For three years, I have disappointed Mainers and non-Mainers alike. When you live in a place like Maine, especially northern Maine, people want to know: Have you seen a moose? Have you seen Stephen King?
And not necessarily in that order.
Until last week, I had not seen either.
I was beginning to think that both were a creation of the Maine Tourism Department. Unlike our former home state, Florida, where alligators (the mascot, if you will) are as plentiful as the Love Bugs in September, northern Maine’s attractions are elusive and fabled to the point of frustration.
I finally conceded that Stephen King is indeed real after hearing too many accounts of people seeing him here and there. But the moose! Well, I had even convinced my children that there probably is no such thing, outside of the stuffed ones in every store at Bar Harbor.
Dustin said he saw a moose’s rear end while he was riding a snowmobile in the western part of the state. Sure, I thought. A rear end. Could have been a horse or a deer.
I saw friends’ moose antlers hanging like trophies on the walls of their basement, and I decided they were in on the scheme. Especially since one of those friends works for the state.
That same friend called me one day to tell me that a moose was on the loose in downtown Bangor. “Meet me at Tri-City Pizza,” he said, “and you will see it.” A few minutes later, he called back. “Now the moose is in the Kenduskeag Stream. Oh, wait, now it’s behind the post office.”
When I finally caught up to our friend, the moose was supposedly “already gone.”
I dreamed about the day when I would finally see a moose, if, of course, they weren’t an imaginary ploy. I dragged my family north and west in search of the animals. I always imagined that the one I saw would be about 10 feet tall, standing in a beam of light on the top of a boulder, like the father deer in Bambi. Or, I envisioned seeing one rising up from the surface of a lake, water pouring down its antlers.
I continued to hold out hope, even as my suspicions grew. It seemed a moose was always just behind or in front, but always eluding us. If we left Mount Katahdin at 3, someone saw a moose there at 3:10. If we were at Moosehead Lake on Sunday, someone had seen a moose there on Saturday.
Once, I overheard my son telling a friend, “Moose aren’t real. They are just an advertising strategy for the state.”
I saw these huge yellow warning signs on the side of the road: Caution, Moose Crossing. For the first two years, I slowed down and my heart beat faster. I didn’t want to run into a moose on a dark highway. Our Realtor had told us that is how people die in Maine. And to post a caution sign, well, there must be hundreds of moose sightings in that area. Right? By the third year, I laughed at the warnings: “Sure, a ‘moose crossing.’ And I suppose pigs fly overhead, too.”
Dustin grew so weary of my fruitless searches, sometimes he drove me long distances just to see a sculpture of a moose. This only confirmed my belief — er disbelief.
And then, last week, after taking my brother and his family to Pat’s Pizza in Orono, we were driving down I-95 South when I spotted what looked like a horse on the side of the road.
“What is that?” someone in the back asked.
“I think it’s …. I think it’s ….. oh my gosh, it’s a moose!”
But it was a young moose with no antlers. It was sort of galloping alongside our car, and then it turned and went into the woods.
The car was quiet. Everyone held their breath, waiting for my reaction. Would I scream? Swerve off the road? Stop and take pictures?
I shook my head. “It didn’t have antlers,” I said. “I don’t think I can count it if it isn’t 10-feet tall, with antlers and water pouring off of them.”
Maybe I had built it up too much in my head. Like a prom or a wedding, the reality could never compare. Or maybe I really will be excited when I see a big one. In either case, Lindell, 4, cried in his car seat the rest of the way home. “It doesn’t count unless it has antlers,” he said. “Moose aren’t real! They are fake.”
I secretly agreed, even as I tried to calm down my son.
I suppose the state of Maine has us right where they want us.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.