BY BRANDON DIAZ
This year’s standout 420 streaming drop swung in a peculiar direction: Bigfoot. 2021 found Hulu’s stoner tractor-beam focused on a three-part investigative documentary, simply titled Sasquatch.
Normally, I’d breeze past such a title, as the very name invokes the wise intellectual trappings of the History Channel’s "Aliens” guy. But what one finds with this three-part docuseries is a fascinating examination of the enigmatic so-called “Emerald Triangle,” and that folkloric monster rumored to stalk its woods.
This three-parter opens with ominous music, panning through an animated forest at night, as the audience meets the doc’s primary protagonist and lead investigator, David Holthouse. Lightning and the sound of rain crack in the background. An off-camera interviewer can be heard asking, “How old were you, again?,” to which Holthouse thinks for a second before replying, “Twenty-three. Yeah, I was twenty-three years old.”
The story and major setup for the series comes in Holthouse’s response. It goes like this:
It was October, 1993. Holthouse goes to Laytonville (Mendocino County) to work on a friend’s cannabis farm. On just his second day in town, two frantic men show up at his host’s house in the middle of the night, claiming to have happened upon a gruesome murder scene in a neighboring weed patch. Three mutilated bodies, mangled and strewn about the muddy wood, tents in tatters, fingers and appendages flung about the grounds. Peculiarly, the cannabis plants were trampled and uprooted, but not stolen. Could this have been a Sasquatch? Thee Sasquatch?
What follows in the bulk of the first episode is a centering of the so-called “Emerald Triangle,” the legendary cannabis farm super-region, comprising Northern California’s Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, as well as meeting some of the area's inhabitants, and of course, Bigfoot enthusiasts.
The series’ director, Joshua Rofé, builds a quick background for unfamiliar viewers of the Humboldt region’s history: Beginning during the Gold Rush era when the first white settlers massacred the local natives in order to set up shop for logging and mining, to the 1960s in which groups of free-thinkers and hippies known as “Back-to-Landers” left their lives in the Bay Area to settle in the natural serenity of the counties composing the Emerald Triangle. Holthouse, who narrates, describes those who migrated to the region as attracted to its “lawlessness,” noting that while there were certain dangers to the lawlessness of the area, there was also a lot of freedom.
We're introduced to some of Sasquatch’s charming local characters, ex-farmers, and longtime area residents like the very endearing old hippie known as “Ghostdance,” whose warmth and jovial nature is only matched by his huge buttery-toothed grin in interview segments. (He’s also the only person to smoke a joint on camera).
We meet the Bigfoot believers, or those who’ve sworn they’ve encountered the smelly and potentially violent missing link of lore. Like the local ex-cop, who provides a harrowing interview from inside of a car in which he trembles, voice quaking, as he describes a traumatic sighting of a Bigfoot that apparently was so horrifying, he can hardly get the words out to describe it. Dude is terrified.
There's the fun character named James “Bobo” Fay, whose speech is so slurred he’s provided subtitles. While he describes his two encounters with Bigfoot, the audience’s attention certainly falls on his graphic tee emblazoned with a logo that reads Bobo’s Bigfoot Tours, as the title below his name reads “Sasquatch Hunter.”
The titular subject of the documentary—Sasquatch—is basically a MacGuffin. We are led by our noses toward a monster, but as with most documentaries, the central subjects here are people (that we can see exist) and place (which we’ve heard so much about).
A central thesis made of several threads finally begins to materialize. Yes, you are watching a documentary about Bigfoot—its believers, skeptics, and so-called “hunters.” But you are also watching a documentary about the cannabis farmers and trimmigrants in the world’s most famous green-zone. And then, you are also watching a documentary about a journalist’s quest to uncover a potential murder, unsolved since one stormy night in 1993, and how all three of those phenomena are connected.
Solving Holthouse’s investigation seems like a long shot, until it’s revealed in short order that some of the locals know something about those mangled bodies from ’93. An OG farmer gone straight named Razor becomes a lynchpin for aiding this investigation.
Razor looks like WWE’s famed Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but in a T-shirt that says “UnBelizeable.” He’s calm toward the camera and appears to relish the consulting he’s able to provide. Behind his glasses and ponytail, Razor is the historian and anthropological safari guide necessary for navigating the etiquette of the region. Here’s how the old growers did this. Here’s how the authorities thwarted that. Here’s why some got busted. Here’s how things changed after the DEA’s CAMP raids of the '90s.
