The Great Recession had hit me hard. I lost my job and then my wife, who had no use for a man without money. Soon after, I lost my house.
Yes – for the first time in my life, I found myself homeless in my mid-50s.
Did you know homeless people live in your national and state parks? They did and they do. I know, because I was one of them for a while. I tried to stay in a few shelters but let me just say that a homeless shelter can be a dangerous place, especially for an older man who isn’t in the best of physical shape, and most importantly, one with no friends to watch his back while he slept.
I tried sleeping in my truck, which I still had since it had been paid off years before, but with no bench seat, no cap cover on the back and most of my possessions crammed in it, it made for a difficult sleep. I only slept in my truck as a last resort, usually during winter months.
After a while I found out that I could camp rough off-trail in the state and national parks, and I quickly came to believe it was safer than any shelter in a city.
The trick is to stay off trail, so park employees and especially park visitors don’t see you. If they can’t see you, they can’t evict you from the park - which not all of them do, by the way. Some of the parks and their employees are sympathetic; some are not. I also quickly learned that it’s best to park your vehicle, if you can, outside the park as park employees do take notice of vehicles that just get re-parked in new areas every few days.
Anyway, in the summer of 2009 I had just been booted from a park a few counties away and was now camped in the Zaleski State Forest in Ohio. I chose it because I had a line on a dry-walling job in a nearby town. The gentleman I was in contact with had made arrangements with his church to allow me to park my truck in their parking lot. He also helped me out by driving me back and forth between a designated spot along King Hollow Road in the park and the job site each work day so I could save my gas.
Anyway, I was feeling pretty good as I got out of his car and headed into the forest toward my camp which was about 300 yards in from the road. I had just completed a third day of cash work which meant I could buy some gas for my truck, food for the week and a few other badly needed items. But the biggest thing for me, was that they had another job for me when this one was completed. It was the best news I’d gotten in a long while.
I was thinking about the best ways to spend the money wisely when an awful smell hit me. I assumed something dead was in the nearby brush, and I tried to hold my breath until I passed, but the smell didn’t seem to lessen at all even as I walked further away from the area.
I then reasoned I must have stepped in something and didn’t know it, so I stopped, steadying myself against a tree as I first lifted one foot, then the other to inspect my shoes.
I still had my left foot pulled up, looking at my shoe when I heard some branches making a light swishing noise somewhere behind me, quickly followed by a few light snaps of small limbs or some other forest debris being stepped on.
Almost as soon as I heard it, the noise stopped.
I stepped away from the tree and could see nothing in the direction from which I had heard the sounds. Now, I had spent enough time in various parks to know to be aware of my surroundings, and had never encountered anything truly dangerous other than a few snakes, so I still wasn’t alarmed at this point. I just shrugged it off and assumed it was some forest creature moving around because I had disturbed it.
I was right, of course, but I didn’t know just how right I was, yet.
I remember wishing for a breeze to take away whatever stench was choking the forest air, as I walked to camp, but the air was very still. I listen to see if the animal was following me, but I didn’t hear anything other than my own walking sounds.
When I reached my camp, I was not prepared for the chaos that awaited me.
My habit before leaving camp during the day was to always minimize its appearance. I did this by taking down my camouflaged print tarp and the clothesline used to suspend it and wrapping my bedding inside and hiding it under heavy brush. I had a second tarp that I had cut into squares to wrap around my box of canned food and another box I kept other items like a few pieces of clothing, a hatchet and other gear like a flashlight, lighters, and just general, necessary items.
But, clearly, someone had found my things. The cans of food had been tossed about, and the box they had been stored in was smashed flat. My tarps, blankets and all of my other items had been pulled out and thrown everywhere.
While my belongings had been discovered before, it was nothing like this. This was different. It wasn’t the same kind of malicious destruction of the teenagers who had shredded my tarp into uselessness, taken all my canned food and set my sleeping bag on fire. Nor was it like the other times someone had rifled through my items, looking to take specific things, but leaving everything primarily intact.
This time things just seemed to have been ransacked and thrown about in a mad frenzy.
I was ticked off, of course, but relieved to see that the things I began to retrieve did not look to be overly damaged.
I had gathered several pieces of clothing from bushes and kicked several cans of food back to the center area of my camp and was half under another bush where I could see some of my items lay when I had the skin-crawling sensation of being watched.
