Ask any good Bigfoot enthusiast, and they’ll tell you: Sasquatch’s home turf is not the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
You’ll hear the same thing from residents of Silverton, a tiny mountain enclave in the southwest of the state with fewer than 800 year-round residents.
So Silvertonians have been surprised to find themselves at the centre of a Bigfoot firestorm – thanks to grainy footage taken last week from their signature train, which quickly spread across the globe. The viral video seems to show a large, hirsute figure moving through – and blending in with – the dry brush undergrowth. “Bigfoot is back,” read the New York Times headline, “We believe!!” wrote Shannon Parker, who first posted the video on Facebook.
The town is hundreds of miles from Bigfoot’s (rumoured) native Pacific Northwest and Canada; British Columbia was where the Anglicised word “Sasquatch” evolved from a local tribe’s term for “wild” or “hairy man.”
“I’ve lived in the Northwest for a number of seasons, winters and summers, and [Sasquatch is] their bread and butter – and when you go there, the forest is, like, black; it’s like a dungeon – and you’re like, ‘Of course that’s where he would be,” says Doug Mac, 35, who slings drinks at the Lacey Rose Saloon on the town’s main (and only paved) street, bartending when he’s not working as a ski guide, ranger or carpenter.
But Sasquatch is not Silverton’s schtick. “Does he have relatives? I don’t know,” shrugs Mac of the elusive Bigfoot, smiling cheekily at The Independent beneath his out-of-central-casting knit cap. “Maybe that’s Sasquatch, this is the Yeti. ”
The video was an unusual capture for passengers on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the breathtaking scenic rail line for which the region is most famous. Tourism accounts for 86 per cent of Silverton’s economy, and visitors stream in for the locomotive, the wildlife, the heli-skiing and extreme backcountry sports. Mac says there was a “commotion” about Bigfoot last week amongst passengers getting on and off the train, which brings between 500 and 1300 people per day to Silverton.
Details of the sighting began to spread through word of mouth and social media amongst locals, many of whom are not big television or news watchers, according to San Juan County public information officer DeAnne Gallegos. They prefer the outdoors, she tells The Independent.
Jim Harper, who runs Silverton’s Grand Imperial Hotel and whose family bought the railroad in the 90s, first heard about the Bigfoot furore in his own backyard from a buddy much further afield.
“I received a phone call from my college friend who is living in Alaska; he’s a miner, and he said, ‘You’re not gonna believe what I’m looking at’ – and then he sent me a link at the same time as we were speaking,” says Harper, 46. “And I went, ‘This is nuts – this can’t be real.’ And he goes, ‘Oh no, buddy – it’s everywhere.’”
The miner was right; Harper’s relatives were soon calling and texting back and forth from their various homes across the country.
“They were all watching the video, and it became this big thing, and within 48 hours of this news breaking, and this video going viral, we booked 22 rooms,” he said. “The questions varied from, ‘Is it real? Do you know where this site is? Is it close to the hotel?’ to ‘Do you guys sell any Bigfoot merchandise?’
“No,” Harper says, laughing. “Why would we sell it?”
Because Bigfoot is “not really a legitimate folklore around here,” says Gallegos, who wears many hats, including executive director of Silverton’s Chamber of Commerce and contributor to the local paper. A few shops sell generic Sasquatch merchandise, and locals talk of a one-time, short-lived museum, all of it par for the course for any high-elevation resort town.
Gallegos stresses that the train sighting was in no way a publicity ploy by local tourism reps, but she has her own theory. A stranger with a “production crew” had been asking around town about any Bigfoot encounters just a few days before the footage was shot, she says.
Staff at the Visitors Centre took him so seriously that they threw out his business card.
“Within four days, there’s a video … if you can’t get any legitimate interviews, why wouldn’t you create some?” she says. “It was, I kind of thought, brilliant on their part.”
Others have speculated that the figure could have been a hunter in a ghillie suit; another theory centres on local businesses. There’s an offroad trailer company called Sasquatch Expedition Campers in Silverton, which advertises with a distinctive sign on the road to Durango – in the days following the video’s virality, however, the business’s Instagram posted: “It wasn’t us.”
The image was accompanied by tufts of hair – and another picture of a staffer toiling away while wearing Bigfoot feet and hands.
But this is far from the first time there have been sightings of strange creatures around Silverton, Gallegos and other locals concede; in fact, dressing up seems to be something of a jokey local pastime in the tiny, tight-knit community. There’s the business with a branded model-T that would occasionally plant an aped-suit driver behind the wheel of the vintage car; there have even been “cowboys that ride up on the train” and pretend to hold it up, says Gallegos.
“It’s always kind of a rolling joke … our own personal humour,” she says. “People just think it’s fun to do things around the train and the train passengers.”
Dee Jamarillo, a 69-year-old lifelong Silvertonian, recalls how, “a long time ago, [certain locals] dressed up in those Bigfoot costumes and went down there and showed off for the train.”
Silverton, says Harper – as a piano-playing cowboy entertains the lunchtime tourist crowd at the adjacent old-timey saloon – is “a unique community.”
