The Unwritten Rules Of Dirt Roads

Two fingers of my left hand lifted from the steering wheel as the mud-spattered red pickup passed my Toyota on Old Waterford Road. Two of the other driver's did the same.

"Do you know him?" my friend from the city asked.

"No, I don't," I replied.

She looked puzzled. "I thought you sort of waved at him," she said in a somewhat accusing tone. "I saw you lift a couple of fingers from the steering wheel, and so did he." In the silence that followed I steered around the potholes in the dirt road.

"Well, you did, didn't you?" she persisted. I could see where she was coming from. I had lived in the city not long ago. But I have been familiar with country ways all my life, learning the etiquette of the back roads from my father.

"Yes, I guess I did," I said, feeling as if I were confessing to a major misdeed. "It's just a way of acknowledging a passing driver on a lonely back road." I remembered the warm feeling I'd had of connecting with a fellow traveler. "I don't do it on the highway," I continued a bit defensively, "Just on back roads where either one of us could need a helping hand at any time. It keeps the lines of communication open."

I told her that waving has something to do with the number of vehicles on a dirt road. It's an indefinable thing. It's not that you count them. You don't. It's just the subtle feeling of isolation that makes you wave when a car finally comes into view. Up go the fingers automatically, and if you checked your watch, you'd know that a fair amount of time had elapsed since you last passed someone.

All of this takes into account, of course, the fact that you are looking at the person in the vehicle. You are not acknowledging just a pick-up or a van or an automobile; you are recognizing a fellow human being. It says, "I see you, I greet you, I'm here if you have a need."

You also wave when someone turns out for you.

To "turn out" means to pull off to the side of the road and stop while the other vehicle passes. Most often it happens on less-traveled dirt roads wide enough for only one car. Sometimes the motion is accompanied by a brief smile - ever so brief.

As a matter of fact, one is really too engrossed in keeping the car on the road and not sideswiping the pulled-over vehicle even to look at the other driver's face. It's just those knuckles clutching the steering wheel, relinquishing their grip long enough to raise the needed fingers - usually four, for a courtesy wave.

It's the code of the back road.

I was glad my friend had questioned my mini-wave, as it caused me to articulate a defense I had never thought necessary to put into words before. She was actually nodding her head in agreement with my extended explanation when a truck approached. She leaned forward and waved her hand at the man in the cab, even as I raised my fingers from the wheel. In my rearview mirror I could see his brake lights go on.

"Oops," I said. "He thinks we need help." I stepped on the brake.

"Don't stop! I knew this waving was dangerous," my friend said, retreating into her urban mentality.

Too late. A big genial workman got down from the cab of the truck and approached my Toyota, miniature by comparison. "Anything I can do to help you?" he asked, bending down and looking in the window at us.

You already have, I thought. You've confirmed for my friend my trust in the good intentions of fellow travelers on lonely roads. But I said, "No, thanks just the same. We're just out enjoying the day, but we do appreciate your asking."

"OK," he replied. "Just thought I'd better check," and with a genuine wave, he strode back to his truck.

I THOUGHT gratefully how this tradition lives on, capturing the essence of our kinship. It recalls a time when neighborliness was essential to the existence of those living in rural areas, and how it can be for us today. I like the trust and reassurance it represents, and when my wave isn't returned, I'll know I've strayed beyond the boundaries of the country I've come to call home.

I turned to my friend and, seeing her smile of relief, said as gently as possible, "Why don't you leave the waving to me."

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