It pains me to take issue with a newspaperman, because I know how it feels to have readers jump on you.
One reader complains that the newspaper is too liberal, and the next claims that the paper is too conservative, and the third reader wants you to correct an error made by some other writer.
But I have to quarrel with Clay Thompson. Clay is a columnist for The Arizona Republic, the daily newspaper where I labored for thirty-two years, seven months and nine days.
Clay wrote Friday of the Mogollon Monster, suggesting it is a fictitious creature, not to be taken seriously. He quoted one shaky account of a “cryptozoology investigator” who encountered the monster in the 1940s. Cryptozoology is the study of cryptids, or “hidden animals,” such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.
Clay should have phoned me first. I knew the Mogollon Monster. His name was Opie. We were kids together, you might say.
Clay probably forgot that I spent a good part of my childhood on the Mogollon Rim–right on top, where it forms the boundary between Gila and Coconino counties. (For the edification of our subscribers in Saskatoon, the Rim is a big cliff that runs halfway across central Arizona, rising to 7,000 feet and more in elevation, 2,000 feet higher than the land at its base.)
I’ve heard speculation by my cohorts that the Monster is the unfortunate result of a liaison between a grizzly bear and a member of one of the pioneer families in the Rim country. Not true. The last grizzly in Arizona was killed in 1901.
Others say he’s Bigfoot’s cousin, a restless fugitive from Humboldt County, California. Many Californians come to Arizona because housing is cheaper here, but that shouldn’t lure a yeti.
Fans of alliteration say that if there isn’t a Mogollon Monster, there should be one.
Well, there is. His real name is Opie Wolfbagel –christened Orpheus Peter Wolfbagel, which his parents shortened to “O.P.” when he was just a baby.
He is one of the Louisiana Wolfbagels, a hard-luck outfit much like the Mississippians William Faulkner wrote about–poor, friendless people who “endure, and endure, and endure.”
The family had been to California in the late 1930s, looking for milk and honey, and they were on their way back to Louisiana, broke, traveling in an old school bus–all 13 of them. Opie’s dad, Clarence, was trying to avoid U.S. Route 66, because he had driven away from a service station in Barstow without paying for the gas.
That’s how the Wolfbagels ended up eastbound on the Rim Road, a dirt track, unpaved even now, right along the lip of the Rim. They stopped at Hi View Point for the breathtaking view of the Payson country below.
Opie wandered too near the edge and fell over. He caught the limb of a tree on the way down, and just hung there. He couldn’t call for help. He had been chewing on a fir cone to see what it tasted like, and it was stuck in his mouth.
Pretty soon, the Wolfbagels got into their bus and left, and Opie was still hanging from the tree limb, out of sight beneath the Rim. He was never sure whether his mother forgot to take a headcount, or his dad was just too impatient to look for him.
Opie also had his pockets full of rocks he had admired. While he was hanging there, his arms and his body stretched. The added length finally allowed him to swing in toward the cliff and get a toe hold, literally, since he had no shoes. It was the summer of 1938.
Opie was a big kid before he fell off the cliff. When he climbed back up, he had stretched to almost seven feet tall. Once back on top, he lived by his wits, eating roots, berries, fir cones and raw trout he found in the little streams that run north from the Rim.
Now and then, he’d steal grub from the camps of fishermen or hunters.. Forest Service firefighters, working in the darkness to knock down a small fire, would see a tall, shaggy creature skulking off into the darkness, carrying their fire chuck.
My brother Dean and I met Opie while we were trying to sneak up on beavers at a beaver dam in General Springs Canyon. We never actually saw a beaver–as we tried to creep within sight of the beaver lodge, we’d hear the beaver slap the water with his tail and dive into his lodge.
Opie was trying to sneak up on the beaver, too. The stench of him probably alerted the beaver. Opie jumped into the pond after the beaver, but the pond was only a couple of feet deep.
Opie came up with mud clinging to the hair that grew all over his face and body. He lumbered away a few steps, then stood behind an aspen sapling and looked curiously at Dean and me.
We were able to strike up a conversation. Over a few weeks, we learned the story of how he had been left hanging from Hi View Point. We’d sneak him leftover biscuits from the breakfast table.
We decided it would not be wise to tell our parents about Opie. Grownups have funny ideas sometimes. They scare easily. Opie was a little reckless, but Dean and I decided he meant no harm.
Opie told us funny stories about the first time he grabbed hold of a porcupine, and how he learned not to imitate a bull elk.
He told funny stories of raiding group campgrounds where fishermen gathered to fish and drink. He said the best time to scare the living hell out of them was when the moon was going down.
Reports started going around about “the Mogollon Monster.” Opie said he liked being called that.
He didn’t say so in so many words–his language was limited–but he thought that was a good calling: raiding camps, shaking folks up, giving them stories to tell around their campfires. It was a living.
Timing is everything. Arizona would soon fill up with people, and the Rim would be a prime destination for nature lovers.
I haven’t actually seen Opie in more than fifty years, but I’ve heard occasional reports, some highly exaggerated. The Opie I knew would never eat six children in one night.
If you’re camped out up in the Rim country on a really dark night, and you see a tall, smelly, hairy apparition slipping through the trees, that would be the Mogollon Monster. You’ll automatically qualify as a cryptozoologist.