Hunt for the Skinwalker: Science Confronts the Unexplained at a Remote Ranch in Utah by Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp

I’m not placing this book with the few UFO books in my possession, nor with the books on the occult or science. Not even with the books on folklore, although it contains all those elements. I am firmly placing this with my growing collection of books on the trickster—although I suppose it would fit in just as well with my collection on Faery. Although the authors mention the Native American myth of the skinwalker (or shapeshifting witch) in the title that’s just a convenient moniker taken from the Ute Indians of Utah who live near that “remote ranch” in an attempt to put a name on the phenomena occurring there.

In the religion and cultural lore of Southwestern tribes, there are witches known as skinwalkers who can alter their shapes at will to assume the characteristics of certain animals. Most of the world’s cultures have their own shapeshifter legends….In the American Southwest, the Navajo, Hopi, Utes, and other tribes each have their own version of the skinwalker story, but basically they boil down to the same thing—a malevolent witch capable of being transformed into a wolf, coyote, bear, bird, or any other animal. The witch might wear the hide or skin of the animal identity it wants to assume, and when the transformation is complete, the human witch inherits the speed, strength, or cunning of the animal whose shape it has taken. The Navajo skinwalkers use mind control to make their victims do things to hurt themselves and even end their lives…

Given the nature of the phenomena reported at that remote ranch, the idea of mind control seems a kind of refrain in the book. Fully half the book details the wealth of high strangeness that takes place, first to the Gorman family, then to the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) researchers. The area had been known to the Utes and Navajos for generations as a wrong place, an abode of skinwalkers, and simultaneously a sacred place, where this world and the otherworld intersect. The white family who bought the ranch came from out of state and didn’t know the ranch’s bad reputation. They just knew they were getting it cheap and that finally they had a shot at making their cattle-ranching dreams come true. Unfortunately, the dream turned into a nightmare, replete with strange lights in the sky and buzzing “craft,” incursions of sasquatch (which the local Utes think are sometimes Bigfoot and sometimes skinwalkers posing as Bigfoot) and other weird and impossible animals. The Gormans were further plagued by cattle mutilations, poltergeists, and sabotage—a veritable state of siege. After three years of that and more, dreams shattered, the Gormans sold the ranch to NIDS so the scientists could do a thorough investigation. The scientists themselves soon came to feel as if they were the ones being investigated, toyed with, and made to confront the limits of science.

As I said, fully half the book recounts the frustrating experiences of the Gormans and the researchers on the ranch. Interesting at first, this section got repetitive. I enjoyed the drama of the first section, where the Gormans were faced with the onslaught of high strangeness, and I enjoyed the final section wherein the authors engage in philosophical and scientific discussions about what might be causing all this. Theories abound, but hard science does not.

If there is an intended message or lesson in all of this, what could it possibly be? Needless to say, everyone who played a part in the investigations has logged many a sleepless night while pondering this central question, without arriving at a satisfactory answer.

Whatever was happening at this ranch (and is still reportedly happening) seems to have more in common with quantum physics than Newtonian, giving an uncomfortable glimpse into the very strange universe we inhabit, one that changes shape depending on who is observing it. Not only is it stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.


The Sidehill Gouger by Jayoen at Deviant Art

My uncle and my older cousin called it the sidehill toggler, an infamous creature from Utah legend. It was fearsome, they said, hanging out in the high mountains, and if you encountered one you had no chance of outrunning it because it was fearsome fast. And carnivorous. Well, there was maybe one way to evade it: run in the opposite direction from the way it faced. It might be a little tricky to get by it to run in the opposite direction, but if you went downhill or uphill a bit, you could generally squeak by. See, the sidehill toggler could only run one way on a mountainside and it could only run round and round the same pathway because it had a regular sized leg on one side and a very, very short leg on the other. Which was why it was so impossibly speedy on mountain slopes…in one direction.

Even though I was little, something in the glint in my uncle’s eyes and the way my cousin bit her lower lip made me skeptical. I was made even more skeptical when I asked what it looked like. They hemmed and hawed, but eventually agreed it was a giant flightless bird, bigger than an ostrich—like maybe a cousin of an ostrich or something, only this bird had a gigantic curved and sharp beak that could tear a person limb from limb.

My mom liked nature shows and watched them all the time, I said. I thought for sure something as terrible and strange as this bird would have popped up on one. But no, my uncle said, the government didn’t like people talking about it because it could cause a panic or something and so the sidehill toggler was confined to the remotest mountains in special nature preserves where no one was allowed to go. Lumberjacks were the only ones who ever saw them, and brought the tales home to tell around firesides.

Mom got back from the store at this point and told my uncle and my cousin to stop filling my head with trash. They laughed a lot at that point.

“I knew you were lying,” I told them.

“Not lying,” my Uncle Rupert said. “Storytelling.”

“Well, Francie was lying,” I said. She blushed.

