In 1995, butterfly expert and nature writer Dr. Robert Pyle trekked for more than a month through Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a 76,000-acre region that is home to old-growth forest, in an area called the Dark Divide. His mission was both personal and professional: to study new butterfly species, explore alleged Bigfoot habitat and come to terms with his wife’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
In September, Strike Back Studios, REI Co-op Studios and the National Wildlife Federation released a film based on Pyle’s journey and his book that details it, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. The film, The Dark Divide, provides an intimate portrayal of Pyle’s expedition, including his fumbles in the backcountry and his reckoning with grief.
We caught up with Pyle to talk more about the movie, including how his journey differed from the on-screen depiction, the ways in which he grew as a person on the trail and how nature can be a healing force in people’s lives, especially this year.
At the start of the movie, we watch your character gear up for his journey, and he’s quite unprepared at the beginning. Is this how you felt when getting ready for the trek?
I’ve been backpacking and hiking and doing research in the jungles of New Guinea and Costa Rica and the High Arctic and many wild places. So, half a century of my life. I think it’s fair to say that … the Bob Pyle in this dimension was not the nerd and naïve [person] that the Bob Pyle in the movie is.
The beginning character—the one who is talking with his colleagues in the pub and is reluctant to physically go out there—who is ill– prepared, ill–equipped—was not actually me. I was a pretty good woodsman. I spent a lot of time out there. But this was an extremely challenging trip as it was portrayed in the movie, and naturally I did grow as a woodsman, as I hope I will all my life. And yet, it’s a much more compelling story, much more relatable character to be able to start out just a [novice] in the woods. You wonder, “Is he even going to make it through?” And then to be able to [see the character] gain competence and to gain woodcraft, to gain some smarts and experience, you get to the point where he starts making the right decisions and he starts adapting pretty admirably to this, that and the other. And he survives that cave experience, which, my gosh, a lot of people wouldn’t.
In what ways did you grow on the trail?
I grew in my acquaintance and experience with natural foods, wild foods. I’m a competent botanist and zoologist, so I knew a lot of the wild foods already, but a lot of them were theoretically. So, on this trip I actually did consume a lot of wild foods, partly because it was the question that people will ask: “Well would a big hairy ape have anything to eat up there? Could it possibly survive?” … I wanted to test that a little bit. Not numerically, but just experientially. I ate a lot of things I would not otherwise have eaten, like mountain-ash berries, which don’t taste very good. But they have plenty of nutrition, and they’re full of vitamin C. I ate a lot of things that one would normally eat, like blueberries.
… I grew in more metaphorical and emotional ways, as well, in my feeling of being one with the woods, with the mountains, with the wild.
In the movie, your main purpose for this adventure is to study butterflies. But in real life, you hiked this trail after securing a Guggenheim Fellowship to investigate the legends of Bigfoot. Why do you think Bigfoot fascinates so many others, as well?
People are fascinated with giants. Every single culture has its giant myths, and I use the word myth to mean story or belief system. Not to mean a mistake. … I’ve found Bigfoot stories in Japan that are extremely rich. They occur in South America. … The fact that [someone might see Bigfoot] gives it an extra sense of fascination that Northwest Americans and Canadians have definitely latched onto for a very long time.
Of course, this journey is about so much more than studying Bigfoot. In the movie, you’re grappling with his wife’s diagnosis. Was the Dark Divide a healing place for you?
Yes, it was. … [Growing up], I found my solace and my healing element in nature out on a canal in a ditch outside of Denver called the High Line Canal. It was my birthplace as a naturalist really. When things were going wrong at home or in school or in other aspects of my life—there were several tragedies fairly early on in my life—I was able to go out to the canal and not only find my beloved butterflies and to learn natural history, but also to take solace in the healing power of nature, so that was something that was important to me from a very early age, and I wrote about that in my book The Thunder Tree, which is really a love song to everybody’s special place, especially children, where they find their support.
I think more people are realizing the healing power of nature. And as we sit here right now, and we’re surrounded by wildfires that are unhousing many and killing others, and we are surrounded by [COVID-19], which is keeping us from meeting in person and affecting culture in so many ways, and then of course our streets are contested as well by the earnest need to confront institutional racism and the reaction on the part of people who don’t want to experience social change. … These are going on around us, and I think they are driving a lot of people absolutely bats. And why wouldn’t they? And so, where do we get some relief from all of that? And from the illness and the death that confronts every one of our families every day in one place or another?
What about being outside helped you come to terms with your wife’s illness and face other difficulties in your life?
I find that my spirit lifts the moment I cross that sign [in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest] that says “Entering the national forest.” Because these are the public lands. I live in the land of private lands. And you know what private means? Private means “self.” Private is all about self, and all of us are all about self of course. We have to be in order to live. We have to look after our number one. But we [have] to get outside of ourselves and one way to do that is to get off of private land, to get out onto the public lands, which we all share among one another. And you know what public lands means? It means “community.” And once you’re into community, you drop the mirror of self. That’s number one. Secondly, and it’s a continuation of the same thing, is that I get outside of my own personal concerns when I’m out there. I start thinking about the concerns of others. Not necessarily of other people, but other organisms. … What a relief that is. When we can put ourselves behind us.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. “The Dark Divide,” the first feature film from REI Co-op Studios, began being distributed on Sept. 18 with a theatrical release and select drive-in experiences. A global VOD/Digital & Blu-Ray/DVD platform release will happen November 10.