washington, however, Gimlin is no celebrity. When I visited him this past spring, we took a drive through Wapato, just south of Yakima, to see the house where he grew up, only to find a field of weeds where it once stood. His high school is gone, too. Panaderias and taquerias dot the streets he once knew. As he idled on one street, people on the sidewalk turned to look at the cowboy in his truck, staring at him as if he’d just dropped in from outer space.
Gimlin’s days are typical retired-rancher stuff: he wakes at 5 a.m. every morning on his modest 1,500-square-foot home that sits on two acres in town. He leases land around the Yakima area where he grazes his seven horses. He mows his pastures on a riding mower and tends to his garden of cucumbers and tomatoes. At night he watches UFC fights. He’s a member of several local equestrian clubs.
Three days a week, Gimlin drives his black pickup—one with a Bigfoot sticker in a tinted back window and Bigfoot air freshener tucked into a cup holder—into town for physical therapy. In the 1990s, Gimlin was bucked off a horse and told by a doctor he’d never ride again. “I proved I could do it,” he says. But then, in the early 2000s, he went sailing off another horse. He had his bicep removed from his left arm and nearly lost all ability to use it. He lifts light dumbbells now, an attempt to regain some feeling.
Every couple of months, he travels to address another congregation of the faithful. People of every age and shape packed inside a Portland beerhall on a Friday night this past January to see Gimlin speak. He told the story he’s told a hundred times before, from the beginning: bumping into Patterson at the service station; the bright fall leaves; the creature glancing over its shoulder; the conversation at Patterson’s bedside hours before he died.
Afterwards, Gimlin stuck around to take pictures and sign autographs. A boy in a red plaid shirt and a cowboy hat holding a 16mm Cine Kodak camera—like the one used to shoot the Patterson-Gimlin film—and a plaster footprint cast approached him for a photo.
A few months later, while doing research for this article, I absentmindedly search “#pattersongimlin” on Instagram. A familiar face pops up on my screen. It’s that boy in the cowboy hat from January who got a photo with his hero, Bob Gimlin.
The boy’s account is practically devoted to Bigfoot. There are photos from the Portland event, old pictures of Roger Patterson, shots of book covers adorned with furry beasts and more of giant foot casts on his bedroom carpet.
It’s just one small example of Gimlin’s outsized impact on American lore. The Internet has exposed people to the Patterson’s and Gimlin’s journey in ways unimaginable to Gimlin, and continues to enchant new generations of believers. Whether or not any of the stories are true, Bigfoot is alive and well. In large part, that’s because Gimlin, the non-believer, an unlikely champion of the myth, helped catch a glimpse of it on film.
In one post, the boy splits the frame in thirds, filling each with photos of Roger Patterson’s gravestone. “We never forget he was our Bigfoot hunter,” he writes. A portion of another caption reads: “I met Bob Gimlin…it was a best day ever #bobgimlin.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gimlin rode a pony while on the Bigfoot hunt in Northern California.
**CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gimlin's mother was part Apache.