I told you a while ago how I miss my good friend George. I've also written about the time I waved at a female Bigfoot and she waved back. It was only natural that one of the people I told my encounter story to was George, who filed it away for future use. Whether he believed my story or not is a matter for speculation, but the man was a joker at heart and when he saw an opportunity to mess with me, he'd take it.
It was the late 1970s, about the time they were opening up the Sarpy Creek coal mine to rail traffic. The new tracks ran up the creek 38 miles from the BN mainline on the banks of the Yellowstone River to the mine, which was located in what a normal person would describe as mountains.
I'm not one of those folks who think that a mountain has to touch the sky to be a real mountain. I've spent enough time in eastern Montana, every bit as beautiful as the western part in my estimation, to know that mountain is a word like "rich" or "poor," by which I mean that your definition thereof probably says more about you than it does about the mountain.
The Wolf Mountain's highest point is 4842 feet in elevation, hardly considered even the shoulder of behemoths like the Rocky Mountain front. These are located east of Lodge Grass Montana, in Big Horn County. They are referred to by some locals as the Rosebud Mountains and by the Crow tribe as the "Wolf Teeth Mountains". They are not the highest or most rugged range in Montana, but they are certainly remote, timbered, wild, scenic, and prettier than most places in America by a country mile. Any wildlife that you can envision when you think of the state of Montana - bears, cougars, elk, deer, and turkeys are found in the Wolf Mountains, so I saw no reason why there shouldn't be a Bigfoot or two as well.
When the first trains departed the coal mine in 1974, the site of the new mine North of Hardin was pretty remote. They built a huge dragline to remove overburden in 1974 or 75, during which the dragline operators had been reporting a large hair-covered, man-like creature watching the diggings several times over the operation. That, at least, was the story told by the guys in the load-out tipple, who seemed to me to be (mostly) sober and (almost entirely) reliable men?
The topic provided much conversational fodder for patrons of Forsyth bars. There were believers and scoffers alike among those sage wise-men. Over their whiskeys and beers, they opined variously about whether mysterious monsters really lurked in the area or not. As I remember, the parties for and against the possibility were roughly equal in numbers.
A good many men had reported seeing the creatures in the Sarpy Creek area and a few more having seen hulking, shadowy figures in the upper Rosebud Creek area near Colstrip, too.
The Absaloka Mine, as it was called, employed quite a few men from the Crow Tribe, since the coal and the land were leased from the tribe for development. I remember talking to some of the men working at the mine as we loaded coal trains, and they all seemed to consider Bigfoot just one of the creatures you might encounter in the vicinity, stoically and perhaps even heroically unafraid of the beast. They acted like it was not so unusual at all to spot one of the creatures. They did not think it was at all abnormal, in fact, as their tribal lore discussed the creatures in stories originally told many, many generations back.
The leased land for the mine was about 10,500 acres in the heart of the high country, at the head of Sarpy Creek. The trains all ran eastward toward the Minneapolis area to a couple of different power plants. The mine claimed a 7.5 Million ton capacity for coal shipped a year. I do not know if they ever reached that capacity, but it was not at all unusual for an empty train to take the siding right at the mine and meet a loaded train coming the other way.
The elevation at the junction near the Yellowstone was about 2661 feet, and near the mine some 4600 feet, so needless to say, when you kicked off the brakes on a coal train on top of the hill, it was a wild ride to the junction with a grade averaging 1.02 percent. One percent isn't much in the family station wagon, but believe me, it's way downhill on a coal train.
At the mine, perched at the top of the grade, the procedure was always a roll-by inspection, where mine personnel would look into the coal cars, inspecting them for hitchhikers, if you will. This was as much for the benefit of the stowaways (which in those days we called bums or hobos, a term which at that time carried a certain degree of admiration with it) as it was for the Burlington Northern, as its curtains for a bum who has hitched a ride if the poor guy gets a ton or three or coal dumped on him. It was surprising how many they found, especially in the summer months.
The rear brakeman would drop off at the loading tipple, and the train would back up, place the first car under the load-out tipple and begin loading. Then using the radio, he communicated with the engineer as the train was loaded, ending back up at the caboose about four hours later.
The conductor in the caboose would supervise the backup move on the loading track, called a loop, and record any delays in loading, making sure no switches were run through making these moves.
The head brakeman made sure the loop switch was lined up correctly as the locomotives went over it as the train was loaded, but as the entire operation moved at about the speed at which a toddler crawls, the head brakeman sometimes found that he had enough time, as it turned out, to perform a bit of mischief.
