I never thought about death, except maybe that one time when I told my sister that it was all darkness, over, done. Like at age 10 I knew what I was talking about. I definitely didn’t think I would almost die under a moose carcass on an empty highway in a blizzard. February 18th 1992, a Tuesday, my friend Patrick wants to celebrate his 19th birthday in Canadia (as we call it) with me and Brandon. The plan is to eat an early dinner, get to the border town of Armstrong by 7pm, drink a couple of beers, head back to Waterville, Maine.
Patrick drives a maroon Honda Accord, the vehicle barely contains his 6’3 frame, 6’4 with his wild curly brown hair. Patrick wears glasses, ran cross-country at St. Andrew’s (where Dead Poets Society was filmed), and wants to travel around the world when he graduates from college. Brandon is from the Chicago area, likes to imitate his favorite rappers, has the quick intelligence of a stand-up comic. We get in the car as Patrick cranks up “More Than a Feeling” by Boston.
We arrive at the Canadian border around 7:30pm. What is the purpose of your trip? The officer asks. We are just going to Armstrong to have a beer, then come right back to Maine. Patrick replies. How much money do you have? We are questioned. Brandon gives the officer a shit-eating grin. Sir, we have $30 and one condom. In our pre-9/11 world, this is met with a smile. You boys aren’t going to find beers in Armstrong, that place only has lumber, no bars, you’ll need to go to Saint-Georges.
Crossing into Canada the landscape changes, darkness still encompasses, but fewer trees block the cold night sky. About an hour later we manage to get off the highway and find a bar in Saint-Georges. The place is all beards, flannel shirts, loud French voices, and cigarette smoke. We order some Molsons. The longhaired band looks like a cross between Poison and ZZ-Top. They play covers of “Enter Sandman” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Québécoise. We shoot some pool; sing “O Canada” (it has the same tune as “Hail, Colby, Hail” our college song) to a couple women who find us amusing, then decide we need to go before it gets too late.
The lonely midnight air outside the bar is a sideways torrent of cascading snow, huge fast-falling flakes. There are three inches on the ground already. We could have been smart, used Patrick’s credit card, found a room somewhere. I’ve got Spanish at 8:30am tomorrow. I say. Yeah, we’ve got to get back tonight. Patrick adds.
Decision made, we set out to drive the 135 miles through mostly barren wilderness in a thick white storm, without snow tires or four-wheel drive. Pulling onto the highway Patrick is tense, I glance at him as he grips the wheel like a seven-year old on a roller coaster. The road is empty; we are the only dumb asses driving to Maine at 12am on a Tuesday night. Somehow we make it back into the U.S., the tires are dragging but the pavement is mostly still under us. Near Jackman the car begins to feel like a big snowball with headlights, the storm has absorbed us as we swerve through five inches of unplowed quicksand.
By 2am we are driving in the middle of the vacant two lane highway. Looking out my snow-caked shotgun window I see only pitch black. Out front billowing tufts of mesmerizing pale powder reflect our lights with a visibility of maybe eight feet, as we putter along at 35 mph. Patrick is fiddling with the AM stations when I see a large brown figure just before hearing the left part of our bumper hit the Moose’s back right leg. It’s a Moose, It’s a Moose, It’s a Moose, Patrick yells with more excitement than terror. The moose turns it’s head with a surprised dejected look, then like an animal ghost, trots into the wispy shadows. Had we been going a little faster, we would have hit the legs dead on like bowling pins, 800 pounds of toppling weight hypothermically crushing us. Patrick’s initial National Geographic moment quickly wears off. We need to get off the road, get a motel room. He says in a panic. Patrick is agitated, but there is nowhere to exit, we must continue south. I’m turning off the lights, we can see better without them. He says. I don’t believe him, but Patrick’s right, we can see the sides of the highway and the pure white for about 15 feet. As we slow to 25 mph, the thought never crosses my mind that hitting two moose in one night is almost statistically impossible, we are all beyond shaken.
2:30am and we are a sleigh, we are Santa, we are pioneers, completely alone immersed in the silent fluttering of a frozen sky surrounded by drooping pine trees. As we get closer to Waterville, the flakes become flurries, then rain, then nothing. Just 30 minutes earlier we were on the surface of the moon, in arctic wilderness hitting a large wild beast, now passing Skowhegan, we read signs; see the double yellow line again. As if out of a surreal dream we arrive back onto the sleeping campus. 4:30am my head hits the pillow; I imagine the moose trodding through tufts of snowdrift, the memory of us already forgotten.