Film by ANDY SANDOVAL
Story by DAVID HERNANDEZ
Michael Rugg woke up on Oct. 30, 2011 with heartburn for the second straight night. He took Tums, but unlike the first night, the burning in his chest didn’t go away; in fact, it got worse. Rugg, sweating, went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He saw how white his face had gotten. He was having a heart attack.
“I knew the symptoms and I knew what it was like. I’d always say to myself, ‘The day will come,’” says Rugg, 67, whose father died at the age of 57 due to a heart failure.
As the symptoms continued, Rugg said to himself, “I think it’s happening now.” He called his brother Howard, who drove him to Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. There, Rugg filled out a card explaining his condition. A few minutes later a stretcher was brought out and he lay down. “And that’s the last thing I remember,” says Rugg, who was shocked and brought back to life. Moments later, surgery was performed to repair a clogged artery that had caused the heart attack.
Naturally, Rugg’s near-death experience made him realize how important each minute is. But the heart attack also drove him to believe he was reprieved for a specific reason.
“I looked back and I said, ‘I think I was spared to finish my project and get the proof of Bigfoot out — to be a major part in having it happen, and be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished on this planet.’”
Rugg, who owns and operates the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton, is no stranger to artistic projects. In fact, he considers his museum to be a work of art.
Rugg was a graphic artist for 36 years, a free-lance illustrator before teaching himself how to use the Macintosh to produce graphic art. At one point, as a freelance artist, he painted backgrounds for “Primal Rage,” an arcade fighting game developed by Atari.
As a member of a musical trio called Hubert’s Hotshots for four years, Rugg became part of the local folk scene. He was self-taught on the dulcimer, an instrument he and his brother built and sold.
Throughout those years, however, beginning in the early’50s when he was a child, Rugg accumulating Bigfoot-related items including books and toys.
“It’s kind of like there was a little voice telling me, ‘Mike, someday you’re going to do something with this material. All these books you’re gathering, all this stuff you’re collecting is going to have a purpose and meaning, and the time will come when that is ready to happen.’”
The time came in July of 2004 when the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, located on Highway 9 near the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park, opened to the public.
“Putting the museum together was a culmination of 60 years of being an artist because the museum itself, to me, is a little piece of art that I’ve put together,” says Rugg.
His collection, which grew as more Bigfoot-related items were published or released, originated with a scrapbook of Bigfoot articles — from Life magazine, for example —that Rugg started at the age of 5.
It was the year before, however, when his interest in Bigfoot was first sparked. At 4 years old, Rugg says he caught sight of a Bigfoot. Walking by the Eel River near Laytonville in Mendocino County, Rugg, as he describes it, saw an extremely large being with human-like features — a nose, hands and feet similar to those of a human—yet “much, much hairier.”
“It looked like an overly large bodybuilder on steroids, but with a pleasant look on his face,” Rugg recalls. “The Bigfoot I saw wasn’t threatening in any way, despite its size.”
Still, he didn’t talk about it for years because of the stigma surrounding Bigfoot.
“You try to share that you saw it and then everybody tells jokes and they make fun of you, so most people stop talking about it and do no sharing of information about their own sightings,” Rugg says.
In part, it’s why Rugg created the Bigfoot museum — to provide comfort by establishing a nonjudgmental safe harbor for individuals who wish to speak or learn about the matter.
“A great deal of the eyewitnesses that I’ve talked to also had a tendency to put it out of their mind for a period of time, to not talk about it, and maybe even doubt their own sanity,” says Rugg.
Yet, discerning truth from fiction is necessary for the museum owner. Rugg, who documents accounts and later worries about identifying false reports from truthful ones, keeps a Santa Cruz Mountains map with pins of resident Bigfoot-related reports, such as sightings.
Aware that many individuals come in with false statements — mainly wishing to see their pin on the map — Rugg says it gets easier with time to decide whether reports coincide with Bigfoot tendencies.
“I feel good about our sightings,” says Rugg. “Our sightings are people who had to look me in the eye and answer all my questions and let me read their body language,” he adds. “So I think we’ve got a pretty good database of sightings.”
Bigfoot Discovery Museum also conducts investigations and forensics after receiving a report.
“We do our Bigfoot field investigations a little different than most groups do,” says Ralph Jack, Bigfoot Discovery Museum lead field investigator. “We don’t go out and scream and yell Bigfoot sounds. We sit and are quiet and try to hide. We know that we’re going to hear Bigfoot before we see Bigfoot.”
Rugg, who aspires to one day write a book including many of the 150 accounts the museum has received, hopes the museum continues as a citizen science center for many years.
As for his personal wish? It’s a tremendous, yet unsurprising ambition.
“I hope to be part of the group that discovers Bigfoot,” says Rugg, who, although he feels like he’s on borrowed time, seems unfazed by cardiac circumstances.