I slowly backed out from under the bush and stood up. I still hadn’t found my can of mace, my flashlight, hatchet or any of my useful items that could help protect me. At that moment I had a can of green beans in my hand and a paperback book under my arm that I had just retrieved from under the bush.
I heard a whistle somewhere off to my left, and a moment later another whistle ahead of me answered.
My immediate thought was that I was being messed with by other homeless people in the park – maybe I was in their favorite spot. People who have nothing can be quite territorial.
But that thought was quickly followed up with the knowledge of how another homeless person would have handled that situation; they would have simply taken over my campsite and my things, forcing me to challenge them if I wanted the spot or my things back. Though that had not happened to me, directly, I had seen it before.
I stood there, turning in a circle, looking for who was whistling when I heard several low, guttural grunts. It seemed to come from the direction of one of the whistlers, but I couldn’t be positive.
I still thought it sounded human, and I was trying to pinpoint how many there were and how many canned goods I had already collected. I didn’t have much, but I had a decent aim and if I could see them coming, maybe I could nail them with a can of food. I know it sounds ridiculous, but seriously – I had nothing else and I was expecting an attack of some sort.
I walked hunched over to my pile of canned food. I unbuttoned half the buttons on my work shirt, then tied the two bottom hem corners into a tight knot around my waist to make a kind of pouch. I was just putting the first of my planned ammo – that being canned food – in my shirt when I heard a loud, cracking noise from my right. I stood up cautiously, remaining half crouched to look around. I had a can in my hand ready if needed.
I saw no one. But as I turned a full circle to survey my surroundings, I saw that a large tree branch had been freshly broken. It hung there less than 10 yards from me. I was startled because I know it had not been like that only two minutes ago the first time I had stood up to look for who was whistling.
I quickly dropped down to a squatting position again, waiting and listening. While I didn’t like not having a view around me, I liked feeling exposed even less.
To my left a few feet away, I heard a soft “plunk” and saw the leaves moving on the branch of a bush. Then again. And then two came almost together. I can’t say that I saw what was being thrown, but I was pretty sure they were rocks.
I stayed down, waiting for an attack to come. I had never been a large man, and what strong body mass I once had, had been lost over the last two years of living rough, eating little and working hard when I could find a job. I was in no shape to confront any attackers, human or otherwise.
The next rock caught me square in my back between the shoulder blades – and it stung. I know animals don’t throw rocks, and feeling confident that my enemy was human, I stood up quickly, a can of green beans in my pitching arm ready. I had already decided that if they wanted this spot so badly, they could have it. At the very least I needed to bring this to a head and get whatever was going to happen over with.
I stood up with the intention of yelling out a challenge of some sort, hoping they’d show themselves so I could nail ‘em with my can of green beans, but I never got the first word out of my mouth.
Ahead of me not more than 10 yards away, stood a massive, hairy creature. I couldn’t see the face clearly from that distance, but I knew it was larger than any human could be.
Somewhere, my mind went through its Rolodex of information on large, hairy creatures that live in forests that are definitely neither bear nor human, and it found one word: Bigfoot.
Now, I did not believe in them so I knew little about them, but I knew what I was looking at couldn’t be anything else. It was not human. It was not gorilla or ape. It was not bear. It was a bigfoot.
I was frozen there, my arm pulled back ready to throw a can of green beans, when the bigfoot moved behind the nearest tree, but like the cat I used to have that assumed if her head was under the blanket, the rest of her was invisible too, the tree did nothing to hide this bigfoot. The tree was only maybe a foot and a half wide, and the bigfoot was much wider, making him or her with its chocolate brown fur rather easy to see against the light gray bark on the trees.
I realized I was still standing there, just staring when I came a little to my senses and dropped back down below the bush line again. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I no longer cared about anything beyond getting out of there and fast.
I dropped the can of green beans in my hand, pulled the other out of my tied up shirt and tried to size up my situation.
I knew I wasn’t too far from the road, but I also knew there was an actual campground closer, maybe 200 yards away. It was one I routinely scouted for trash and things left behind by campers.
As I was thinking through my situation, I realized the rocks had stopped.
