in Checking In, Meddling, Travels

EncounterQuest 2024

I spent part of my weekend attending the second annual EncounterQuest 2024 in Rockingham, NC this weekend. It is a one-day festival focusing on Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Mothman, and other cryptids. This year it even had a UFO aspect, with the speaker addition of LCDR Alex Dietrich, one of the F/A-18 pilots who witnessed the “TicTac UFO” in November 2004. I don’t know what to make of Bigfoot but having seen Dietrich on TV, advocating for less stigma in reporting UFOs, I wanted to hear what she had to say.

The weekend began Friday afternoon with a plaster casting class (as mentioned in the last post), where participants learned how to properly pour plaster of Paris into any Bigfoot footprints they might find out in the woods. Of course, the plaster could be used to cast prints of other cool and interesting critters so one does not have to wait for the once-in-a-lifetime Bigfoot encounter to have fun with the plaster. We practiced by stepping into plastic bins filled with soil and sand, and then followed this with a layer of plaster, learning the importance of pouring slowly and very close to the print itself. The local journalists got some photos of me making my print, which was a nice surprise.

Just as the print-making was wrapping up a thunderstorm blew in. We moved ourselves and our still-setting prints under the porch roof. Dietrich, who cheerfully introduced herself as Alex, was interviewing participants as part of a new effort she’s involved in to talk to people who go to these types of events. I said hello and before I knew it I was recounting my UFO and ET stories into her microphone.

We then went inside for our catered taco dinner. I had earlier placed my umbrella on one table in the corner (just to keep from carrying it around like a dork) and was delighted to see that Alex and her father-in-law, Mike, had by happenstance been seated next to me. We then chatted the whole evening. I traded sea stories with Mike and chatted a bit with Alex, too, though mainly I chatted with Mike. Mike is a retired Marine Corps officer and I took a liking to him right away.

After dinner and dessert, we had to leave the Rotary club clubhouse and move on. It was 8 PM and Mike was getting ready to make the near-hour-long drive back to his home. I said goodnight to them and headed back to my hotel when I remembered that it was karaoke night! A downtown Hamlet bar had karaoke on Friday nights and since I’d always wanted to explore Hamlet more, I decided I wanted to check out karaoke. I turned around from my trip to the hotel and headed into downtown Hamlet.

Hail Mary’s Tavern must have been literally the only place open in downtown Hamlet. The storefronts were mostly vacant, though I couldn’t help but notice that most seemed to be in good shape. It took me a few moments to actually find the bar, as it was tucked into a recessed doorway, but I soon walked in and was welcomed by the bartender and karaoke crew. There might have been, oh, eight people in the bar when I got there.

It was first-rate karaoke, which I did not expect to find in little ol’ Hamlet. I sang Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and Kansas “Point of Know Return.” It was the first time I’d ever done Know Return in public, but since the crowd largely was tuning me out all night I let it rip. After tipping the KJ, I headed back to the hotel ready to call it a night. It was a little after 10 PM.

A crowd of festival attendees were carrying on an animated conversation in the hotel lounge, so I stopped to sit down and join them. I hadn’t been there for two minutes when Alex walked in behind me. I had thought that maybe she would be staying with her father in law but indeed she had checked into the hotel. I was delighted when she also decided to jump into the conversation in the lounge. It was especially funny when the woman seated next to her for the past twenty minutes suddenly realized Alex was a speaker at the event and not just a cryptid or UFO buff!

About 11 PM Alex called it a night and I took the opportunity to do the same. I slept pretty well at the newish hotel (the Holiday Inn Express), though I do recall noticing at some point in the night one when of the area’s many freight trains rumbled by the hotel.

The next morning, I swung by Hamlet’s beautiful Victoria-era train station to snap some photos. I’d long wanted to see the station, with its beautiful rotunda, at my leisure since I saw it at night during one Amtrak trip I’d taken a few years ago. It was absolutely gorgeous and I spent many minutes snapping photos. Unfortunately, it didn’t open for hours later so I had to remain on the outside.

I got to the convention site, the Richmond Community College auditorium, around 9 AM. Half of the parking lot was being set up for food trucks and vendors. A 12 foot inflatable sasquach was being set up outside. Inside were tables of vendors hawking Bigfoot clothing, hats, stickers, jewelry, and even prints of alleged Bigfoot footprints. I saw many familiar faces there behind the tables – and wondered if the vendors here might outnumber the visitors. I saw Alex interviewing more people and waited my turn to get a few selfies with her.

In the auditorium at 10, I met up with my friend Niki and we moved down closer to the front of the auditorium as Alex was going to be speaking first. Her presentation was detailed, well-organized, and sprinkled with some humor. I could see right away why she must be a good professor. She seemed very comfortable explaining things.

The points Alex made boiled down to this: all the media requests have kind of overwhelmed her, she feels a duty to talk about her incident because she was flying a taxpayer-funded jet while on duty, and she adamantly refuses to characterize what she saw as anything but unknown. Fair enough, I think. She is an credible witness, driving as she was one of the top fighter aircraft at the time filled with sensors. Her word is backed up with multiple corroborating sources. It’s one of the best-documented UFO events ever. No need to really say anything more, I reckon.

Alex closed by emphasizing the need to provide a clear path for reporting these things in the future, and also of ways of reducing the stigma in doing so. I managed to ask her a question at the end of her talk, seeing if she could mention any ways that her suggestions might be getting implemented. I was disappointed when didn’t have much to offer here, although again this is fine as she is focused on being a normal civilian human being now and no longer living the life of a naval aviator. Still, I know aviators are a tight-knit group and had hoped that she still had friends who might have shared any improvements but it was not to be.

After Alex’s talk, Niki and I ordered lunch at a food truck and then had a wonderful chat sharing stories of spooky happenings we each had. Niki said the conference had gotten her thinking again about the podcast she had hosted and she seemed in her element. I was happy to chat with her again in person as it’d had been a while.

I soon got bored with the Bigfoot talks and vendors. Maybe I realized my UFO chats had played themselves out. I don’t know, but I stopped by the car to take a quick nap, then brought in my laptop to entertain me for a little while. Finally, I packed up my stuff and headed north back to Raleigh, feeling like I’d done all I wanted to do. I also felt some pressure to get going again with some projects I’d been considering, like creating a YouTube show about stuff like this. It to me seemed after this week that I have a knack of connecting with people and I really enjoy learning more about people’s experiences, especially the spooky ones.

EncounterQuest 2024 was a fun little detour. I may go next year and pay more attention to the cryptid talks, hopefully after I have perhaps had my own experience to discuss.