POCATELLO--A hulking 6-foot 3-inch believer cornered John Mionczynski as he left the lectern. "I know you're a skeptic, right? But look here." The man jabbed a photo with his thick finger. "See. See. That's Bigfoot."
I peeked over the man's meaty shoulder to see a grainy black and white of trees and shadows. I felt like I was flunking an ink blot test.
He prodded Mionczynski. "Obviously you see that's Bigfoot there. What do you think of that?"
The man then presented a shot of an oval smudge on a gray background, captioned: "Bigfoot in UFO."
As a wildlife biologist, Mionczynski has spent years tracking bears through Wyoming's Wind River Mountains. He's the sort of man Marlboro puts on billboards and the gray at his temples is the only suggestion that he is nearly 60 years old.
Mionczynski grinned at the big zealot and said, "I think you have a great imagination."
The man arched an eyebrow and, with Gandhi-like dignity, lumbered off.
"You have to listen to what they have to say and just try to be courteous to people like that," Mionczynski said.
But he is no skeptic.
On June 18, he spent an hour telling 60 people about his 34-year search for Bigfoot. The occasion was the Bigfoot Rendezvous in Pocatello, where 100 people from Texas all the way to British Columbia shelled out $55 each to hear Bigfoot experts.
Mionczynski isn't wild-eyed, soft-bellied, and he can't tell you which X-Files episode featured Agent Scully getting whisked into Heaven by E.T. He's a lean mountain man who had his first Bigfoot encounter as a U.S. Forest Service bear researcher. He's been hunting for hard evidence--a Bigfoot carcass--ever since.
It was 1972.
On a bright moonlit night, Mionczynski was sleeping alone in a 6-foot tall nylon tent deep in the southern end of the Wind River range. He jumped awake when a bear poked its nose into the tent's side.
"I whacked it in the nose with my hand," Mionczynski recalled, as though nothing is extraordinary about bear-whacking.
The beast retreated to a "dog-haired" pine thicket behind the tent, close enough for Mionczynski to hear breathing. Six breaths a minute. Much slower than an active bear.
The beast poked its nose against the tent again. Mionczynski whacked it again. The third assault came from above when the thing pushed the tent's top, collapsing it. In the moonlight, Mionczynski didn't see a bear paw settling on top of his tent.
"I saw the silhouette of a hand with an opposable thumb," a hand twice the size of a man's, Mionczynski said.
The rendezvous crowd leaned forward in their chairs.
Around campfires, where shadows grab for you, darting in and out of darkness, few can resist at least partly believing a Bigfoot story. But in an Idaho State University conference room?
This was the first time the university hosted one of the nation's two or three Bigfoot conventions held each year. An April conference in San Antonio, Texas, drew about 400 Bigfoot believers.
Part of the Pocatello draw had to do with Dr. Jeff Meldrum, an ISU associate professor of anatomy and anthropology who analyzes tracks to develop theories about the creature's anatomy.
"People are too ready to dismiss Bigfoot evidence as just simple hoax," said Meldrum, 48, who was "set back on [his] heels" when he encountered a convincing Bigfoot track in eastern Washington's Blue Mountains in 1996.
This year, Meldrum's book, Sasquatch: The Legend Meets Science, will enter the Bigfoot literary pantheon.
Neither Mionczynski nor Meldrum have let scientific skepticism convince them not to believe their eyes.
Mionczynski had no time for thinking when his tent was coming down around his ears. He grabbed his revolver, scuttled outside and stoked the fire. The beast had retreated to the same patch of pines where its breaths issued loud and steady. Firelight shone on its eyes.
"I sat by the fire and stared in the direction where the breathing was coming from," Mionczynski recalled. "I was totally confused because it wasn't breathing like a bear and it had hands instead of paws."
A good storyteller, sincere and confident, Mionczynski makes his tale tough to doubt.
You start to believe.
And it's not like singing along with the Rev. Sum Yung Yahoo as he bends his guitar strings, jamming for Jesus Jones until you're convinced the Messiah really did show up in Year of the Dog driving a VW Beetle, sweeping teenage girls off their feet. It's not just believing because everyone else does. Not that at all.
If anything, proximity to true believers makes it harder to believe.
At the conference, one sasquatch-sized man demonstrated Bigfoot's heavy, arm-swinging stride. A woman described several encounters where she didn't see Bigfoot, but found puddles of Bigfoot urine. Another time she heard what could only have been Bigfoot flatulence. Another man with a California surfer accent talked about a woman who, after being abducted by Bigfoot, was returned to civilization years later, wild and crazy.
"They had to keep her in a cage," he said.
Mionczynski brought the legend to life.
The fire popped sparks as Mionczynski stared into trees. Forty-five minutes. An hour. Against his will, he nodded off. That kind of vicious adrenalin rush just exhausts you, he explained.
"I woke up to the sound of something hitting the ground."
Over the next 40 minutes Mionczynski was pelted with about 20 pine cones sailing out of the darkness.
"And that's when I knew for sure this was not a bear."
It finally left him alone with what has become a life-long mission.
Bigfoot may be an endangered species, Mionczynski said. So Mionczynski still beats the brush and scales mountains, hunting for a specimen. And even though the rendesvous' low turnout disappointed organizers, Mionczynski helped about 100 folks rid themselves of any good reason to stop believing. In a way, that's too bad for them. Apparently, belief dampens your chances of spotting one.
As one Utah Bigfoot hunter put it: "It's only the non-believers that see them. If you're a believer, you can go out in the woods and look for 20 years and never see one."