But it turns out that the sidehill toggler is a real thing. Okay, not a real real thing, but not just a story my uncle and cousin made up. It’s a folklore thing. A tall tale thing. One of the things that lumberjacks really did like to tell stories about around firesides. The most common name for this creature is the sidehill gouger, but it has dozens of names, including the rickaboo racker, the sidehill winder, the gyascutus, the sidehill badger, the rackabore, and so on and so on. My uncle and my cousin may have made up the part about it being a giant bird because I haven’t found any other accounts of it looking like that. Although storytellers do disagree about its appearance, sidehill gougers are often described as badger-like, or deer-like (only with sharp teeth and carnivorous tendencies). Apparently, it’s not just Americans who encounter these extraordinary creatures: the French have one called a dahut, and the Scots have a sidehill haggis. Which calls up pictures of a giant stuffed carnivorous sheep’s bladder with legs. But maybe that’s just me.

Folklorist Carol Rose in Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth says of the Guyascutus and its ilk that they are part of:

the folklore of lumberjacks and forest workers (and later fraudsters) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the United States….The creature belongs to a group of monsters affectionately known as the Fearsome Critters, whose exaggerated proportions and activities not only explained the weird noises of the lonely landscape but also provided some amusement at camps.

I hear they have mosquitoes the size of cows out in Wisconsin and Minnesota, too. Or maybe there’s just so many of them in the summertime it feels like you’ve been bitten by a blood-sucking cow or two. Pretty fearsome either way.

saint anthony abbot meets st paul the hermit by petrus agricola-sm

St. Anthony Abbot Meets St. Paul the Hermit by Petrus Agricola
I admit to enjoying a bit of hagiography now and then—not the sanitized (sanctified?) versions of the Catholic Church online, but the older stuff, full of the outlandish and miraculous, from the early and Medieval church. Some really interesting oddments there.

One of my favorite passages is from St. Jerome’s Life of Paulus the First Hermit, translated by W. H. Freemantle, 1893 (the spelling is Freemantle’s).

St. Antony is living in the desert of the Thebaid region of ancient Egypt and he’s thinking he’s a pretty righteous monk, a near-perfect specimen of hermit. But then in the deep of the night, God says to him, “Nuh-uh, there’s this other dude named Paulus that blows you out of the water. Or the desert, as the case may be.” Maybe God didn’t express it in quite that way, but Antony gets the message and nothing will do but he has to seek out Paulus. Now, Paulus is a hundred and one at this point, Antony is ninety-five, but Antony is determined to make this arduous trek anyway. He doesn’t know where Paulus abides, but has faith that the Lord will lead him there.

So, he’s trekking and he’s trekking and as he’s standing out in the noontide sun wondering which way to go next and he says…

“I believe in my God: some time or other He will shew me the fellow-servant whom He promised me.” He said no more. All at once he beholds a creature of mingled shape, half horse half man, called by the poets Hippocentaur. At the sight of this he arms himself by making on his forehead the sign of salvation, and then exclaims, “Holloa! Where in these parts is a servant of God living?” The monster after gnashing out some kind of outlandish utterance, in words broken rather than spoken through his bristling lips, at length finds a friendly mode of communication, and extending his right hand points out the way desired. Then with swift flight he crosses the spreading plain and vanishes from the sight of his wondering companion. But whether the devil took this shape to terrify him, or whether it be that the desert which is known to abound in monstrous animals engenders that kind of creature also, we cannot decide.

Antony was gob-smacked, as you can imagine, but he went in the direction indicated.

Before long in a small rocky valley shut in on all sides he sees a mannikin with hooted snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goat’s feet. When he saw this, Antony like a good soldier seized the shield of faith and the helmet of hope: the creature none the less began to offer him the fruit of the palm tree to support him on his journey and as it were pledges of peace. Antony perceiving this stopped and asked who he was. The answer he received from him was this:

“I am a mortal being and one of the inhabitants of the Desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord, and ours, who, we have learnt, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth.’”

As he uttered such words as these, the aged traveller’s cheeks streamed with tears, the marks of his deep feeling, which he shed in the fulness of his joy. He rejoiced over the Glory of Christ and the destruction of Satan, and marvelling all the while that he could understand the Satyr’s language, and striking the ground with his staff, he said,

“Woe to thee, Alexandria, who instead of God worshippest monsters! Woe to thee, harlot city, into which have flowed together the demons of the whole world! What will you say now? Beasts speak of Christ, and you instead of God worship monsters.”

He had not finished speaking when, as if on wings, the wild creature fled away.

Can you blame it? He asks for a blessing and a good word put in for him and his kind to God and he gets a screed. But lest anyone’s skepticism assert itself over this encounter, St. Jerome hastens to add:

Let no one scruple to believe this incident; its truth is supported by what took place when Constantine was on the throne, a matter of which the whole world was witness. For a man of that kind was brought alive to Alexandria and shewn as a wonderful sight to the people. Afterwards his lifeless body, to prevent its decay through the summer heat, was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the Emperor might see it.

He was alive, but apparently that encounter didn’t go so well for this poor, assaulted then salted being.

Antony and Paulus do hook up eventually, though Paulus seems pretty eager to send this weeping and screeding old guy on an errand so he can die in peace. You can read the whole story here.

Random quote of the day:

“Almost half the scientific community will not examine evidence if there’s no theoretical basis for that evidence. Scientists want a theory.”

—Dr. John Bindernagel, wildlife biologist, “Bigfoot in New York,” Monster Quest



Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.