Above: Jesus Payan Jr. seeks the notoriously shy beast in a forest near Cloudcroft.
FOR YEARS, JESUS PAYAN JR. SPENT LONG NIGHTS in the Tularosa Basin, peering into the darkest corners of the desert sky and watching for lights that evaded explanation.
One night, while he and some friends were stargazing by his house on five acres near La Luz, they heard footsteps crunching on gravel. Payan’s skin prickled. The group gathered fistfuls of rocks and threw them toward the noise. The first volley missed, but Payan’s second throw landed. “It went, ‘Wwraaaaahhhh!’ ” Payan roars. “We went, ‘Aaagghh!’ and ran toward the house.”
As he sprinted toward his porch, the creature kept pace behind him. He reached the house at a sliding glass door. “A sliding glass door should be easy to open, but at that time it was like a combination lock,” he says, mimicking fingers fumbling the handle. Finally, he flung it open and they threw themselves inside.
What had chased them? Payan thinks it was Bigfoot, an apelike creature most commonly associated with the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests, renowned in tribal lore and campfire tales, and stubbornly unwilling to show its face for any camera. Perhaps, Payan speculates, it was venturing out of the mountains to scrounge nearby pecan orchards and cattle ranches for food.
In the two decades since, he’s visited the woods routinely to search for more signs of it. Or them. He sees clues everywhere and has knitted together a belief in a Bigfoot that’s closer to human than ape, capable of construction and culture, and, of course, possessing the wisdom and wiliness to stay well out of sight. Payan’s efforts to document their lives, habits, and stories swallow his free time. His goal: to become a noted scholar in the Bigfoot field.
“I’m not out to prove that they’re real, because I know they are,” he says. “We have found fur, scat, footprints. There’s enough evidence that if they were charged with a crime, they’d be convicted. It’s more an issue of acceptance of the evidence.”
Payan retells the story of that hair-raising encounter with only a hint of the terror that left him gasping and crossing himself inside his house that night. He’s made a living out of being a self-described “giant, scary cholo,” first as a bouncer, then on film, and notably as Gonzo in the TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Standing six foot three and more than 300 pounds, with a shaved head, a thick black beard, arms covered in ink, and a trio of tears tattooed by his left eye, he’s accustomed to being seen a certain way.
“When I’m out there in the forest, I’m not being judged like that by my race, by whatever I look like,” he says. “I feel really at home with those guys, because with them, I’m the little guy.”
“Bigfoot” joined the lexicon decades ago as a story from spooked loggers in northern California, but tales of a hairy giant date back millennia. Skeptics question how Bigfoot escapes clear documentation in a world where nearly every hiker carries a camera in the form of a smartphone—and the even more pivotal point of why we’ve never found a body. But from the Four Corners to the Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico believers like Payan insist the truth is out there.
Jesus Payan Jr. holds what might be a Bigfoot tool.
PAYAN'S LATEST FIELDWORK RECENTLY CAUGHT THE ATTENTION of Christopher Dyer, an anthropology professor who teaches at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup campus. Dyer became intrigued by the Sasquatch-Bigfoot phenomenon during his UNM tenure, when a student approached him asking for help identifying what might be breaking the necks of a relative’s cattle. Dyer inspected the site and found footprints nearby that had toes like a human’s but were 17 inches long. He’s been collecting evidence of Bigfoot roaming the Southwest ever since.
On the spring outing when I join him, Dyer has invited a group to Cloudcroft to visit the site of some of Payan’s recent photographs. He’s booked a massive cabin outside town, stocked the fridge, and drafted an agenda of discussions and field trips. Dyer says he’s smelled Bigfoot (an almost eye-watering scent of rot, death, and skunk) and had one throw a rock at him. But he hasn’t seen one—yet. He’s eager to change that.
Payan, among the first arrivals for the weekend, takes a seat on the couch next to Dyer. “There’s so much I haven’t shown you yet,” he says while beginning to scroll through his photos.
Most of the images he’s recorded come not from seeing Bigfoot directly and raising his camera to shoot—the beast is too well camouflaged for that, he says—but by panning through the woods in places where he’s heard noises or gotten “that heebie-jeebies feeling.” Reviewing footage later, he zooms in, scanning for faces. He pulls up one of these images and points to a fuzzy, brown, conical head. Dyer looks over and says, “Oh, hi there.”
We’re soon joined by Stanley Milford Jr. and Jonathan Dover, current and retired Navajo Rangers, respectively, who in the past have been tasked with investigating what Navajo Nation residents reported as Bigfoot attacks, often on livestock. Next to arrive is Dulce-area resident Hoyt Velarde, who runs Shadow Seekers, organizing volunteers to respond to nuisance Bigfoot calls in northern New Mexico. Dyer has also brought Sydni Chernault, a videographer, to work on a documentary.