I waited a few more minutes, then peered cautiously above the bush line, doing a full circle to check the area. The sun was going down, now, but I could still see clearly a good distance around me. I stood there, uncertainly, waiting. But I saw and heard nothing and no rocks came my way. Steadying myself, I took a few slow steps, listening for any movement as I did so. I heard none, so I kept moving forward slowly and silently.
I had gone maybe 30 yards when I heard a large snap behind me in the direction of where I had just come from. I chanced a look back and over the top of the brush I had just walked through, and I saw a large, dark outline of the bigfoot standing behind a large branch that was now clearly snapped as the other had been earlier; the blonde, fresh wood standing out vividly against the dark shapes of the tree and the bigfoot itself.
I lost all thought of being stealthy when the creature began to growl, and I ran as fast as I could. Terror spurred me on when I knew the bigfoot was following me; not only was I hearing the heavy pounding of its feet as it ran, but I would hear another limb snapping every few seconds.
I chanced a running glance backward, only to confirm what I feared – that it was closing the distance fast.
On the third glance back I saw that while it could have closed the final distance between us, it hadn’t.
And that’s when I knew.
It was chasing me out. It wanted me gone. Pronto.
I wasn’t going to argue with it, and I kept running for what seemed like forever.
My lungs were burning and my legs were masses of jelly that were barely responding to me by the time I came up over the rise and headed down into the campground area, alarming the campers near the perimeter.
I was relieved to have made it where other humans were, but I kept looking over my shoulder as I tried to get my breath to talk to the people who came over to see if I was alright. I was terrified it would follow me into the camp.
But it didn’t.
I’m not very clear on the exact nature of what I said to them, or what they said to me in the first moments that I could talk, but I do remember making the conscious decision NOT to tell them I thought a bigfoot was after me.
I remember telling them I was being chased, and I didn’t know by who or what. When one volunteered to go get a park employee, I asked them not to, and I explained my situation, and why I didn’t want to be involved with anything official.
Once my head was a little clearer and I wasn’t shaking so badly I told them that I was pretty sure it was some other homeless people who just wanted my camp and my things. That actually upset one of the men enough that he and another guy were offering to go back and retrieve my things. I told them I had nothing of value worth going back, and while what I had really wasn’t of any value, it was everything I had, but I was never going back into the forest, and I didn't want anyone else to, either.
I did, however, still have my truck. And I had the cash pay I had earned still tucked away inside the small zip pocket under the waist band of my pants.
There were two brothers there, camping side by side with their families that night. Their names were Brandon and Dylan – and those are their real names, by the way.
After I had calmed down a little, maybe a half hour or so, Brandon gave me a lift into town back to my truck at the church parking lot while Dylan, and another man whose name I never got, stayed at the camp to protect their families in case whoever had been chasing me ended up in camp.
I urged them to move their camp, but I don’t know if they did or not.
I know Brandon asked me to ride in the back of his truck because I could have been a dangerous, unhinged person, and I know he, like at least one other man at the camp, had a gun on him.
I know the man whose name I didn’t know probably headed straight for the park office the second Brandon left with me.
I know I must have looked and sounded insane, and I know Brandon took me to my truck mostly to get me away from the camp and their families.
That’s okay. I understand, and I would have done the same thing in their place.
But I’m grateful to those two men, because through it all, I had a sense that as I stood there stammering out my story, of all the people standing around gawking at me, they actually sensed something truly horrifying had just happened to me. They treated me kindly and took me seriously and seemed genuinely concerned for me. For me.
When you’re homeless and don’t have much, you can’t imagine what a few kindnesses are worth.
When Brandon dropped me off at my truck, I was still on legs of wobbly jelly. I wasn’t comfortable even staying in the church parking lot and drove to a well lit parking lot of a big box store. I still didn’t feel safe and didn’t sleep. I did finish the job there in that town, and the second they offered me, but then I moved on.
After that, I no longer stayed in any park. Not even a city park. I have never told anyone about this experience. Who would have believed me?
I’ve thought about it many times over the years, and the best I can make of it is that I unknowingly intruded on that Bigfoot’s territory.
It was hard, but in time I met enough good people who helped me and I worked my way into a slightly better situation. From there I started rebuilding my life and now have a steady job and a small apartment of my own.
I’ll never be rich, and I’m okay with that. But I’m not so poor that I can’t put a little something in the cup the old man holds out while sitting on his corner downtown.