Photo credit: National Park Service (

Photo credit: National Park Service (

Driving home last night from an impromptu going-away party for our friends’ Australian exchange student, my daughter and I spotted a male elk towering alongside the road.

Without thinking, I  pumped the brakes and stopped the car right in front of him. The elk’s breath made little fog clouds that floated like a spell into the brightness of our headlights. Pant, puff. Pant, puff.

He was hulking and majestic, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Elk are one of the largest species of deer in the world, and for North Americans (like me) they represent one of the biggest land mammals we get to see in the wild. Especially at night, an elk with his tall crown of branching bones makes him a mythical beast of faerie stories, a spiritual being with an enormous head and glassy black eyes.

Lord of TreesHe stood still, the prongs of each antler rising up and up beyond the reach of our headlights to points high above in the dark. Beyond what we could see.

This, I think, is what made me stop. I wanted to see what was not quite within my vision. To search the dark and know his dimensions, as if by knowing his true height and the edges of his form, I could say, yes, that’s just an elk. I know what an elk is.

I wanted to make him tangible. Real. Understandable. This massive creature from another world, presiding over a herd of others roaming in the darkness. What were they doing out there in the cold night? What was he doing?

He was looking at me.

“Go, Mom!” my daughter said urgently. She was afraid. She knows about wild animals, watches shows about their lives and habits. She knows that large male elk are dangerous. They can charge a car and can kill with their massive, sharp tines.

But our car had slipped out of gear and as I began to release the clutch, the engine sputtered.

“Go, mom!” This time my daughter was panicked. “Hurry!”

The elk seemed to sway above us. Was he backing up? Stamping the cold ground with his hoof? Was he readying himself to impale my door and our small bodies with the knives he carried on his head?

I pushed the clutch and shifted into gear, still watching him. He was beautiful and monstrous. He had power over me, and I couldn’t turn away. If I kept staring back at him, I wondered if he would turn me into a she elk, and together we would walk away from the road toward the mysterious forest. Did I want to go with him?

“MOM! Seriously! Go!”

In some cultures, elk represent a spiritual force. They embody strength and courage. I don’t know much about elk and wasn’t raised in a culture that put any spiritual value on them, but in that moment, I did want to go with him. Or at least to hold his gaze for as long as he would hold mine. I didn’t feel fear, as in retrospect a normal, sane person should have. I felt only strength–and intensely. As if he was giving me courage, a thing I have dearly needed as of late.

“Mom please, drive!” My daughter’s need for us to move finally compelled me, pulled my attention back into our car. I felt terrible for allowing her to feel afraid. Turning away from the elk, I faced forward, eased up on the clutch, and drove us home.

Random events happen every day. I drop a glass and it breaks. I drop a glass and it doesn’t break. I run a stop sign and crash. I run a stop sign and make it to an appointment on time. Actions and consequences don’t always go together. The phone rings and the caller hangs up. I see an elk, stop, and drive home.

Life sometimes feels like a strange collection of items in a jar: a hairpin, a shell, a dog collar. What am I supposed to do with these things? Are they related? What do they mean?

“I’m sorry you were scared,” I said to my daughter as we pulled into the driveway.

“It’s okay,” she said. “The elk was actually pretty cool. Just scary, too.”

I replay the strange moment in my mind as if I have reached into the jar and pulled out a shell. I study the ridges, turn it over and over. I conjure the image of the elk’s face, his eyes on me. Courage. That is what I hold on to.