The first night, everyone collects in the cabin’s kitchen to swap stories, many of them secondhand, of the enormous, hairy, bipedal creature raiding dumpsters behind a casino steakhouse, shaking a car when the driver and passenger pulled over to nap late one night, belly-rubbing a befriended dog, and throwing rocks at people. They relay descriptions from people who got close enough to note its wide-set eyes or familiar enough to dub them “my hairy boys.”
Velarde reports finding a footprint so big his own boot fit sideways in the heel. Once, while driving an ATV along the fence enclosing his fields, he came upon one of the beasts a dozen feet away. While they looked each other over, he says, fear froze him. He drove straight into an alfalfa field and sat for a few minutes, trying to regain control of his hands. That people are routinely disabled by such encounters is one reason there are so few photographs of the creature. But most of the time, he says, you turn a few flashlights on, set them to “strobe” mode, and it’s the Sasquatches that run scared.
In the morning, we drive a dirt road to a trailhead and campsite ringed by ponderosa pines and oaks. Once, while Payan was camping here, he says, a pair of young Bigfeet (or “Bigfoots,” experts disagree) pressed their faces up against his tent. He photographed the blurry, ghoulish outlines of their features amid white flare from the flash.
On a stump near the campsite, Payan and Dyer stack unshucked corn and small red apples; they call this a “habituation site.” They’re hoping to get acquainted with the local Bigfeet, and perhaps snag a DNA sample from a bitten apple or a stripped ear of corn. No one, however, sets up a trail camera or other recording equipment.
Velarde steps out of his truck, which is adorned with three Sasquatch stickers, and spots a rectangular depression in the earth—maybe a print, he says, noting the dents of a heel and toes. Farther up the drainage along the road, broken branches on a bush could have formed a blind to obscure Bigfoot from a passing vehicle, and the researchers infer the imprint of a Bigfoot rump in a hollow below the snapped twigs.
Is—is—is that a print?
Holding a video camera in one hand, Chernault crouches with an inverted ziplock bag in the other and scoops up dirt and pine needles to later test for DNA. After reported sightings, Dyer has collected hair embedded in tree bark and snagged on a shed roofline, but tests come back as 99 percent human. If chimpanzees share 98 percent of our DNA, he argues, wouldn’t Bigfoot have a similar margin of difference? Velarde has likewise sent samples, all of which have been deemed contaminated by human DNA, even when he’s used tweezers.
Payan, in a button-down plaid shirt, sagging jeans, and white size 16 sneakers—about 12 to 13 inches long and used as reference points for tracks—leads us deeper into the forest.
“You’re going to see some stuff that a human could do,” he says, “but why would a human do it?”
He points out trees with roots pointed toward the sky, stripped of their branches and bark and wedged into the fork of another tree, or stacked up against one another four or five at a time, forming an asterisk. “I can’t say for sure it’s Bigfoot,” he says, “but I can’t say for sure it’s not.”
Hiking on an overgrown road grade with Velarde and Dyer keeping a parallel course in the drainage below, Chernault spots a wisp of fur snared on a branch at the height of her hat brim. She declares it too high for deer. She and Payan didn’t bring a collection kit, so she hikes down to Dyer, fetches a paper envelope, then climbs back to pull the hairs off the branch. Everyone circles Dyer as he opens the envelope, squints at the curled tufts, and concludes, “That’s possible.”
Plans to return at dusk and camp nearby to monitor the habituation site wither as a storm rolls in over the afternoon. Rain will obscure any sounds from a visiting Bigfoot and deter them from venturing out much anyway, Payan says. He drives the half hour home to spend a night with his wife.
Jonathan Dover attempts to capture Bigfoot audio.
WHEN THE STUDENT ASKED FOR HELP with her family’s livestock in 2015, Dyer called Jeffrey Meldrum, an anatomy and anthropology professor at Idaho State University, to come assess the footprints. Meldrum wrote the 2006 book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science and a glossy trifold pocket guide sold at REI for differentiating between human, bear, and Sasquatch footprints and other characteristics of a hominid that one might reasonably, or perhaps hopefully, expect to observe loping away, casting blurry glances over a hairy shoulder.
When Meldrum visited Gallup, Dyer organized a conference: Bigfoot in New Mexico: Evidence, Ecology, and Behavior. He expected a couple dozen attendees. Instead, hundreds packed the auditorium.
