I have always wanted to see a moose, the quintessential wild animal of North America, present both in our wilderness and our history. Teddy Roosevelt named his progressive party the Bull Moose Party. When Thomas Jefferson was tying to prove to his French competitors that the United States was not, as the French claimed, a land with small deformed animals and small deformed men because of the fetid swamps and infected water, he determined to send the largest most impressive American specimen to France. Although to be fair, he thought that mammoths still roamed the Midwest, when Lewis and Clark couldn’t procure a live mammoth for him, he settled for a moose, the largest mammal actually alive on the continent. Quintessential American wildlife, on par with bald eagles, grizzly bears, humpback whales, the grey wolf. The only threatening mammal in the woods that you’re actually supposed to run away from.
I didn’t think it would be hard to see one. One set of grandparents lived in Vershire, (a small town in Eastern Vermont, home of the Mountain School) the other set had a house in Stratton. I don’t remember the drive from Boston to Vermont that we took until I was 6, but after we moved to upstate New York, and we took regular trips to the Adirondacks in addition to the drive across the Green Mountains to Vershire, I remember looking for moose. As Jefferson must have peered out his window anxiously when he heard someone had a shot a moose in New Hampshire and was bringing it back for him, I peered anxiously out the car window for a glimpse of a live one. The only time I put my Magic Tree House book down in the backseat was when we drove past that yellow diamond with a black silhouette on it; “Moose Crossing Next 5 Miles.” The most dramatic 5 miles of the drive. Every shadow could be an antler, every pond the perfect place to see that majestic yet awkward animal lift its head out of the water, munching contentedly on a mouthful of seaweed, wet grass draped haphazardly on its antlers. But, just as Jefferson was disappointed when the moose finally arrived on his doorstep, damaged beyond recognition by being dragged for 12 days through the pre-Global Warming New Hampshire winter, I never saw the moose I could picture so vividly. The only moose I saw on our drive was the moose on the welcome sign of Indian Lake, NY, where my parents bought a cabin when I was 9. As we arrived, the sign welcomed me, as we left, the oddly aggressive “You’ll be back, too!” painted on the back of the wooden moose swinging in the breeze mocked me.
When I turned 13 my mom did something incredibly brave. She took me on a road trip across the country. Voluntarily locking herself in a Jetta with her hormonal, newly teenaged, daughter who still thought it was cool to not get along with your parents. We took Route 90 West. I had never really travelled west before. I’d flown to Seattle once when I was a toddler but that was it. Wisconsin was full of rabbits, Kansas was full of nothing, then the otherworldly landscape of the Badlands. The Corn Palace was, admittedly, disappointing. We would also hit the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Four Corners and Mesa Verde. And then there was Yellowstone. The first National Park; full of bison, hot springs, geysers, grizzly bears, and moose. It was the most wild place I’d ever been and I knew, I just knew there were moose there. We saw herds of bison, got caught in one of their traffic jams, a fox ran through our campsite and paused at the campfire to inspect me, watched river otters playing in a small lake, and upstream the water was packed with trout—bald eagles, black bears and most unbelievably a grey wolf. The rarest apex predator, the hardest to spot besides the mountain lion. But no moose. Not a single moose. My mother, clearly the most supportive and understanding mom in the world, drove me all over the park in pursuit of the elusive moose. The only reason I now check Idaho off my list of states is because she drove me to West Yellowstone where a ranger had told us we were the most likely to see one. As we sat in a diner eating a consolation burger, I watched in astonishment out the window as snow fell in soft fat flakes in the middle of the summer day.
More summers passed. My parents sold the house in the Adirondacks and bought a house across Champlain, in Bridport, Vermont. We moved to New Jersey, unfortunately, and long weekends and vacations were spent exploring Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, and the Long Trail. I went to college in Houston, where I met a boy who, much to my parents’ barely concealed disappointment, was from Texas. After college we couldn’t stay in the same place; he was in Houston and I was in Greenwich, Connecticut, but we were planning our big summer trip together. I was 24, had spent most of my life in the Adirondacks and Vermont, and still had not seen a moose. I was ecstatic when we decided on our destination; Alaska. I poured hours of work into our itinerary, bought a topo map of Denali National Park, obsessively fiddled with the WhisperLite my parents got me for Christmas. I’d thought Yellowstone was wild when I was 13 and now, now I was going to Alaska, the grandest frontier that Muir and Roosevelt explored, Seward’s folly. And there would be moose. We flew into Fairbanks. We saw the Eskimo Olympics, and then took the train to Denali. It took some confusion before we found the shuttle bus that would take us into the park to our campsite. When we were all loaded on, the driver informed us that if we saw any wildlife we should yell and he would stop so we could take pictures. We were exhausted after the hours of travel to get there, and it was cloudy and grey. We were both on the verge of falling asleep, when, just minutes into the drive, I saw her. She was standing in the ditch next to the road, barely five feet from the bus, staring at us in bemusement. I tried to yell to stop, but I couldn’t find my voice, so I just whacked Matt excitedly, but we were already past. No one else saw her, no one else said anything. But I saw her. My first moose. I had never felt more welcomed to a place. And in some ways I was happy that I was the only one who saw her. After 24 years of searching, that moment was just for me. I would share other moments in Denali. Following a caribou, accidentally breaking the 25 foot rule with a coyote, hiking Polychrome where Matt almost walked right into a gold eagle, seeing grizzly bears, finding the only amphibian in Alaska, eating wild blueberries above Reflection Pond and staring at what would soon be officially Denali again, but then still Mount McKinley, on a perfectly clear day, and seeing many more moose. But that first moose was special.
Coyote and Denali, taken by Matt
Shortly after I got back from Alaska I was on my way to a hike with my parents near their house in Vermont, when my dad braked quickly. A moose ran across the road in front of us. I watched it all the way into the woods, turning my head to keep following it as we drove away. And every time I drive through the woods in Vermont I keep my eyes peeled, peering at the forest for any sign of movement, and my heart beats a little faster when I see a shadow that could be that enormous, awkward symbol of the wild.
Moose tracks on the Vermont Long Trail