On a windy Saturday morning, a woman stood onstage at the Hastings City Auditorium. Her hair was a plume of fiery red, and she wore a jean jacket and pants with matching embroidery. As she moved, the dozens of silver rings on her fingers clacked against the microphone. She wore a silver belt buckle, and carved into the middle of it was a symbol that appeared thousands of times across the event hall: on t-shirts, mugs, hats, jackets, backpacks, books and more.
Meet Harriet McFeely, the Bigfoot Lady of Nebraska.
For the last six years, McFeely has brought cryptids to the Cornhusker State for her weekend-long conventions in April. However, her dedication to the mystery of Bigfoot is a lifetime in the making.
A ‘Bigfoot Lady’ is born
Each great Bigfoot enthusiast has an origin story. McFeely’s began when she was 8. That year, in 1953, Edmund Hillary became the first person atop Mount Everest. His ascent made international headlines and also started an avalanche of buzz about a supposed cryptid he found on his journey.
“When Hillary went up the mountain to the top of Mount Everest,” McFeely said, “he made a little bit of a turn to the right. There was a ridge that took them right to the top. But if you would have turned to the left, right there was this giant, giant footprint.”
Harriet saw photos of the giant footprint, including one that shows its size compared to a pickaxe and was instantly sold.
“I didn’t think it was a fake,” she said. “I didn’t then, and I don’t now.”
Listen: Harriet McFeely recounts more of her childhood as a “tomboy’ in Central Nebraska.
A century later, McFeely was still mystified by the Sasquatch. With the rise of the internet and social media, she was able to connect and build friendships with people who believed the same thing she did. She also began traveling with her husband, Dick, to the nearest Bigfoot conference in Oklahoma City.
For the record, Dick did not believe in Bigfoot. However, Harriet said he always believed in her.
“He knew I was crazy when we met, and, you know, he just accepted me,” she said. “At night, we’d always read in bed. He would read all these different Bible books, and I would read all the Bigfoot books. We’d tell each other all about what we were reading.”
Harriet said Dick was always supportive of her Bigfoot interests, but the drive began to wear on her. It was a 12-hour round trip, and she was frustrated that she needed to travel so far to connect with her fellow Bigfoot enthusiasts.
“And I said to him, ‘I’m so tired of this long drive,’” she said. “He just looked at me, and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we just have a conference here?’”
In 2016, the pair began to plan their first conference. Harriet said with his experience with the Hastings Chamber of Commerce, Dick was an expert at planning and funding events. They even received a grant from the city to bring the event to life.
However, the 2017 Nebraska Bigfoot Conference would be preceded by a series of tragedies. A tornado struck the McFeely home just outside Hastings, tearing through the garden the couple used as an outdoor wedding venue. At the time, Harriet was also a new widow. Dick had died just a few months earlier, and the garden had been one of their shared treasures.
Nonetheless, McFeely refocused on the conference. She said she had no clue whether the event would attract an audience, but she knew she had a good line-up. After all, the first she had asked was musician, filmmaker and author Lyle Blackburn, a Bigfoot celebrity and Texas native who also attended the conference this year.
Throughout the afternoon, Blackburn sat at a vendor’s table in the back of the room. There was a massive sign behind him with his face and his name in ghoulish green lettering. Both in real life and in print, he wore a black cowboy hat with a metal skull on the front, and he sat with his arms crossed, tattoos trailing down his biceps.
He said McFeely simply approached him at a conference years ago and asked for his support. Since then, he said he’s been struck by how many people the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference attracts.
“We aren’t the fringes of society,” he said. “These can be your neighbors, just people who want to know more about it. They have an open mind, and they find this simply interesting.”
Throughout the day, the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference became a testament to just how many people McFeely could draw in—and how many Bigfoot “experts” she could recruit. The stage was graced by documentary filmmakers, podcasters, writers, military members, and a self-described mountain man. It was a place for people to share unorthodox ideas and find solace in a community that was often shunned or shut down.
After six years, McFeely has seen her conference solidify into a community of friends. However, her dedication to Bigfoot isn’t just a weekend-long affair. Instead, McFeely has expanded, bringing Bigfoot into her own home.
‘A little corner’ for a museum
In six years, much has changed at the McFeely residence, which is hidden in a grove of trees between a soccer complex and cornfield. Most notably, the property is covered in dozens of images of Bigfoot. Around one side of the residence is the McFeely home. On the other side is the Nebraska Bigfoot Crossings Museum.
McFeely said the idea of a Bigfoot museum also came to her after the first Bigfoot conference. Usually, she rented out the space adjoined to her home, but a tenant had suddenly fallen through, giving McFeely an idea.
“I was sort of thinking about looking for a museum,” she said. “And I couldn’t find any place in Hastings. And of mine that lives kind of by Omaha, she called me up on the phone and she says, ‘Harriet, do you have a little corner in your house where you could put a museum?’”
The Nebraska Bigfoot Crossings Museum, open four days per week in the morning and afternoon, now spans five rooms of Bigfoot-themed memorabilia, including fossils, photos and sculpture work, which McFeely herself completed. In a way, the museum is also a shrine to her own experience with the Bigfoot community. There’s an exhibit dedicated to the Yeti of Mount Everest and a display for the first fossil McFeely ever found, a mammoth bone she stumbled across as a child. Most other exhibits are gifts from other Bigfoot enthusiasts.
