Unexpected Memento Mori – Or, The Massive Orange Moose

In the life of a melodramatic lover of roadside attractions, there’s no preparing for a massive orange moose. One moment, you’re living your life the best you know how. Suddenly the world has a massive orange moose in it, and it’s right outside your window. There’s an emotional reckoning to be had. Nothing will ever be the same.

It begins with the plushies, which I didn’t notice at first. As I shouldered my way through the Best Western’s lobby door, I was elbow-deep in my purse, trying to excavate my check-in confirmation printout.

For the next several minutes, my attention was occupied with the clerk, more paperwork, questions to be answered, my wallet to be found. Andrew came in and set our bags down as I started on parking registration. “Awesome,” I said. “Could you grab my license plate number? I don’t have it memorized.”

“Sure,” he said, and dashed back out into the summer darkness. Only after Andrew had returned did I take a breath, lean away from the desk, and assess my surroundings.

I’d chosen the Best Western / Arrowhead Lodge for its price point, its location on our route, and the promise of a decent continental breakfast. As we’d pulled up in the darkness, the hotel had been about what I expected. Nothing special, nothing objectionable.

So I was pleasantly surprised as I took in my surroundings. The lobby was just woodsy-cabiny enough for warmth and coziness, but not enough to suggest I’d checked into a ski resort. Exposed wood beams added charm and depth.

The effect was interrupted by a mass of orange fluff hanging above the tourist pamphlets. I’d passed right by while entering. I straightened my glasses, quirking an eyebrow. The orange fluff was comprised of numerous identical plushies. All moose. This alone wouldn’t have warranted much comment—Black River Falls is getting towards northern Wisconsin, where the woods are famously wild and deep. Between the lodge-style interior and the geographical location, moose plushies were perfectly appropriate.

Except—as I said—these moose were the color of brand new traffic cones.

I was too tired to ask my many questions. I’d been up since five in the morning, Andrew and I had hit the road later than expected, and I had been denied my regular wind-down routine. It was now past ten at night. Bright orange moose plushies weren’t hurting anybody, and I wanted bed more than I wanted answers. The clerk asked if I was paying by credit or debit, and I let the orange plushies be.

Soon after seven the next morning, I was squinting at the printed coffee maker instructions when Andrew opened the curtains.

“Uh, Crystal?” he said. “I think I figured out why they’ve got those orange moose dolls downstairs.”

I shambled to the window, clutching my coffee packet, and blinked at the bright outdoors. On a grassy hillock between the hotel and the freeway stood a massive orange moose.

06667v.jpg
Photo taken by John Margolies in 1988. The Arrowhead Lodge (now run by Best Western) is pictured in back – the architecture is the same, but the overall paint job no longer features Native American theming. (I struggled to find an open source photo of this moose, dear readers, but obviously could not very well deprive you of a visual.) See Library of Congress for more details.

“But…” I muttered. I stared for a long moment, shook my head, and held up the coffee packet. “Gimme a minute.”

“That’s a big orange moose,” Andrew said appreciatively.

“Gimme a minute.”

Gigantic technicolor woodland creatures do not appear outside one’s window every day. While my coffee brewed, Andrew watched me meander back and forth between the window and the brewing station. I peered out at the moose, watched sunlight gleaming off its citrus antlers, and shook my head solemnly, shuffling away. A moment later I was back at the window.

“Are you okay?” Andrew asked.

I turned towards him. “Moose,” I said. “Right there.”

How to explain that I was beyond delighted? I was so wonderstruck—so flabbergasted—so unprepared—that for a long while delight veered into emotional overwhelm. I’d been confronted so soon after waking that I halfway believed I was in a dream-within-a-dream. I’d seen the orange plushies just before collapsing in bed. My brain must be inventing the moose, trying to explain the plushies.

The Buddha would, perhaps, have advised me to simply accept the existence of the larger-than-life orange moose. The moose is neither good nor bad. The moose simply is. All orangeness, all massiveness, all right-outside-my-window-ness are incidental details.

I’ll be the first to admit that the moose-as-koan had defeated me.

