A huge crowd of people had gathered on the lawn of the McDowell County Courthouse Saturday when an ape-like creature in a T-shirt bounded through the cheering onlookers and joined Marion Mayor Steve Little on stage.
"This morning I have this special proclamation," Little said, holding up a document with his signature and a gold seal at the bottom. He read aloud.
Continents and regions
Southeastern United States
"I do hereby proclaim today, Saturday, September 8, 2018, that Bigfoot is the official animal of the city of Marion, North Carolina," Little said, as the costumed Bigfoot clapped enthusiastically.
Thus began the inaugural Western North Carolina Bigfoot Festival in this town near the Blue Ridge Mountains about 40 miles east of Asheville.
Converging on Marion were thousands of believers and skeptics alike, united in their celebration of a cryptozoological mystery that has fascinated people for decades.
"Bigfoot is real," said festival organizer John Bruner, "and we want to bring awareness to that and bring more people to the table to get this mystery solved."
Bruner is part of something called the Bigfoot 911 research team, which investigates purported Bigfoot sightings and evidence. He has lived in Marion all his life and said he decided to stage the festival after the town's business association approached him with the idea.
"And, at the same time," he added, "we want to have fun and fellowship with our fellow citizens and our visitors."
If you ignored the Bigfoot T-shirts, the Bigfoot artwork and the occasional costumed Bigfoot, the festival seemed like any a small Southern city might hold at the tail end of summer.
The day started with a 5K before three blocks of downtown Marion's Main Street were closed to vehicles for the day. Vendors from North Carolina and beyond sold everything from knit hats to jewelry. There was barbecue, Chick-fil-A, funnel cakes, shaved ice and plenty of beer for parents who sought refuge in the shade as their kids frolicked in bouncy houses.
The legendary Bigfoot -- or Sasquatch, if you prefer -- is most commonly associated with the Pacific Northwest. But sightings have been reported all over North America -- including in Marion, said Little, who has lived in the town for decades.
Folks around this town of 7,500 report one or two sightings a year, he said.
"For years there were people who would talk about, 'Oh, I saw a great big old footprint out in the woods — it's bigger than a coyote, and it wasn't a bear.'"
'Do you believe it?'
Bruner's fellow Bigfoot researchers set up a tent with evidence they'd spent years gathering. All day people waited in line to examine photographs, video footage, audio recordings and casts of purported Bigfoot feet and hands.
Researcher Lee Woods, who has spent a decade chasing Bigfoot, displayed two casts. The first was a massive foot, 14 inches long and 7 inches wide. The other was less identifiable. It looked sort of like a clump of plaster and pine straw, with what appeared to be an extra toe.
"It's either 6 toes, which is a deformity, or it's a hand, and that's the knuckles," said Woods, pointing.
"He's knuckle-dragging," he explained. "They walk upright, but they will drop on all fours and knuckle-drag like a gorilla, and then stand up and take off."
At a nearby table, researcher Tim Dills displayed a series of photos he captured on trail cameras set up in the woods. One appeared to be a picture of brush, but Dills pointed to what he said was a face in the foliage.
Two men studied the photos before walking away.
"Well, do you believe it?" one asked.
"Not yet," his companion replied.
Sitting on a curb nearby was Colby Wollack, who said he definitely considers himself a believer. "There's too much land out there, and there's so much evidence," he said.
His wife, Monica Fortenberry, couldn't help but crack a smile. She was skeptical.
"There's just no way that there is something of this size out in the woods anywhere," she said. "It's either a bear, or it's not."
Between them was Monica's brother, Montgomery. He doesn't quite believe in Bigfoot — the evidence didn't convince him — but said he considers himself an "enthusiast."
"I think it's a great hobby and I think people should keep doing it whether they believe in it or not," he said. "I like the idea of it, even if it's never proven. I think it's still a good story."
In the afternoon, throngs of festivalgoers regrouped on the courthouse lawn for what organizers dubbed a "town hall."
