The Thinking Man’s Guide to Hitting a Moose
I’m really sorry it happened and really glad I survived. Notes on the flabbergasting climax of an Alaska road trip that changed my life.
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It had been raining for days. All I wanted was to escape the constant downpour and camp someplace dry, so I pressed south from Fairbanks, shadowing the Tanana River until the clouds finally broke and the moon rose over the Hayes Range in the distance. In that part of Alaska and that time of year—barely 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, late July—it never really gets dark, so I took advantage of the dusky half-light, driving until almost two in the morning. In my battered Milepost guide, I’d found a campground at a state recreation site listed just outside the remote highway crossroads of Delta Junction. The town wasn’t much, just a line of roadhouses and cafés at the northern terminus of the Alcan Highway. During the summertime, when locals head to their fish camps and hunting lodges, it’s virtually abandoned. That was fine with me; all I needed was a dry spot to pitch a tent among the birches and black spruce. Around a final bend, I eased off the gas, coasting down the slope, scanning the left side of the road for the turnoff.
That’s when it happened. A full-grown cow moose vaulted from the brush on the right shoulder and into the road. For a moment, she was frozen there, flat and depthless in my headlights. Without thinking, I slammed on the horn as I pressed the brakes almost to the floor, but the car didn’t seem to slow. “I braked,” I wrote in my journal the next day, “the clump of limbs against the grill and then the hood, then a whine—almost wheeze—from the moose as she went through the windshield. She passed so far through the glass that I actually felt her fur against my face.” As the car skidded to a stop, the roof collapsed under her weight, then the rear window shattered as she lifted herself and leaped back into the tall weeds.
Hours later, after a young couple picked me up and delivered me to a bar in Delta Junction, after state troopers called a local auto wrecker who took me to an abandoned off-season apartment complex for the night, I stood before a mirror in the bathroom and studied the raw spot on my forehead, what looked like a rug burn, where the moose’s fur had scraped away the top layer of my skin. Only then would I realize that I’d come inches from death.
But for now I was still trapped in the car. The roof was caved in so close on my right side that the rearview mirror dangled near my ankles. I tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. It was wedged tight by the impact, so I twisted in my seat and kicked and kicked—I don’t remember how many times—until the door inched open. And then I was out, into the open night air.
I remember looking straight up at the faint stars overhead, then down at my navy blue sweater, sparkling with tiny shards. I was covered with moose fur—the thick, dark bristles of her guard hairs and tufts of soft brown undercoat. With all the broken glass, I didn’t dare brush it away.
This was 1996, in those last years before cellphones, so I couldn’t call for help, couldn’t tell anyone what had just happened. I had to wait for the next passing car, which didn’t come for a long time. I stood there, just breathing in the blue light of the Alaskan dusk, looking up at stars through the cloud of my breath, alive and unhurt but stranded.