“I can just walk through, and I can say that so-and-so gave me this and that,” McFeely said. “I like that. And I don’t consider them competition because we are all so different.”
Listen: Harriet McFeely walks through the front room of her museum.
Because the Bigfoot community rallies around something so ambiguous, differences appear throughout the community, even among Bigfoot “experts.” Robin McCray, who’s had regular Bigfoot encounters while living in both Michigan and South Carolina, is another speaker at the Bigfoot conference and one of McFeely’s closest Bigfoot colleagues. She’s also the closest someone could come to being a Bigfoot expert—a title she wholeheartedly refused.
“If somebody tells you that they’re an expert in this, don’t listen to a word they say,” she said. “There are no experts.”
McCray and Lyle Blackburn represent two sides of the Bigfoot spectrum. On one hand, part of the Bigfoot community embodies the mystery of the cryptid. Like Blackburn, these folks aren’t too concerned with the science of whether or not Bigfoot exists. To them, the mystery embodies the creature, and that is enough.
McCray’s ideology is harder to swallow. She said the “Forest People” first visited her as a child, and she’s had hundreds of run-ins with cryptids since. She spoke with absolute certainty about their culture. She said they have an alphabet, uphold a system of laws, and elude human contact by using a “shimmer” that renders them undetectable.
Listen: Robin McCray talks about her stance on Bigfoot nonbelievers.
While walking around the museum with McFeely, McCray pointed to exhibits on the existence of portals and werewolves. She also spoke about McFeely’s life-size model of the Beast of Boggy Creek. This is the iconic image of Bigfoot, dark and hairy, lurching across the frame of a black-and-white film. However, these exhibits exist in the same space as genuine archeological artifacts, including fossils and skulls of ancient humans.
McFeely arranged all of the exhibits in her museum, and made the Bigfoot replica, left. The skull models were given to her by a fellow enthusiast from Texas. Photo by Emma Krab/NNS.
McFeely said the two ideas—cryptids and archeology—both come from her childhood interests. She said she loved learning about anthropology as a child and read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species relentlessly as a child. She was also a frequent visitor at the Hastings Museum, engrossed enough that she convinced a local scientist to let her observe his work on weekends
“I stood right there over his shoulder,” she said. “As long as I didn’t bother him, I could look.”
Becoming the Bigfoot Lady—and just being Harriet
As the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference wrapped up, Paco Elizalde sat in the quiet upstairs of the Hastings City Auditorium. McCray was finishing her lecture, her words muffled by the door.
Elizalde’s a Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart Recipient. He wore a shirt with an American flag on it—with, of course, a cutout of Bigfoot in his signature lurching pose. On his phone screen, he showed a photo of a makeshift campsite in the Colorado Rockies.
“This is her first campout,” he said. “That’s her van. That’s my truck.”
Elizalde was showing a picture of McFeely’s first Bigfoot hunt, which he said took place about eight years ago. He said that night, a big Sasquatch walked between the tents. Elizalde saw the shadow himself, and the whole crew came out of their tents afterward, McFeely said.
“She was so nervous and excited and scared,” he said. “The one thing about Harriet, she’s not shy, you know, compared to some of these other guys. She’s a researcher, always has been.”
McCray also praised McFeely’s presence and friendship.
“I just love her,” she said. “She’s the best. She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my life. You know, she’s just, she’s amazing.”
Listen: Harriet McFeely speaks about what her Bigfoot friendships look like off the clock.
Throughout the community, whether speaking at the conference or sitting in the museum, the Bigfoot community is full of praise for Harriet McFeely—and Nebraska. Through her work, she’s brought in Bigfoot enthusiasts from all over the world to Hastings, introducing them to what Nebraska has to offer.
“In terms of the outdoorsman in me, I don’t see heavy forests and swamp land,” Lyle Blackburn said. “But the one thing I always notice is the people. They’re friendly. They’re down to earth. Open minded.”
For McFeely, being a Bigfoot enthusiast in Nebraska meant a lot of isolation. She spent most of her life afraid to speak up about her interest in cryptids, and as a lifelong Nebraskan, she couldn’t find a community until the internet began bridging the physical distance between Bigfoot lovers.
Her interest in Bigfoot has also left her with a hole in her life. She spoke enthusiastically about her childhood interests, including her future career goals, and the past decade of her life, but there’s an almost half-century gap that McFeely isn’t eager to talk about. It’s the part of her life that exists before the Bigfoot Lady when she worked in alcohol treatment centers and taught positivity classes. It’s also when she raised her children, who she requested not be discussed in this article.
“I didn’t have much family ever,” she said. “With this community, now I do.”
Still, McFeely seems determined to make every year count. At the end of the 2023 Nebraska Bigfoot Conference, she stood again on the stage. Someone had brought her a bouquet of flowers, and she held them aloft as she spoke into the mic.
“I have just been so ready to talk,” she said. “I’m so happy and excited to share this with all of you.”
Next year, the Nebraska Bigfoot Conference is leaving the Hastings City Auditorium. Instead, it’s getting an upgrade. The 2024 Nebraska Bigfoot Conference will be held at Fonner Park in Grand Island, an even greater venue with a chance to bring in visitors from two other simultaneous events. It’s an ambitious move, but in the last six years, McFeely has been on a whirlwind of growth. She won’t slow down now.