When asked if anyone had encountered the beast, Dyer says, 40 audience members raised their hands. A poster-board map of New Mexico and Arizona that he’s taken to events is pinned in about 400 places to mark reported sightings. Meldrum and Dyer are now writing a book about Sasquatch in the Southwest.
“My driving question is: Can we identify a biological species behind the legend of Sasquatch?” Meldrum tells me by Zoom from his Idaho office. A still from the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot striding through a northern California forest in 1967 appears on the wall behind him.
Meldrum got hooked when he saw his first set of footprints, fresh enough to determine how the toes slipped and dug into the mud. He’s collected track castings ever since, some of them decades old and all indicative of large, bipedal primates with unusual and uncannily similar mid-foot joints.
Meldrum recalls an encounter he had with a skeptic. “What would constitute, in your mind, evidence worthy of scientific investigation?” he asked. “You have to have a body,” the skeptic replied. “No, you misunderstood my question,” Meldrum countered. “It was not what would prove it, but what would justify the investigation of whether there’s a Bigfoot?”
“Science doesn’t start when you have a body,” he says. “It starts when you have a question.”
The argument for researching “relic hominids” finds footing in the catalog of humanlike creatures that once existed and ongoing discoveries of branches off the Homo sapiens family tree. Just this summer, scientists announced finding a massive, fossilized skull that represents a new species of ancient human, Homo longi, or Dragon Man. Dragon Man’s contemporaries include a number of hominins—bipedal apes that split from other African apes. Another genus over, there’s Gigantopithicus, a 10-foot-tall ape that lived in Asia until 100,000 years ago. With so much variation, could there be room for one more, undiscovered survivor?
Believers also cite stories from Greco-Roman naturalists, Persian scholars, medieval European naturalists, and North American peoples. Roughly 200 names have been recorded among Native Americans for a giant, hairy humanlike creature. The term Sasquatch derives from the Salish word for it. The Diné tell stories of a giant called Ye’iitsoh.
“Why does virtually every Indigenous tribe have a name for these animals if they don’t exist?” Dyer asks.
There is, of course, plenty of science to weigh in on this question, well beyond partially obscured photos, indistinct videos, inexplicable howls in the night, and massive tracks. After a year of talking about footprints and tree structures and even visiting strange ground nests for the first season of her podcast, Wild Thing, journalist Laura Krantz points to the gap between finding some perplexing thing in the woods and knowing what it’s evidence of: “Ultimately, if you don’t see what leaves the footprints, you don’t know for sure.”
But the belief persists, perhaps because it gives us something that’s tough to find elsewhere in the world. “We like the idea that the world is still big enough and wild enough and unexplored enough that something like Bigfoot could be out there,” she says. “The thought that everything’s already been mapped out, and every trail is already found and everything’s already on Google Maps and there’s no surprises left, that’s really sad. It makes the world feel a little less exciting and a little less full of promise.”
Jesus Payan Jr. checks out some Bigfoot kitsch in Cloudcroft.
DURING THE FIRST NIGHT'S CABIN CONVERSATION, Milford and Dover, who worked with the Navajo Rangers, talked about not leaping to fill that gap in their investigations. They’re just guys doing their job, even when the job means investigating sheep killed in corrals spotted with 17-inch footprints laid down in a five-foot-long stride. The evidence they collect has to hold up in a courtroom.
“A lot of times in these investigations, you’ll have a person that goes into it and, instead of following A, B, C, D, E, they already jumped from C to Z,” Milford adds. “They’re leaving out so much that tells what really what happened. You’ve got to really be careful.”
Payan doesn’t miss a beat: “I won’t find Bigfoot. Bigfoot finds me.”
“Exactly,” Velarde exclaims.
“He knows you’re there,” Payan says. “He’ll come to you.”
The next morning, Payan meets us at the turnoff from NM 130, his car riding low from stone tools loaded into his back seat. He says Bigfoot fashioned them. At the habituation site, rain soaked the corn husks and spattered the apples, but nothing has moved. The site was too exposed, Payan says, so it looked like a trap. He moves the pile to a nook between a tree trunk and a steep hillside.
Then we drive to a basin where aspens thread among the pines and oaks. Dyer tries a call, a long, dropping note. Payan swings a stick against a dead tree trunk. The crack resonates through the forest, inviting a reply. Tree knocking is often linked to Bigfoot sightings, and Payan says he’s traded knocks and whistles with the big guy. We wait and listen. A breeze rattles the aspen leaves. A truck door closes. A branch snaps underfoot. Other than that, the woods are very, very quiet.
He might play a tough guy on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but Jesus Payan Jr. has been known to run in fear from what he’s certain was Bigfoot.
