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The Bigfoot Festival draws thousands to West Virginia

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This weekend, the tiny town of Sutton, W.V., population 840, is hosting about 20,000 people for its annual Bigfoot Festival. It's a celebration of a mythical giant, hairy primate with - that's right - big feet. Briana Heaney spoke to those still looking for the creature and others who just love the idea of it.

BRIANA HEANEY, BYLINE: Folklore is a pillar of Appalachian culture as much as banjos and quilts are. And in Sutton this weekend, it's all about Bigfoot.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HEANEY: Here in Sutton, the country store doubles as a Bigfoot museum. Laurel Petolicchio owns and runs it. Petolicchio has never seen Bigfoot, but she's heard a lot of stories.

LAUREL PETOLICCHIO: I'll have these big mountain men come into my counter, you know, of my little country store. And the one guy, I mean, slammed his hand down on the table, I mean, on my counter. And he's like, you don't believe this crap, do you? And I'm like, well, I kind of do. And he's like, why? And I said, well, it's the stories I hear. And it's just - there's so many of them. And then he leaned forward and he's like, OK, can I tell you mine? I'm like, what? Like...

HEANEY: All these stories may be inspired by the fact that nearly 80% of West Virginia is forested, leaving a lot of room for the imagination. A few years ago, Petolicchio planned the first Bigfoot Festival. Hundreds of people showed up. The next year, thousands - and it grew to the massive event of this weekend.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

HEANEY: There's plenty of music here and clogging. There's regional food like pepperoni rolls, all amidst Bigfoot lectures and what Petolicchio says is a space for big footers to share their sightings.

PETOLICCHIO: So we'll have a mic and let them just tell their stories around the campfire, and everybody can just sit and listen.

HEANEY: About half the people I spoke to here are not sure if Bigfoot exists but think it's possible. We'll call them Bigfoot agnostic. Then there are those who are certain Bigfoot is a myth. One of those is Dee White. He is dressed up in a Bigfoot costume and rides around on a motorized skateboard. Still, he is a nonbeliever.

DEE WHITE: I'm a skeptic, a Bigfoot hater.

HEANEY: But yet you dress up as Bigfoot.

WHITE: I do, because I love green.

HEANEY: Green - he means money. He travels around selling Bigfoot merchandise like stained glass, T shirts and wood engravings of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump in Bigfoot ghillie suits. Apparently, the industry is, well, big.

WHITE: Bigfoot, yeah, Bigfoot was in Forbes magazine as a billion-dollar business. Look at all these people making money off of Bigfoot.

HEANEY: But there's also true Bigfoot believers like Ashton Smith and Hyden Brown, who traveled all the way from Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think that it's more fun to believe in something.

HEANEY: These girls are decked out in shirts and hats that say, in cursive pink lettering, just a girl who loves Bigfoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She sent me a link to Bigfoot Festival weekend, and I was like, say no more.

HEANEY: For them, it's fun and magical to believe there is still something out there to be discovered. They say you can't prove that Bigfoot doesn't exist, and he could still be discovered one day. Until that happens, the Bigfoot folklore will keep this festival going. For NPR News, I'm Briana Heaney in Sutton, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Briana Heaney