SLANESVILLE — With the sleeves of his black over-starched button-up neatly rolled to the elbows, Bill Draginis stands at the bow of his cottage’s deck explaining the specs of a NASA-grade telescope.
“We can read the names on the gravestones way down there,” he says. Bill points into the tree-stuffed nooks of the valley below. Miniature versions of a road, a white clapboard church and its corresponding graveyard break through the autumn oranges and reds, probably a good 5 or 6 miles away.
“Here we are. High atop the mountains of Hampshire County,” says Bill, who is evidently given to small and restrained bursts of romantic description.
The still-thick canopy in the valley. The lack of civilization’s hallmarks. It strikes you as possible that something could exist here in these woods — something dark, something evasive.
You look into the telescope to see for yourself.
Sure enough, a gravestone name shows clearly the surname “Murphy.”
Bill’s eyes narrow, gleaming with all the reverence and authority of a whaleboat captain.
“So you’re here to talk about Bigfoot,” he says. The right breast pocket of his shirt reads “Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization.”
Similar to 3 other hunters who have joined him at the camp — a father-son pair from Virginia and a Marylander who serves as a cook — Bill smiles genuinely, but speaks unapologetically.
“Well, let’s have a seat and get started,” he says.
For whatever else you may notice about Bill, he reminds you immediately of the kind of guy who reads the technical manual.
So when he starts the story of how he came to see Bigfoot with a joke, that a user’s manual for his newly purchased Eagle Spectrum metal detector said it was better for Bill make a fool out himself in his own backyard before he started digging up other people’s, you believe him.
And then, too, the joke makes more sense as the story goes on.
Yes, he had been warned to practice before digging up somebody else’s yard. But little did Bill know that when he and 2 friends treked into the seemingly vacant Northern Virginia wilderness one night, they would unwittingly dig up the property of someone, or something, else.
In the late winter of 1995, 2 longtime friends described as “special agents with the government,” invited Bill to join them on a trip with his detector near some abandoned gold mines in Culpepper County, Virginia.
After a long afternoon faded to its usual mid-February evening blue, tramping through the uninhabited forest in the cool with their metal detectors in a quest for Civil War artifacts became tiresome; Bill and his friends decided to call it quits.
The 3 began the trek back, walking home down a hard-packed logging trail through the spindly boughs and trunks of the leaf-barren trees.
It was a new hobby at the time, metal detecting, something that got him outdoors, and the more Civil War artifacts Bill found under the layers of decomposed leaves and bark, the more his desire kindled to know more about the war.
On the walk home, one of Bill’s friends stopped dead in his tracks and thrust his arms out to his sides.
Quietly, carefully, the agent said, “Follow, from my shoulder to the tip of my finger, 75 feet. There’s a man behind that tree.”
The friend Bill knew to have served 3 tours in Vietnam as a “point man,” nervously drew his 9 mm and aimed it toward purplish shadow behind a tree.
It’s all-too-common, Bill explains, now puffing on a cigar and leaning back on his deck’s railing, that in some parts of those woods marijuana planters stand guard to protect their gardens. This was not a pot grower.
“A huge, black, hairy head looked out from the side of the tree,” Bill says. “We made eye contact. And within a split second, it ran, from left-to-right, with such speed my mind couldn’t take it in. My eyes couldn’t take it in.”
The 7-foot beast loped deeper into the woods, Bill says, pivoting off a tree with its massive foot and then lumbering down a hill and blinking out of sight.
“As it got away from us, all you could see were these massive shoulders. Huge muscled shoulders moving back and forth,” he says.
“Do you know what we just saw?” his friend had asked Bill as they stood, dumbfounded in the woods.
“Bigfoot?” Draginis said.
They all agreed: what they had just seen could be nothing but the legendary beast.
From its sighting to its disappearance, Bill says, took all but 12 seconds.
“To look into its eyes”
That was all it took to propel Bill into spending 18 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to once again spot the elusive Bigfoot.
Unfortunately, he says too — quickly and with a firm grimace — this obsession likely cost him his 22-year marriage, too.
Bill stops speaking for a spell, presumably at the thought of his wife and 3 children. The cook stirs a pot of chili at the campfire while the other 2 hunters crack open beers. He doesn’t answer another question about his family, but instead goes on about Bigfoot.
The hunts began with many hikes, he says, which came up Sasquatch-less “each and every time.”
“I would hear calls,” he says. “But after some research, those would inevitably turn out to be birds or other animals.”
It occurred to Bill that after these years of bad luck on his own, it was possible to reach out to others who may have seen Bigfoot themselves. He decided to place and ad in Northern Virginia Electric Co-Op, a magazine that is mailed to all its members throughout Virginia.