But instead of discussing municipal issues, one Bigfoot believer after another stood up to share stories of their encounters.
One person mentioned seeing an aging Bigfoot whose fur was graying. Another shared an account of seeing a female Bigfoot and her baby dash into the woods at around 30 mph. Multiple people mentioned "yellow eyes" and a foul odor akin to the scent of a dead animal.
Still others described hearing a roar.
"It wasn't a growl and it wasn't a scream," one person said. "More like a guttural, gibberish thing."
"You're looking at something that don't exist," said a man from Virginia.
A few folks who shared their stories said it took years for them to screw up the courage to tell anyone about their Bigfoot sightings for fear of appearing "crazy."
"But I know what I heard," a woman told the crowd. "I know what I smelled, and I know how it made me feel."
The lawn was a judgment-free zone. Many people in the crowd wore T-shirts professing their faith in Sasquatch's existence.
"Gone Squatchin," some shirts said (Yes, that's a verb, as in: to "squatch," the act of looking for Bigfoot). Some declared Bigfoot the Hide and Seek World Champion, while others flipped the tables, saying, "Bigfoot saw me but nobody believes him."
Still others bore a simple directive: "Believe."
Differing opinions but mutual respect
But when one man stood up to share his story and asked how many believers were in the crowd, only about half raised their hands.
Many of the researchers said they are used to doubters, and it doesn't necessarily bother them.
"I totally respect their opinions," Bruner said. "I respect the fact that they don't believe, and I just want them to respect the fact that I do."
Other researchers said they encourage skeptics to go out into the woods and search for evidence themselves, because they'll never find it on a computer.
One Bigfoot researcher, Daniel Hurst, said he appreciates skeptics because they force him to be diligent in his work.
"They're a very positive thing for us, actually," he said, raising his voice to combat the sound of a generator fired up nearby. "For those of us who are in the business for legitimacy, (skeptics) keep us honest."
One group of non-believers said they were just at the festival to have a good time and to enjoy the company of people who were passionate about something. That was something they could appreciate, they said.
As recordings of purported Bigfoot calls bellowed from the evidence tent, Micah Loving explained he's a fan of the mystery of Bigfoot and understands why the researchers are excited. But mainly, he said, squatchin' is something fun to do with your friends.
"You drink beers and you have fun and you might hear something and you might scream out into the woods and get a reaction maybe from some other creature — most likely not a Bigfoot — but it's tons of fun and it's just the whole hunt," he said.
Loving and his friends had just been to the evidence tents and said they weren't persuaded by anything they saw.
They chuckled as a member of their group, Andrea York, addressed a Bigfoot call that was reverberating in the background.
"You can say no other animal makes that sound," York said, echoing an assertion from one of the researchers. "But I'm pretty sure I had a He-Man action figure that made that sound."
Putting their best foot forward
There may be a broad divide between Bigfoot skeptics and believers. But on this day you couldn't tell.
Festivalgoers were all smiles at the Bigfoot calling contest, where laughter and applause greeted the brave people who yawped into a microphone, doing their best to mimic a Bigfoot cry. One contestant actually got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend as the crowd broke out in raucous cheers.
People danced on the lawn and in the street as a DJ blasted Bruno Mars' "Treasure" and Kid Rock's "All Summer Long." They took pictures of each other grinning in front of a "Bigfoot Crossing" sign at the intersection of South Main and West Court Street.
Despite the heat, a teenage boy dressed in a Sasquatch costume posed for pictures with a little girl. When she burst into tears he took off his mask to comfort her, smiling through the sweat.
"In a world where there's so much bad stuff that's happening, we need some good stuff, too," Bruner told CNN.
The entire day felt like an echo of something Mayor Little told festivalgoers that morning at the opening ceremony: It doesn't matter what your gender is, or what your race is, or what your politics are.
"To Bigfoot," he said, "you all taste the same."