We learn that CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planters) was a federally led, multi-agency shock and awe campaign in which the government sent helicopters and teams of commandos to literally swoop down and eradicate the region's pot farms. Enacted in 1983 by then Attorney General, John Van de Kamp, these raids ramped up during the ra-ra fervor of the country’s failed War on Drugs push in the late ‘80s.
In attempts to strike fear in the Emerald Triangle’s growers, uniformed agents equipped with assault rifles and machetes would swoop down into farms, chop an entire season’s crop—eradicating some farmer’s living for the year—and then, get this—destroy the cannabis by lighting it on fire in big eradication pyres. From the vantage of some of the local farmers in the documentary, this move was hardly to eradicate pot farms, but to strike fear into the locals that they weren’t immune from criminal prosecution. These raids however, barely made a dent. What they did do was increase a potential for violence with once peace-loving ex-hippies arming themselves to the teeth.
Ex-farmer and former Back-to-Lander, Chris Dienstag, notes that “Ownership changes everything. Once you own something, you have to protect it.”
This calls to mind the whole bogeyman aspect of this local economy. With the potential for CAMP raids becoming the norm, cultivators arming themselves and boobytrapping their farms, an air of paranoia washed over the area. Bigfoot, right? Hardly.
The region’s sheer remoteness, under hundreds of miles of forest in any direction, meant grows would continue. It also meant that more violent groups like Mexican drug cartels and the Hell’s Angels would try to grab their own parcels those same redwood canopies, bringing with them delightful treats like heroin and meth to the locals in the area.
Additionally, a newer contingent of undesirable farmers brought with it a racial component to the equation (read: racist). The need for under-the-table farmhands brought small waves of Central American trimmigrants who’d work for cheap, and often outperform the local ranch-hands, breeding white versus non-white hostilities.
Recall the mangled bodies that sparks David Holthouse’s investigation. Those bodies were rumored to be Mexican nationals. In fact, as a side narrative in Sasquatch, we follow a separate murder investigation into a Mexican trimmigrant named Hugo Olea Lopez, who was sprayed with bullets as he slept in a tent guarding a grow in 2013. As Holthouse meets more locals, many of them aren’t too shy with using the N-word when referring to their wholesale buyers who drive up from the Bay Area to make bulk purchases.
Unfortunately, none of this is too revelatory. What we see in this series is the look into a transitioning marketplace lorded over by paranoia and violence, or the threats of such, washed with weaponized racism and xenophobia, all at the hands of men. Rofé’s film creates a framework that begs the viewer to interrogate who the real monsters in this scenario are. (However, without further spoilers there’s definitely a very cool Bigfoot reveal at some point).
What is revelatory is that violence in the Emerald Triangle has actually increased since the implementation of recreational legalization in many states, with a thriving black market. There’s a straight-line between increased user-base, increased cash-flow, and people willing to rob farmers of their crops or their profit. Since the federal government’s continued prohibition means that growers can’t use the banking system, would-be thieves and rivals know that there’s canyons of cash on hand for anyone monstrous enough to take it by force.
—And thus the continued perpetuation of the folklore of the violent, hairy beast who stalks the treeline, mangling men who dare get too close.
It goes that monsters are convenient. The enigma of the monster can be wielded by those with the gall and might to perpetuate such myths for their own ends. When Fred and Velma pull the mask off the bad guy in Scooby-Doo, the villain always reveals that they were hoping to keep people out of their literal and sometimes metaphorical “business.” I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids.
The pesky kids in this case can be: the so-called “outsiders,” rival local growers, bold foreign enterprises who’ve moved in, the cops, thieves and/or poor trimmigrants who’ve gone to the area simply to find work.
There is a benefit to the bogeyman. It seems that the mythos that wafts through the community, real or imagined, actual or exaggerated, has the effect of keeping some sort of order in the Emerald Triangle. The rumors of Bigfoot are warnings to those who might try to upset the balance of power. Come here, and a monster will fuck you up.
No doubt, when it comes to documentaries, the true crime, hippy commune, and pot-farmer genres are beaten to death when sold separately. But Sasquatch has a particular voyeuristic appeal, as its three seemingly separate subjects are braided together in one character study.
Zoomed out, the cast of characters that span the three-parter are how the intrigue of the doc is transmitted. One way or another, this documentary is truly about people. After all, it’s people that dispatch culture, and it’s culture that shapes the ideologies that can lead to the need to separate from society and get back to the land. Or the need to make a living outside of the law. Or the need to arm oneself. Or the need to hunt monsters, real or imagined.
Brandon Diaz is an English Lecturer at San Francisco State University and culture writer.