Moose in headlights illustration
Moose in headlights illustration
“That’s when it happened. A full-grown cow moose vaulted … into the road.” (Illustration: R.Fresson)

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.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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.

Genoways, after the moose accident, in a bar in Chicken, Alaska
The author in Chicken, Alaska, about a week after hitting a moose (Courtesy Ted Genoways)

It had been more than two months since I set off on this journey, an epic solo road trip from South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico to the Prudhoe drilling spit on the Arctic Ocean, nearly 5,000 miles of driving in search of a kind of adventure I couldn’t even name. I was 24 and at loose ends—sick of grad school, without a girlfriend, and hoping to test myself against the hardships of the open road, the tedium of the miles, the loneliness, and whatever Alaska held in store. I’d read John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, two books about people who had gone to Alaska in search of themselves. McPhee concerned himself with the “river people,” the last of the last frontiersmen, who took to fish camps and gold claims along the Yukon and never left. Krakauer wrote about Chris McCandless, who had crossed the Sushana River and never returned.

I had hoped that my trip would tell me which I was—the kind who thrived or the kind who died. But in all my weeks, I hadn’t really begun to reckon with the road until I was stranded in the twilight haze outside Delta Junction, staring up at the stars. It’s often said that the dirty secret of adventure writing is that something has to go wrong, that it’s not really travel until your plans go out the window. Most often, those words are attributed to Tim Cahill. In fact, in describing one of his own trips gone awry, Cahill simply said, “Now there’s an ideal mishap.” And that’s exactly where I was.

In the morning, I walked down to the body shop, next to the abandoned apartments, to see what my next move should be. The owner, named Larry, was a competitive bodybuilder and an albino, with thick glasses and a wild shock of long white hair. At his side was a one-eyed dog named Po. (“Like, Edgar Allan?” I asked. “Like po’ boy got one eye,” Larry said.) At the rear of the shop was my car, a 1994 Chevy Blazer, which looked like a boulder had been dropped on it right above the driver’s seat.

“I called the wreckers up in Fairbanks,” Larry said. “They’ll haul you up there tonight.” Until then, I was welcome to wait, though there wasn’t so much as a chair. He flipped a five-gallon bucket and slammed it down on the shop floor, just loud enough that Po raised his head. I sat, looking out the garage door at the open field. I could see now that it was an off-season airstrip, overgrown with weeds. Just then, the trooper’s car came bouncing over the grass. He got out, adjusted his belt and holster, came in, and leaned on the garage door.

“Hey, Bear,” Larry said.

Bear looked at my flattened car and let out an impressed sigh. “Where’d they take the body?”

Larry laughed and pointed at me. “The body’s sitting on that bucket.”

Surprised to find me alive, the trooper straightened and explained that they’d found the moose, just a few yards from the roadside. Under Alaska state law, the carcass was mine to dress and eat if I wanted, but it couldn’t stay where it was. Since I wasn’t dead, the moose was now my responsibility.

“The two old boys who found it are willing to take it off your hands,” Bear said. “But, Larry, we need your winch to get it out of the ditch and onto their flatbed.”

Larry wiped his hands wordlessly on a grease rag and walked toward his truck. “I’ll be right back,” he called over his shoulder. Then he followed Bear’s car out toward the road.

Genoways’ Blazer, crushed after the moose hit
The wounded Chevy Blazer (Courtesy Ted Genoways)
A journal entry from 15 hours after the incident, recounting what happened
A journal entry from 15 hours after the accident (Courtesy Ted Genoways)

When Larry returned, he was followed by a truck pulling a flatbed trailer; sprawled across it was the twisted and bloody carcass of the moose. By now, it was early afternoon, and after everybody parked, Larry joked with the other two men about what a time they had getting the moose out of the ditch. The winch was rated to handle the moose’s weight—roughly 1,500 pounds—but it had strained and briefly tipped the wrecker onto two tires. At one point, they worried that the cable might break, but eventually they got her onto the trailer. Three of her four legs were broken, the knifepoint shards of her bones jutting through the skin. Her eyes were glazed, and her tongue lolled from her mouth, like some awful pantomime of death. Her body was covered with green shit and caked with blackened blood.

