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Peter Bigfoot's beautiful self-reliance school faces a future that's far from secure

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Bella Donna had been at the Reevis Mountain School for a few days, but it wasn't until she saw Peter "Bigfoot" Busnack sitting on a stump, petting and singing to one of his chickens early one morning, that she really felt she was developing a spiritual connection with him.

"I remember thinking, 'Is this guy always this happy?'" Donna said. "Come to find out, he really is."

Bigfoot is not singing aloud every waking moment, but he certainly seems to carry a song around in his heart, she said--and why not? Bigfoot is a man who not only promotes the idea to "live what you love," but has been doing that very thing all his 65 years on Earth--the last 26 creating his own heaven on Earth deep in the Superstition Mountains, most recently with Donna, now his partner.

And what is that heaven, some 140 miles by road north of Tucson? An organic farm, spiritual sanctuary and wilderness survival school set in a fertile tree-covered canyon in the midst of one of Arizona's harshest landscapes. To top it off, there are two natural springs; Campaign Creek, the only year-round flowing creek in the Superstition Mountains, winds though the property.

The school sits in a truly magical area--3,000 feet above the desert floor, with much of the miserable heat alleviated, while the sweet smells of drying herbs, home-cooked organic meals and a fruit orchard permeate the air. Add all that to Bigfoot's prodigious presence, unique classes in herbal medicine, wilderness survival and acupressure, and it's not hard to understand why so many people claim the school has affected them so deeply.

In the 1970s, Bigfoot was a hermit, living in a van north of Phoenix, with little more than a few pennies to his name. A long-time herbalist, spiritualist and survivalist, Bigfoot founded the Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance in 1979 after stumbling upon the old homestead while on a hike. Though it sat in a state of disrepair, Peter felt an uncanny connection to the place and thought it was the perfect place for his school.

Problem was, when Bigfoot found the owner, Jim Tidwell, he learned Tidwell wasn't interested in selling. The homestead had been in Tidwell's wife's family for generations, and though they weren't doing much with it, they weren't interested in letting it go. Undeterred, Bigfoot called up an old friend, Phoenix lawyer John Goodson, and asked if he could help out. Goodson had been in a college fraternity with Tidwell, and Goodson promised to do all he could.

After all, he owed Bigfoot, big time. Goodson met Bigfoot in the early '70s in Phoenix. At the time, Bigfoot was passing his time camping in the desert and living out of his van.

"He was real wild then," Goodson said. "He'd come into town and wrestle at Phoenix College and then go back--placed second in the country in wrestling."

Goodson--who calls Bigfoot the strongest man he's ever seen--said that in his prime, Bigfoot could run up Squaw Peak in 15 minutes. He also recalled Bigfoot's usual greeting: Bigfoot would pick Goodson up and hold him over his head while saying, "Goodson, so good to see you. So good to see you."

Yes, Bigfoot was a madman, an off-the-grid giant with a head of long, untamed hair. But he was also a capable and gentle man. Introduced to herbs by his mother, Bigfoot--who grew up in New Jersey--spent most of his time prior to arriving in Phoenix wandering North America and South America, studying herbs and teaching himself how to survive off the land.

In fact, it was Bigfoot's survival savvy that brought him and Goodson together. Goodson, now 78, was a Pentagon-trained specialist responsible for teaching soldiers how to survive and escape war prisons.

"I was on a desert hike with him when we ran out of food, and so I said, 'Well, Pete, what are we going to eat?' Then I watched him bust open some termite mounds and dig up some earthworms and do exactly what I used to train people to do to survive prison camps," Goodson said.

After that, Goodson invited Bigfoot to work with him for Challenge Club, an outdoor school for teens he started, and they became quite good friends. Goodson would lead the pack on outdoor adventures, and Bigfoot would pick up the slack, healing the kids' bites and bruises with natural remedies.

"He was really good with herbs, really good," Goodson said.

But it wasn't until Goodson contracted a near-lethal case of hepatitis that he truly realized just how great Bigfoot was. The doctors, Goodson said, had given up on him--he had essentially been sent home to die. In a "hell of a lot of pain," Goodson said, Bigfoot was able to cure his hepatitis using "just the right amount of horehound."

Thus, when Bigfoot called asking for help, Goodson was enthusiastic--not only because he felt he owed the mammoth man a favor, but also because he was eager to see what Bigfoot's dream could reap. After all, Goodson felt Bigfoot had a lot to teach.

Just months before, Bigfoot had asked Goodson to drop him off in the middle of the desert.

"Check me," Bigfoot said. "Verify that I have nothing more than my knife." Bigfoot then set off on an 85-mile trek across the Sonoran Desert in mid-July, gathering all his food and water from the land. Returning 15 days later, Bigfoot had become somewhat of a local legend, and he, too, started thinking that he had something important to share.

Goodson managed to convince Tidwell and his family to sell the property, and even went a step further: Knowing Bigfoot was broke, Goodson contacted Lindsey Rawlings, an ex-millionaire he had read about. Rawlings had supposedly given away his money and dedicated his life to finding truth. Goodson thought Rawlings could help.

Rawlings spoke in Phoenix to a crowd of 150 people about "How to Bring People Together in Harmony," in hopes of attracting support for Bigfoot's school. At the end of the speech, Goodson had found the first investors.

With a down payment secured, Bigfoot and friends started the Reevis Mountain School and embarked on a wilderness adventure that has been trucking for 27 years now. And in those 27 years, a lot of changes have taken place.

On one hand, Christine Beckwith, who lived at Reevis during the late 1980s, said: "From the permanent residents, who have come and gone, to the continuous flow of students attending Bigfoot's classes, everyone who has come to the school has left changed."

On the other, Campaign Creek is apparently starting to run dry for the first time in Bigfoot's years there; and the tax laws are also changing--both threats to what is an established, but fragile school.

But some things have stayed the same; Bigfoot's merry presence still overwhelms the Superstition Mountains canyon, so strongly that Donna, who is not singing to chickens yet, now calls it home.

While more docile these days, it is rumored Bigfoot successfully battled a mountain lion that attacked him just recently.

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