A few years ago it stood in for 1960s Aspen in a film about Hunter S. Thompson’s unsuccessful run for sheriff, the directorial debut by Robert F. Kennedy’s Jr’s son, which would be random – but that’s just how things work here.
“Our eccentricities come out every once in awhile, due to the fact that we’re 650 people,” Harpersays, lowballing the official number of year-rounders. “And some of us are more playful than others. And we like to have fun, we really do, and we can get away with having fun – where, in other communities or larger cities, you probably couldn’t do that.”
The “diehards,” as Gallegos calls them, were reminding each other on the streets this week to stockpile before the snow. As the Bigfoot video went viral and calls about the sighting poured in, many businesses were closing up shop for the season, window signs announcing they’d be back in May.
“We have, during the winter, one way in and one way out,” Gallegos says – outlining a route that includes three precarious mountain passes and 120-plus avalanche active pads. The roads are shoulderless with 12,000 feet sheer drops and hairpin, grip-the-wheel turns, and locals pack a bag with them when they leave for the day in winter in case they’re snowed in or out. “It’s kind of fun and exciting when you’re snowed in – it happens on a regular basis.” Gallegos says, “So although it sounds, psychologically, like it could be rough, we’re all incredibly prepared people.”
“It was not a local, because we went and sought out the locals who are mischievous, and it was not them.”
Jim Harper, who runs Silverton’s Grand Imperial Hotel
And despite a penchant for playfulness, Harper insists that none of those people was responsible for the recent Bigfoot furore.
“It was not a local, because we went and sought out the locals who are mischievous, and it was not them,” he tells The Independent. “We knew where they were, and they were accounted for during the time of the sighting. In a town this size, we know.”
To that point, however, locals also know the train schedule. So does Sasquatch, if he’s been in San Juan County for any period of time; anyone else could easily look up the train route and times, too.
“It almost seemed like he timed it for when the train was going by,” says Josh Wallace, who works at the Durango Diner, a popular spot for locals and tourists alike just a few blocks from the D&SNG station. “What are the chances of it being that exact moment that the train was going by? It’s the same schedule every day.”
That’s one of the reasons the 41-year-old thinks the video is “obviously fake” – but the figure in the footage also “didn’t have the mannerisms as much as what I think Sasquatch would be like,” he says. “It was just like a person.”
As the season winds down, just one train a day leaves at 9am from Durango for a roundtrip journey to Silverton, returning at 6.15pm. As the locomotive pulled out of Durango this week, the train whistle signalling its departure, eager amateur photographers lined the tracks and locals stood with phones ready for shots of the iconic steam engine.
There was no mention of Bigfoot from the uniformed train staff, all young and friendly; when asked about the recent sighting, they seemed unimpressed. Questions have “died down,” according to one staffer working in the concessions car. Another took pains to say the incident had nothing to do with the train, and they weren’t sure at which point on the journey the footage was taken.
It’s not hard to believe “Bigfoot” was captured on film, however, since most passengers – and their phones – are glued to the journey’s jaw-dropping scenery. The train weaves past gorges and forests, rivers and bridges, the peaks of the San Juan mountain range of the Rockies outlined by Colorado’s vivid blue sky as tourists strain for a glimpse of elk, moose and lynx. The majority of people on the train on Wednesday had purchased their tickets wholly unrelated to the recent Sasquatch craze; even many who’d seen the video were unaware it had been taken from the train they were now riding.
Upon hearing that there was an Independent reporter in train car #22, the tour leader for a group of tribal elders from Oklahoma City stood up and instructed the seniors to keep their eyes peeled for Bigfoot.
One couple volunteered they’d once had a possible Sasquatch sighting in West Virginia.
The hairy woods-dweller and his kin, it seems, get around.
Back at the old-school Durango Diner, Wallace volunteers that he actually has a friend who swears he previously spotted Sasquatch in the wilds around Durango.
The friend “saw Bigfoot, picked up this big boulder, threw it at him and then he just took off and left,” says Wallace, though he admits that’s the only first-person account he’s ever personally heard in the area.
But if the Bigfoot brood is looking to remain undiscovered, remote Silverton’s a no-brainer. It’s not only hard to get to, but the diehards also operate on their own wavelength.
“A lot of times, commonly, we ask each other: ‘What’s today?” – and that’s very genuine,” Gallegos tells The Independent. “So we don’t function like the real world … Monday to Friday.”
“If Sasquatch is a Silverton local, we’re going to protect him.”
San Juan County public information officer DeAnne Gallegos
They can also be fiercely insular – and protective. Visit Silverton, Sasquatch Expedition Campers and other businesses may be temporarily playing off the publicity via social media accounts, but there’s no overarching plan to capitalise upon the sighting, Gallegos says.
“If Sasquatch is a Silverton local, we’re going to protect him,” she grins, as tourists mill about in the sunshine behind her on their lunchtime layover from the train. “We’re not going to promote him. He deserves privacy, too.”