“I know Bear told you that you can clean this moose if you want it,” one of the two men said. I looked up, taking them in for the first time. The man speaking had a squat build with arms that seemed too long for his body. His ball cap was pulled down tight over his eyes, and his jaw jutted out. His sidekick, who looked exactly like Andy Kaufman with a porn star’s mustache, didn’t say a word. He just smiled with wild, wide eyes, and for a moment I thought: Could he be Andy Kaufman? “But that meat’s no good,” the leader continued. “It’s been out there 12 hours or more. It’s spoiled.”

He seemed to be presenting an argument, but I wasn’t following.

“Look at the bloat,” he said. Her belly was taut with fermentation. “You stick that thing now, it’ll blow grass all over you.”

I looked at the moose’s swollen gut, then back at him.

“If you don’t want it,” he offered, cautiously, “we’ll take it.”

I was still confused.

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.

“String it up for bait,” he said.

I stared back, trying to fathom what he meant, when I saw the cap above his darkened eyes. The hat was emblazoned with three thick white letters: OWC. I learned later that they stood for Open World Championship, an annual sled-dog race in Anchorage, but inside the lettering, this guy had used a blue ballpoint pen to write: OPTIMUM WOLF CATCHER. Finally, I understood.

I wasn’t very happy about the idea of these two using this moose to lure wolves into traps, but what could I do?

By that point, I had been all over Alaska. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea Inlet over the snow-choked pass to Lake Bennett. I’d crossed the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Soldotna and hitchhiked back. I’d hiked alone into Bear Alley at Denali National Park. I’d caught a ride on a motorboat at the highway bridge north of Fairbanks, which took me down the Yukon to the fish camps at Rampart. I’d blown both rear tires coming down the north slope of the haul road headed into Prudhoe Bay, fishtailing down the scree mountainside. I mounted the spares in the mosquito-cursed muskeg while 18-wheelers carrying drilling parts threw fist-sized gravel from the road.

But it wasn’t until the Optimum Wolf Catcher presented me with this Last Frontier Catch-22—give up this broken carcass to cause more death or find a way to deal with 1,500 pounds of spoiled moose—that I finally realized what an outsider I truly was. My moment of midnight sun insight didn’t come in the rugged wilds but right on the edge of the Richardson Highway, where I had to navigate the laws and logistics of a place that I had been drawn to but barely understood. “It’s yours,” I said, then sat back on the bucket to wait for the wrecker from Fairbanks.

Genoways sitting in a chair made of moose antlers in the history museum in Eagle, Alaska
At rest in a moose antler chair in Eagle, Alaska (Courtesy Ted Genoways)

John, a longhaired Athabascan, arrived with his wrecker just as the sky was starting to turn dusky blue again. He hooked under my Blazer’s front axle and lifted up the front tires, flattened by the impact, until the car would roll. John told me to hop in the cab. We bumped across the defunct airstrip and out to the highway, headed back in the direction of the rain clouds I’d been trying so hard to avoid. All the way there, John told me how lucky I was. One time, near Delta Junction, he had to haul out a Chevette that had crumpled flat against the flank of a bull that had strayed from a nearby state bison range. Another time, north of Fairbanks, he’d been called into a crash site where a car hit a caribou at 70 miles per hour, sending the bull through the windshield antlers first. But that wasn’t the worst, he said.

When we reached the salvage yard on the edge of Fairbanks, he pulled the wrecker close to the gate, our headlights glaring off the fence, and punched in the entry code. “No,” he said, as the gate slid open, “the worst I ever saw was another moose hit.” We pulled into the yard, and the night manager came out with a clipboard of forms.

“Remember that moose call down south of Salcha?” John asked the manager, as I did the paperwork.

