Just Who Are They Waving at?
EVERY summer I seem to experience an odd moment. My wife and I are teachers, and we usually try to spend the long vacations that our jobs offer us in a rented house in the country. This past summer we went, with our baby daughter, to Montana. Shortly after we arrived, the odd moment occurred. It came about in the usual way. I'm driving down one of the back roads, minding my own business, when gradually I realize that people are waving at me.Skip to next paragraph
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They wave from their pickups and cars, barely lifting their hands off the steering wheel but waving all the same, or they nod at me from the side of the road as I whiz by. Sometimes there's not a soul who doesn't wave, and I wonder if they're trying to tell me my lights are on or maybe a tire is flat. I turn onto the state highway, heading into town, and though the gesture is not as frequent here, when it occurs it's unsettling enough to make me look in the rear-view mirror - out the back window and then
with some consternation at myself. Is this a case of mistaken identity? Most of these people I've never seen before. So who do they think they're waving at?
Then I remember. I'm not in the city any more. And if there's anything that distinguishes city folk from country folk, it's the fact that in rural areas people make a habit of waving at utter strangers. It's a truth that is too easy to forget when you have been in the city awhile.
In town, I pull into the gas station to have a tire changed. The owner is an elderly fellow who is efficient and thorough, and he goes about his work (extracting the tire from the rim, putting the new one on, filling it with air) with a quiet respectfulness. It turns out that he is a hunter - a bowhunter. There are archery magazines scattered all around the office. He must have seen me flipping through them as I sat there, because as I pay the bill he asks if I hunt.
"Not much," I shrug. "I'm more of a hiker."
"Nothing wrong with that," he assures me. "There's a lot of fine country out there. I must have hiked every square inch of it looking for elk."
He talks on in his thorough, quiet way until I begin to think he's actually going to tell me about all the land he's hiked, every square inch of it. The car waits in the sunlight. There are other errands I have to run. I lean toward the door. And yet there is another part of me that takes a deep interest in what he's saying - the names of lakes I've never seen, the whereabouts of creeks and springs. I can tell from the easy familiarity with which he speaks their names that he knows the country better tha n I ever will. If I want to get to know the land about me (one of my steadfast aspirations, wherever I find myself), I should get to know this man, too. And so I bide my time and listen.
And then he's telling me about a herd of elk he happened upon when he was out hunting one fall. "Must have been 20 of them," he says. "Trotted right past me, with a big bull leading the way - biggest rack I've ever seen."
"Did you bag it?" I ask.
"Naw. I was too busy counting! After they'd passed, though, I did put up my hand and wave."
Driving back home that afternoon, I'm waving at everyone. I lift my fingers a little from the steering wheel, and the other driver lifts his, and a subtle yet definite greeting is achieved. Or I shift my arm outward a bit as it rests on the window frame, raising my palm, and the other driver does likewise, and thus a message is communicated that it's a fine day, but not too fine. One shouldn't be too obvious about these things, or too exuberant. A raised index finger speaks volumes, and a simple nod is e loquent in its restraint.