“I got a lot of responses the first time I asked, about 25 or 30. State policemen, lawyers, doctors, dentists, hunters, farmers,” Bill says. “Many of them wouldn’t tell their children or spouses for fear of being ridiculed.” That number soon reached the triple digits.
Bill has since formed the Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization, a group composed of about 40 members of like-minded hunters.
“Hunters,” though, may be a misnomer: Bill makes sure to stress that the group has no interest in shooting or killing a Bigfoot. He says he carries a pistol on his hunting expeditions, but only for self-protection.
“Bears, you know,” he says. “And the people you can come across in the woods.”
The cook brings a bowl of chili. It’s good chili — thick with kidney beans and crumbled beef, long-simmered.
Chewing, Bill explains there are many types of Bigfoot seekers out there, many trying to achieve stardom or a “payday for bagging or photographing the beast once and for all.”
But it’s not fame or fortune that’s driving Bill and his crew: He’s just looking for validation of that first experience with another, some confirmation. Affirmation. Something. “No,” he says. “All I want is to look into its eyes again.”.
Tools of the trade
And in order to go eye-to-eye with a Bigfoot, Bill’s doing just about everything a person could possibly do.
Since the sighting, his hardware has evolved from a pair of binoculars and his own 2 feet into an arsenal that would make your everyday Bigfoot hunter blush with envy: Bill’s got an RV, more specifically a former mobile veterinary clinic, retrofitted with more equipment than a surveillance submarine.
He has dozens of cameras that he’s specifically made himself as to not emit any ultrasonic noise. He has that NASA-grade telescope.
And infrared sensors.
And thermal cameras.
And even, yes, night vision.
His piece de resistance is a $15,000 drone helicopter, like one the military uses.
“It has a GPS-location based system where I can plug coordinates in and have it patrol those areas,” he says. “I can also send it out from the RV and have it patrol 100, 150 feet up. I can attach any number of cameras to it, too.”
The tools Bill has developed aren’t merely technological in nature, either: He’s since taught himself a veritable college syllabus of abilities that are meant to bolster his chances of finding Bigfoot.
Bill says he’s studied calls of animals that populate deciduous forests and how to wire, program and install cameras. He’s studied the biological history of mankind. He’s participated in workshops and seminars, too; one of which, he said, involved a Native American tactic of walking through the woods in the pitch black of night.
“I wanted to know how Bigfoot could possibly walk through the forest in the dark,” he says. “The Native Americans showed me that they can beat a drum in the distance and the bass sort of showed me where the trees around me were. They showed us the next day where we had walked through. I didn’t hit a single tree. It was like echolocation.”
It would seem like if anybody is going to find Bigfoot, it’s going to be Bill.
Through all of his research into sightings and other accounts, Bill’s concept of Bigfoot mimics some of the same ideas as common lore.
A picture — set to scale — of that most famous fuzzy California photograph of Bigfoot hangs at the lip of his cottage’s yard. He draws a huge duffel bag from his truck that’s filled with plaster casts of alleged Bigfoot tracks and spreads them out to estimate the beast’s stride.
He says he thinks one reason Bigfoots are known to clobber trees with sticks is that “They could be sending messages to their families underground through the root system.”
He says that he thinks the Bigfoot he saw in Culpepper County could’ve been using a technique used sometimes in the military to draw attention away from its family.
He believes the massive beast is related to humans, but not how you might expect.
“I think it’s original man,” he says. “Some people think it’s an off-shoot of us. I think rather we’re an off-shoot of it.”
“I think it’s a more peaceful version of us. I think it avoids us because it sees how poorly we treat each other,” he says. “I would avoid us, too, if I were it.”
After another 5 round of beers, midnight descends once more into Hampshire County. The crew, tired from scouring the countryside all day and the night before, refuse to go on another hunt tonight, even for an avid reporter.
To hack it as a Bigfoot hunter, Bill and his team say, you have to be prepared for the response you’ll get from those less peaceful human beings.
You have to develop thick skin when you’re ridiculed, they say.
You have to be primed for the social backlash.
When you get a claim of sighting, you have to be ready for the possibility that it’s just a joke at your expense.
They’d rather be mocked and themselves than anything else. They’d rather be sweetly nostalgic, it seems, for something that might not exist, than to deny the trust they’ve given each other and, more importantly, their own senses.
And when he was asked what else has given him the motivation to keep going — after only getting those 12 seconds those long 18 years ago, spending all that money, studying the noises of the forest, placing cameras and checking their footage, renovating an off-the-grid cabin, traveling across the country to talk with other Bigfoot hunters, after being ridiculed, after losing his wife, never seeing his children — Bill smiles and he says, “Nothing, nothing else.”
“At the end of the day, you simply have to believe what you’ve seen,” he says. “You have to trust your own eyes, even if it costs you everything.”