The manager laughed and turned to me. “The moose turned before the truck hit, came ass-end through the windshield,” he said. “When we got there, the moose was still alive, struggling but stuck in the frame. The driver is eyeball to asshole with this moose.”

John nodded and kicked at the dirt, sending up spirals in the headlights.

“So the trooper decides he gonna put this poor moose out of its misery. One shot behind the ear—but he never warns the driver.”

As they both roared with laughter, I could picture the scene: the steam of the moose’s panicked breath billowing in the air, the trooper raising his rifle, the sudden blast of the shot, and then, the instant after, the dead animal’s body falling limp, its asshole unclenching.

“I mean, that guy never knew what hit him,” the manager told me. “I’d never be able to close my eyes again.”

Twenty-four hours in Delta Junction taught me the value of improvisation—and the difference between a curated tourist experience, provided by the Milepost guide or a national park–approved camping site, and actual travel. Today, as I push 50, I’ve grown tentative when it comes to talking about epiphanies or turning points. Most moments of insight are usually only a passing glimpse. We have the sense of seeing the world with new eyes, but then we go home, back to our routines and responsibilities, back to our old lives.

So, I can’t claim that my brush with a moose brought me into the circle of real Alaskans. I didn’t become one of McPhee’s river people, building my home with an axe or doing self-dentistry with a pair of pliers. But I did come away with a deeper sense of what travel gives us—serendipity, surprise—and what we learn about ourselves, good and bad, as we ad-lib our way through places that are unfamiliar and uncertain.

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.

When I was headed down the Richardson Highway toward Delta Junction, I thought I was a day away from the end of my Alaska adventure. Instead, when the salvage yard submitted the detailed list of damages to the Blazer—nearly $12,000 in repairs—the insurance company made the insane decision not to total the vehicle and instead pay to get it back up and running. The mechanic told me it would take six weeks to get all the parts from the lower 48 and have my car ready for another cross-continental drive. During that period, AAA paid for a rental car, and the insurance company gave me a per diem for food and lodging. After a couple days in dive motels in Fairbanks, watching every movie at the cineplex, I decided it was time to hit the road again.

During my month in Alaska, I had charted my path so that I only took loop roads, ensuring that I would never have to double back, retracing my steps. Now I laid out the map and started marking dead-end roads, the places where I would drive my rental car until I couldn’t drive anymore. Those trips took me to parts of Alaska that I would have completely missed. I got to hear the story of the seven bullet holes in the Steese Roadhouse in Central. I was offered a job running a dragline at a gold mine in Chicken. I visited a local history museum in Eagle, where I saw a Sears, Roebuck washing machine that had been carried over the Chilkoot Pass by a Finnish immigrant named Anna Malm. You see very different things when you’re not looking for anything in particular.

Today, we as a country, as a planet, are starting a collective uncharted voyage. It’s no surprise that the national parks have been filled to overflowing, as we all hope to recover our sense of adventure and wonder after many months of carefully managing even the smallest excursions to the grocery store or work. But finding the trails at Rocky Mountain National Park closed by fire last fall and the park entrance to Arches shut down by 8 A.M. due to overcrowding this summer, I’ve been forced to consider that the dream of a manicured outdoor experience, free from the cares of the outside world, may be gone forever.

From now on, we will need to rediscover the reasons we decided to protect wild places and venture into them in the first place. It’s a way of touching the hem of the mysterious, of testing ourselves, as I dimly understood half a lifetime ago, against the uncertain road ahead. If we listen, the outdoors can be a guide—to all the places we’ve gone wrong and to all the places we can find our way back to the right path. Pandemics and climate catastrophe are hard reminders of the destruction that we’ve brought on ourselves and our planet. But there’s still time to bravely venture into the unknown with a renewed sense of purpose.

We don’t have to cross a continent to find that way forward. All we have to do is get outside. And go.

Lead Illustration: R.Fresson

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small commission. We do not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.