JESUS PAYAN JR. is an actor known for his roles on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. He spends the time between his appearances investigating Bigfoot in New Mexico.
The first time I had any experience was in 2000 in Ruidoso. I was living in a cabin with my family and heard a Bigfoot call, their howl-scream. We’d just pulled up to the cabin when we heard it. The sound of screeching tires is the same sound. It seemed like forever, but it was a good 25 to 30 seconds. Once it stopped, the whole mountain got quiet. No birds. No bugs. I asked my mom, “Was that a siren?” And she said, “No, that’s not what it was.” Then it did it again. I went to the internet and heard other Bigfoot vocalizations, and it was the same thing.
From left: Christopher Dyer began researching Bigfoot while teaching anthropology at UNM-Gallup; Payan and Dyer hit the trail.
CHRISTOPHER DYER is a former professor at the University of New Mexico with a background in anthropology and ecology. He now teaches in Virginia.
The awe factor is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in studying these things as living, breathing populations of hominids that exist in the United States and other parts of the world. Although they’re, of course, a little bit more elusive. They can move so quickly, and hide, and that’s part of their behavior, part of their survival adaptation here.
Maybe eventually we’ll get them recognized as a real, living population. These animals are real. They’re vibrant. They should be respected and protected.
Jonathan Dover and Stanley Milford Jr. in the field.
JONATHAN DOVER AND STANLEY MILFORD JR. have overseen natural and cultural resource concerns on the Navajo Nation as Navajo Rangers (Dover has retired). While leading the Rangers’ paranormal unit, they responded to calls of Bigfoot sightings, as well as UFOs, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena.
Dover: We don’t consider ourselves Bigfoot hunters. We don’t consider ourselves X-Files or anything else. We were just doing our jobs. We were assigned these cases. We don’t pursue them on our own time.
Out near Cloudcroft today, you had one possible footprint. But beyond that, we didn’t pick up anything. There should have been another left-hand print and another right-hand print. So immediately, even though you might have something that’s an anomaly, you have to conclude that it’s what we would call an IO, an independent object. It doesn’t attach to anything else, and you can’t say, circumstantially, it’s valid. So you discount it and you move on and try to find something else.
Milford: As an investigator, you’re collecting the physical evidence, either documenting it in photographs or audio or in some way. You let that report and what you’ve collected speak for itself. You don’t go into it with a preconceived idea of what it is, especially with the paranormal. You can get into it and start investigating it and you end up with more questions at the end than you could ever imagine.
Hoyt Hoyt Velarde gathers a crew to track Bigfoot.
HOYT VELARDE runs a Ghostbusters equivalent for Bigfoot, taking calls from people having trouble anywhere from Dulce to Shiprock. He usually asks a few friends to join his investigations—safety in numbers.
Nobody pays me. It’s just interest. Somebody needs help, we can run down there and do something about it.
We get to this one place and this lady says, “It’s behind the house.” It’s standing under the apple tree, eating apples. We can’t see the thing—he’s black. It’s dark. You can’t see him, but you can hear him eating apples. And all of a sudden, I was able to make him out. He’s about 20 feet tall.
We snuck up as he starts eating, take a couple of steps, get closer. We turn our flashlights on, everybody points to it, turns them to strobe, and shakes them. Ten people doing that is going to blind you real good.
He just turned and took off. Then we realized there’s another one behind him—and that was the big boy. The other one ran across a field as we were flashing. Maybe they came back, I don’t know. They never called us again.
From left: Jesus Payan Jr. and Christopher Dyer hope to lure Bigfoot with corn and apples; documentary filmmaker Sydni Chernault.
SYDNI CHERNAULT met Christopher Dyer when the two were volunteering at a homeless ministry in Virginia. He discovered her skills with a video camera and invited her on her first trip to New Mexico to make a documentary film.
The documentary isn’t going to prove Bigfoot’s existence. We’re past that. We’re here believing he’s already real. He’s out there.
When you’re actually here and you’re seeing it, it’s like, Wow, these people aren’t full of it. They’re clearly seeing something. You can’t have all of these people that have never met each other making up very similar stories. There’s definitely something out here, and we’re just here to capture it through the documentary. We kind of just want to inform, say, “Hey, this is Bigfoot. He’s in this area. He does this. They build these structures.” It’s more informational, rather than proving something. I think all of us out here are way past that.
Watch Breaking Bigfoot, Jesus Payan Jr.’s YouTube series.
Keep an eye out for Christopher Dyer and Jeff Meldrum’s forthcoming book, Bigfoot in the American Southwest.
Check out the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which runs expeditions open to nonmembers and posts news on the latest sightings.