On The Road: Cryptozoology and other half truths

The Montauk Monster model at the Cryptozoology Museum. A. Hinkle photo.
The Montauk Monster model at the Cryptozoology Museum. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

I’ll be honest. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned to be doing on the last Thursday of 2016. Yet here I was… in an old warehouse near the industrial waterfront of Portland, Maine staring down into a glass case filled with impressive plaster specimens that were purported to be casts of Big Foot’s big feet.

Yes, it was strange. But in a year filled with fake news and unpredictable turns of events, what better way to kick 2016 in the ass than by visiting Portland’s International Cryptozoology Museum?

I can’t say this museum had been on my “must do” radar for very long — and even Portland was something of a surprise destination. But with all the local newspapers shut down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, it was time for a road trip. Off I went with my husband and daughter to cold and windy Maine where my sister-in-law and her husband have just bought their retirement home.

Neither of them are retired yet, but they plan to be one day soon, and after decades living in hot and muggy Atlanta, they’re ready for the brisk and bracing cold of New England.

Menopause will do that to you.

So we got the key mailed to us and showed up at their brand new 100-year-old house last week ready to hang out. The place is adorable, but because they haven’t really moved in yet, the furnishings leave a bit to be desired. Upstairs, Coleman air mattresses and cardboard boxes served as our beds and nightstands respectively, while downstairs, two of those Pier 1 style papasan chairs were the only seats — and only in the daytime because at night we lugged the round cushions upstairs to provide an extra layer of padding on our air mattresses.

There was no TV at all, which was fine with me, but it drove my husband cuckoo.

That’s when we set out to see what we could find to occupy our time on a freezing and rainy day in Portland.

I had learned about the International Cryptozoology Museum through Atlas Obscura, my favorite, awesome online travel mag that offers glimpses into the bizarre, the fascinating and the freakish places to be found around the world. From the map collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, to the tree goats of Morocco, you never know what you’ll find on the site. So it was Atlas Obscura that led me there, and I thank them for it. They definitely have a sensibility that rivals my own.

I’d say this museum falls nicely into the category of “roadside attraction.” It’s purports to be the only museum of its kind in the world and in case you haven’t been there yet, it’s a veritable treasure trove of what might not be. All the items within its walls are dedicated to cryptids — that is, animals whose very existence is questionable. Which is exactly why it seemed as good a place as any to wind down our year of unreality.

I mean, how could you not love displays dedicated to fur covered trout or the elusive carnivorous tatzelwurm of the European Alps? Come on! This particular cryptid was first reported in 1779 and can best be described as “a lizard/snake-like creature with stubby appearance, two front legs without hind legs, and completely covered with scales.” In some cases, it comes complete with a cat face.

Charming. So if I keep a tatzelwurm as a pet should I be feeding it Little Friskies or would I be better off buying it a heat lamp and letting it bask on some rocks?

Other well-known cryptids on display here include the Yeti of the Himalayas, the Loch Ness Monster (which we hoped to catch a glimpse of while driving by last August, but alas, were skunked), the Jersey Devil, and those time worn, yet stubbornly persistent mystery felids, or “big cat” sightings of which there have been many around the country, including several on the East End over the years.

This museum is the vision of a guy named Loren Coleman. He has more than 40 books to his name, including “A Field Guide to Big Foot” and “Weird Ohio” which, as a native of that state, I can certainly relate to. He’s spent years studying cryptids (especially the hominids) and beyond the liberal use of terms like cryptids and hominids, one of the things that elevates the museum’s cred somewhat is the fact that many myths are debunked here.

Organizers have also included displays on odd animals that really did live, but are no more, including the thylacine, also called the Tasmanian tiger or the Tasmanian wolf. This carnivorous marsupial lived in Australia and it’s one that has always fascinated me (there’s a popular beer down under that has a thylacine on the label, which is how I first learned about its existence). The thylacine had the head of a canine but a tail and stripes like a tiger. The last known individual died in the Hobart Zoo back in 1936, but as recently as last February, a specimen was said to have been captured on a shaky camera in an Adelaide back yard.

Look for it online if you want to see it. It kind of reminds me of that Big Foot footage shot back in the 1960s which has become the Sasquatch equivalent of the Zapruder Film.

But for my money, the highlight of the museum was the cryptids which have been seen near places I have lived. There is an impressive display, complete with a couple of models, of our own Montauk Monster — the weird, hairless creature that washed up on a Montauk Beach back in July 2008. Loren Coleman claims credit for coming up with the name, and he actually debunks the whole episode by describing the Montauk Monster as the carcass of a dead raccoon, which seems reasonable to me.

A good deal of space is also given over to Mothman, a creature that was said to have been seen in the mid-‘60s in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a town located on the Ohio River. It was described as a manlike figure with big wings and red eyes that flew after people who encountered it at night and scared the daylights out of them. It’s presence has been linked to “Men in Black” sightings and the 1967 collapse of a bridge over the Ohio River that killed 46 people.

There was even a movie about it starring Richard Gere.

I dunno. It all sounds kind of ridiculous, but I went to college in Athens, Ohio, not far from the scene of Mothman sightings, and frankly, the whole area is weird enough to have something like that happen.

Back at the retirement house that night, the pounding rain turned to snow and in the process, we got a few awesome claps of thunder snow to write home about. I drifted off to sleep on my air mattress only to be awoken in the middle of the night by my panicked daughter. She saw red glowing things outside and there was a loud scraping noise.

Mothman New England perhaps?

I peeked out the window and saw a lone man with a shovel surrounded by six inches of fresh snow. He was clearing our driveway at 2 in the morning, bless his soul. His pick up truck was topped with red lights. I guess my sister-in-law has him on a contract for snow removal and here he was, doing his job, albeit at the oddest of hours.

I told her not to fear and sent her back to bed, secure in the knowledge that Mothman had not found us this time.

Here’s hoping the unreality of 2016 gives way to a return of logic in 2017.