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.
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.
When I pass our neighbor, he salutes me with his customary broad, slow wave, which makes him look as though he's cleaning a window. His wife waggles her fingers to wave hello; you can almost imagine her saying tootle-ooo!
I know a detective with the sheriff's office who waves as though he's shooting a six-shooter - a quick jab with the index finger, the thumb up like a trigger. (I'm still waiting for him to blow the smoke away.) There are others who raise three fingers from the wheel, others who raise two, and some who lift a single index finger straight in the air, as though stressing some indisputable point.
People in the country will wave whether they're going 60 miles an hour or 10. They wave on narrow curves, on the crests of hills, or driving into a blinding sun. Often they wave in town when they should be watching for pedestrians. In short, they wave at all the times it's most inadvisable to wave. (What I remember of the moment my windshield was cracked from a stone tossed up by the wheel of a passing car was that my hand was still up in the air, after waving back at the other driver.)
If for some reason you forget to wave back at someone - if you're fiddling with the radio dial or looking for deer - you can't help but feel a tinge of guilt for a while. Did the people who just waved know you? Were they neighbors? Do they wonder why you're putting on airs? How could you have violated one of the cardinal principles of the universe, ordained when the first good person waved hospitably to another from his cave?
To more fully understand the geographical nature of this custom, try a simple test: Wave from the safety of your car at strangers along the street of any moderately sized city. Wave at every car you see. Wave deliberately, so that your gesture can be seen. The results will be remarkable and conclusive. The scenarios that will unravel are as follows: (1) you may be stared at as if you were crazy; (2) you may be followed by one of the recipients of your wave and then imposed upon in some unseemly manner; o r the most likely upshot, (3) you will be ignored. Vastly ignored. Ignored in a way that will confirm the essential anonymity of the human condition.
And yet I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that there's something fundamentally hostile about city dwellers. On the contrary, people who rub shoulders with each other as often as city folk do have to sweeten the grist with a heavy dose of camaraderie just to get by. I also suspect that if they spent a couple of weeks on country roads, they'd be waving as much as any dairyman, cowboy, logger, beekeeper, or darn fool summer person like me.
If there's any reason why people wave at strangers in the country and not in the city, it's because it is possible. The human figure stands out against a rural landscape; it demands recognition. A wave is simply the easiest way of confirming that recognition. But I think that waving is also a way of recognizing the context that the human figure stands in.
I wave at the farmer passing me in a pickup, and my wave extends to the grasses waving along the roadside, the line of trees tossing in the wind, the billowing white clouds. I wave, and my wave goes all the way to the horizon.
And so, for one season out of four, I'm a dedicated waver. Howdy, I wave to the far range of mountains. Howdy, I wave to the horses wading in timothy up to their bellies. The gardeners are turning their gardens. Dogs and kids are romping on the lawns. The clouds are beginning to develop bulges right out of Michelangelo, promising lightning and walloping thunder. I wave to the oncoming storm. I wave to the three summer months sprawled luxuriantly ahead of me. When I pull into the driveway, my wife waves f rom the porch. Then she tries to teach our baby daughter to do the same. Howdy, I wave. Howdy! Howdy!