Everyone has a preconceived notion of the perfect date: a romantic dinner followed by a moonlight walk on the beach; a carriage ride in Central Park, sunggled up and sipping hot cocoa; or an adventurous backpacking trip through the woods in search of proof that Bigfoot does, indeed, exist.

OK, so maybe that last one is a stretch, but not for one neighborhood couple.

Monica Rawlins and Chris Butenbach were children when they first became curious about Bigfoot, sometimes referred to as “Sasquatch.” Their curiosity didn’t necessarily grow, but it never dissipated. Rawlins was raised in the Pacific Northwest, where residents have logged a substantial amount of Bigfoot sightings.

“So, of course the stories there are abundant,” Rawlins says. “And having seen The Legend of Boggy Creek, I think that inspires a lot of researchers down here.”

As adults, Butenbach and Rawlins had an opportunity to do more than sit and wonder. Separately, they joined the Texas Bigfoot Research Center.

“I was doing some web-searching, found the group, and I wanted to see if any of my (camera) skills could help out,” says Butenbach, a freelance cameraman. “It was definitely the right group to pick.”

Rawlins was already a member when Butenbach joined in August 2002. They met at the first meeting, but didn’t start dating until the following March.

Talk about a relationship based on similar interests. Let’s be honest – a first date that appears to be packed with potential could easily go awry with one person’s casual mention of a monthly Bigfoot meeting.

Luckily, when Rawlins and Butenbach found one another, they each found a person with whom they could talk openly and honestly, including all things Bigfoot-related.

“It’s nice to have that ability to be comfortable speaking about such an odd subject,” Rawlins says.

And that’s half the reason the Texas Bigfoot Research Center was formed.

“I tell people that 50 percent of being a part of this group is the camaraderie,” says Craig Woolheater, the center’s director.

Woolheater helped to found the group in 1999 when he received an e-mail inquiring whether anyone in North Texas was interested in researching Bigfoot.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

The group now consists of 60 members, and is working on becoming a nonprofit organization. It’s also creating a permanent Bigfoot museum in Jefferson, Texas, where the annual Texas Bigfoot Conference is held.

Rawlins and Butenbach don’t necessarily describe themselves as hardcore Bigfoot enthusiasts. The couple’s approach to the group is, in Rawlin’s words, different. For her, it’s about enjoying the company of others and the outdoors. She is a self-pronounced skeptic who has never personally witnessed Bigfoot.

Rawlins says she needs to see something beyond the possibly tampered photo or swatch of fake hair to truly believe.

“But I believe that people are seeing something,” she says. “That’s what keeps me in it.”

Rawlins describes Butenbach as more dedicated. He uses his camera skills to lead the group’s remote camera project. It’s not as fancy as it sounds, but it’s also not supposed to be.

The project consists of a team of roughly five people traveling to an area with a history of frequent and fairly recent sightings. The group spends two or three days setting up expensive digital cameras, each protected by a metal cage. Without it, the camera would be an easy target for bears or other wildlife. Along with capturing still photos, the cameras also record small video clips of the area. A few months later, the group ventures back to retrieve the footage. The results are recorded, and new trips are scheduled.

Like Rawlins, Butenbach has never had a Bigfoot sighting of his own. But his close friends within the group have, and their experiences have molded his perception of whether Bigfoot exists.

“When you hear their stories one-on-one, and look into their eyes,” Butenbach says, “it definitely tells you there is something out there.”

It’s been more than three years since Butenbach and Rawlins started experiencing the group together. They’ve walked many trails, followed leads – one that took them to Oklahoma – and even started a family.

Now they share a home near White Rock Lake, a love for their daughter, Lauren, and occasionally a trek in search of hard proof that Bigfoot is more than a figment of someone’s imagination.

No talk yet on whether Lauren, who recently turned 3, will become the youngest member of the group.