George was the head Brakeman on a train, and I was the Conductor, and he took that opportunity for mischief and ran with it as only George could.
He had purchased a gorilla mask, God knows where, which not only went over the face but clear over the shoulders as well. He had heard the same stories about Bigfoot from the miners as I had. Being one of my best friends and drinking buddy, he had also heard me tell my Bigfoot story, during which I saw something I am to this day convinced was a tall, hairy humanoid in the Madison Range of Western Montana. Knowing I was a believer, this is what that SOB did: he bought a mask. But not just any mask, as I would find out later.
You have to realize this mine is out in the sticks, and the tracks are very isolated. He lined the switch for the engines and made the cross-country hike through the woods to the caboose. This is the time in the loading process that the Locomotives and the Caboose would be nearest one another.
I was sitting at the Conductors desk in the caboose, reading a dog-eared old Louis Lamour novel, and the train was moving three-tenths of a mile per hour with the associated rocking, creaking, and groaning, noises which helped to cover the sound of his big boots on the metal steps. It was evening in a scorching late summer, so the back door on the caboose was wide open. I had lights on at the desk, causing a glare in the window, and when I would look up and out the window, I could really only see my own reflection.
He snuck up on me, creeping up on the rear steps, ducked down, and put his hand on the spotlight, moving it to and fro to get my attention. I noticed the handle on the spotlight moving, and with a frisson of fear (I'm not ashamed to admit it gave me the willies), I turned out the desk light.
I peered out the window into the gloam and saw a dimly lit giant ape staring back in at me. If standing on the ground, looking in the window like that, the critter would have to be very tall.
Now, you might think I'm some sort of simpleton, and you could be justified in thinking that in many respects. But as I looked into the face of this hideous creature, I could see every hair, could make out the leathery surface of the skin underneath, could even, if I had wanted to, reached out and traced the red veins in its eyes. This thing was a triumph of craftmanship, although I didn't think in those terms at the time unless it was to admire the craftsmanship of a God who had created such an abominable beast. Also, keep in mind it was dark, late, and I was tired.
George expected me to run from the caboose, screaming like a howler monkey.
Instead, I reached down to my belt and unbuckled my Buck folding hunter knife with a razor-sharp 6-inch blade and placed it on the desk, thinking that I was not going down without a reasonable attempt at a fight, were it to come to that.
Then, thinking that I was now enjoying an opportunity very few people ever get to have, I motioned to the beast to come in for a visit, making the universal hand signal for "come on in." It being late 1977, I had recently seen Star Wars, and it did occur to me, at least for a second, that I was meeting Chewbacca in person.
But when George saw me take out the knife, he calculated the possibility that I might suddenly spring from the seat and come out stabbing. As suddenly as Bigfoot was there, it was gone.
I would have never found the truth if he had left it at that, but about two weeks later, George came clean and told me his side of the story. We were at his house having a beer or two in his garage when he said he had been dead shocked at my reaction.
Somehow, he told me, he had found a boutique outfit in California that specialized in custom-made masks for Hollywood. He asked if they could do a convincing Bigfoot mask, and they told him "of course they could". In fact, they already had, for some horror flick or another, it just needed to be matched to his exact dimensions.
The mask was so tight on his face that you couldn't see any skin through the eye-holes. To do this required a molded cast of his personal face, head, neck, and shoulders. Indefatigable in his quest to freak me out, George complied. It took him all summer and several hundred bucks in 1970s money to do it, back when the dollar bought a lot more than it does now. Hence his disappointment when I failed to scream and run.
He told me he left in a hurry, thinking that I might lunge out the backdoor of the caboose in some misguided attempt to capture Bigfoot or, worse, plunge that Bowie Knife, as he called it, into his hide.
God bless George - some part of me wishes I had gave him what he wanted, a real bona fide, high-pitched movie scream. After all, he worked hard enough in his pursuit of it. But in a sense, the prank still worked; I was pretty convinced that the horrible thing I saw in the twilight was, indeed, an 8-foot tall hairy thing.
"When I saw that damn knife come out of its sheath, I realized just what a dumb redneck you really are," George grinned. "I wouldn't have put it past you to try to get yourself a Bigfoot scalp for a trophy."
I allowed as a Bigfoot scalp would be just the thing to put on my mantle, but told him that I would have tried to communicate with it first.
"I thought I might become the next Diane Fossey," I said, taking a sip of my PBR.
"I'll just bet you did," he laughed. "What a moron."
But you can bet your belt buckle that I still remember the true elation I felt when I thought, even for a moment, that I might be the first person to prove the existence of Bigfoot - one way or the other.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.