Down at our continental breakfast, Andrew and I settled beside a wide bay of windows overlooking the moose, so I could gawp at it while working on my bacon and eggs.

“Andrew. It’s a big orange moose,” I said quietly, as though I might frighten it away.

He grinned at me.

In the grand scheme of existence, the moose was a bizarre sticking point. Reasonable people, it seems, spot the moose from the freeway, point, laugh, pull over, take a photo with the moose, and then continue their journeys with the brief anecdote as a souvenir. Some road trippers picnic in the moose’s shadow.

I am not so reasonable. I came into this world prone to fits of the sublime, some 300 years later than philosophically acceptable. It’s all fine and good to consider that perhaps Burke and Kant would’ve known what my problem was, but they weren’t sharing a continental breakfast with me in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, were they? Without my esoteric philosophical mumbo-jumbo to fall back on, I was just a lady in her late 20s having an existential meltdown in a hotel restaurant.

My scrambled eggs were sharp with cheddar and I chewed slowly, staring at the moose.

Then: “Well I mean, we must’ve driven right by it!” I burst out. “That’s the freeway, see? How’d we miss it? It was right there! We drove right by it!”

“It was dark,” Andrew shrugged.

“A big orange moose, Andrew! What’s it doing here? It’s huge! And orange! Why? What’s it doing here?”

As it happens, the moose had perfectly good reasons for being there. It was originally created in the late 1960s or early 1970s at a Sparta, Wisconsin company specializing in large fiberglass sculptures. This company is still in business. It’s unclear who the moose originally belonged to, but soon after its creation, it came into the possession of a gentleman named Alan “Moose” Peterson.

Moose Peterson was one of the region’s leading businessmen before he was 30. At age 24—around 1960—he was the youngest franchised car dealer in Wisconsin, and owned multiple dealerships. He was 6-foot-4, which is how he came by the nickname “Moose”, and by all accounts he was a generous, outgoing, beloved figure in Black River Falls.

The story I’ve found in a comment on Roadside America—which I believe because enough of the comment’s details match other information I’ve tracked down—claims that at some point, Moose Peterson and the original owner of the moose were shaking dice. Moose put up a car. His opponent put up the moose. Moose Peterson won, and put his new fiberglass moose on display outside his highway-side used car lot, where it quickly became a community fixture.

Up until this point, the moose was painted brown, like a real moose. Reports differ regarding when the color took a turn for the whimsical. One account claims that Moose’s friends painted his moose orange as a joke, and that Moose in turn left the moose orange as a joke.

Another account claims the moose remained brown until after Moose Peterson’s untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 1974. Moose was only 38 and his passing was a devastating shock to the community. As most of his dealerships were sold, the moose statue moved from the dealership to its current location near major freeway crossings and local watering holes. No matter when it was painted, the moose was orange by 1975.

Nothing I’ve found makes this claim definitively, but it sounds to me as though the community treated the moose as a de facto memorial—something towering, fun, and reminiscent of their lost friend. Over the years, it’s taken on a mystique of its own, joining the many other roadside wonders dotting America’s highway system.

But I knew none of this as I sat over my Best Western continental breakfast. All I knew was what I could guess: At some point in time, someone had created a larger-than-life fiberglass moose. Someone had decided to paint it orange. The community had decided to allow the massive orange moose. And now, there it was. Right outside the window.

And here Andrew and I were, on a 21st-century summer morning in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, beholding the result of all these happenings. I wasn’t sure what more to do beyond staring as I sipped my coffee. There was an emotional reckoning to be had. Nothing would ever be the same.


Have you ever stumbled upon something so unexpected it rendered you speechless? Or discovered a hidden-away treasure by sheer chance? What was it? Tell us about it in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Unexpected Memento Mori – Or, The Massive Orange Moose

  1. Most recently, I came across what’s known as The Pirate Tower on Victoria Beach in California. It looks like all that’s left of a ruined Sleeping Beauty’s castle…the tower and turret just there, hugging a cliff with the crashing waves of the Pacific ocean beating up against it. All it needs now is a moose grazing at its foot 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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