My new stepfather had just moved us from the northern Adirondacks to his home turf along the fetid fringes of the Chesapeake Bay, a decided geo-cultural step down in my then-12-year-old opinion. I mean, who knew there were such things as saltwater mosquitos, poison ivy, ticks, chiggers, stifling heat, rebel flags and drawls so thick that an otherwise ordinary single-syllable word could be stretched enough to fill an entire novel?
One of the more-perplexing idiosyncrasies that apparently was interwoven into the collective psyche of Dixie took the form of people waving as they drove past one another, something I could not recollect happening in the great white north. “Who was that?” I once asked my stepfather after he waved at a motorist driving the opposite direction in our neck of the tick-filled woods. “No idea,” he responded. “Then why did you wave at him?” I responded to his response. His face then contorted, like he wondered if the bothersome child sitting beside him stood any chance whatsoever of being cured of his Yankee insanity.
I lived in the South for a grand total of 10 years before moving with a great deal of enthusiasm to the Mountain Time Zone, where I have dwelled mostly happily for 43 years now. In that decade of Southern living, my understanding of the wave grew, but it did not mature. We lived in a very unpopulated, backwards-assed county where most everyone knew most everyone going 10 generations back. Or at least you knew everyone’s car. You might not be able to place a specific name to the occupants of a given vehicle, but you recognized, for example, the black ’71 Buick, which, turns out, belonged to Robby Carmine, who ended up perishing in a head-on collision near the Yorktown Bridge. In a sense then, you were waving as much at the car as you were the driver. But it amounted to the same thing — a recognition of recognition.
My first couple years in the West, I was carless, my 1967 Opel Kadett station wagon having died on the way out from Virginia in Amarillo, where I sold it to a junk dealer for enough money to put my gear on a Greyhound but not enough money to also put me on that same bus. I arrived at my final destination —Silver City, New Mexico — tripping on mushrooms via my thumb. So, it took a while for me to get a grip on the Mountain Time Zone’s take on the vehicular wave. When I finally purchased my first wheels in the Land of Enchantment — an ancient Ford Econoline van with a center-mounted engine and three on the tree — I got re-acquainted with the wave, but with a Western spin.
First, I should note how surprised I was that anyone ever waved at me, given that my hair was shoulder length and the van — which I christened “Atom Heart Mother,” after the justifiably little-known Pink Floyd album of the same name — might as well have had the words “Dope Smoking Freak On Board” painted upon its side. Though southwest New Mexico in those days was home to a sizeable Rainbow-Family-type hippie population, most of the other vehicles I would pass on the lonely highways were pick-up trucks piloted by ranchers, miners, loggers and other members in good stead of the area’s dominant buzzcut good-ol’-boy demographic.
Yet, almost always, they would wave. Well, maybe not a wave per se. Better stated, there would usually be some sort of greeting-based hand movement. It could take the form of a subtle raising of an index finger with the hand still attached firmly to a steering wheel. (This translated to “hey.”) If the driver felt really chummy, he or she might render a two-fingered greeting by simultaneously raising the index and middle fingers. (This translated to “How you doin’?”) If the driver thought maybe he or she recognized you, but wasn’t really sure, you might get all four fingers raised with the hand still firmly attached to the steering wheel. (This translated to “How’s the family?”)
There was also a full salutation, with the hand coming off the steering wheel to execute a proper wave, which was usually reserved for positively ID’d friends you hoped to see at church next Sunday or at Uncle Bill’s Bar or El Piojo Cantina on Friday night.
There was almost always something, which is not really odd when you consider that two people were passing within feet of each other way out in the middle of cactus-covered nowhere, even though that fleeting meeting transpired at 60 mph. It was simply good manners to say “hey” via sign language. But there was more to the equation. It took me a few years to get a grip on what that something might be.
I moved to the Colorado High Country long enough ago that there were still empty highways traversing unpopulated areas. By then, I was driving a 1973 Plymouth Duster I bought for $250 from a man indebted to a local bail bondsman who had a particularly unsavory reputation. That vehicle also should have had “Dope Smoking Freak On Board” painted upon its side, except there wasn’t enough room between rust patches to paint anything of communicative substance. I brought with me to Colorado my habitual inclination to wave at other motorists. Sometimes there would be some manner of reciprocation. But not often. It made me wonder if the wave was not perhaps a warm-weather phenomenon.
As the population of Colorado exploded, I slowly lost the habit of waving at those I passed on the highway. I thought of the scene in the first “Crocodile Dundee” movie, where Mick was trying to say howdy to everyone he came close to on a crowded sidewalk in New York. It is to the point now that, if you tried to wave at every car you passed in Colorado, you would develop carpal tunnel syndrome of your waving hand. The state now simply moves too fast. And there are too many people and cars. And those people are too focused on whatever their mission-of-the-moment might be.
Which gets me back to what I finally came to realize about motorists waving to one another, even though one may be wearing a cowboy hat while driving a pick-up truck on his way to an anti-wolf gathering and the other may be smoking weed while driving a beat-up van named Atom Heart Mother: Even the single-index-finger “wave” says that, on some fundamental level, we are all in this together. Maybe that’s limited to the blacktop, but maybe not. It says: “If you run into trouble out here where there be dragons, you can count on me to stop and help, no matter who you are or what you look like.” It means: “I’ll do my damnedest to not crash into you and I expect you to do your damnedest to not crash into me.”
I am probably reading too much into this. Maybe the vehicular wave is nothing more than a physical execution of basic manners. Either way, I miss it.
I have made a point in the past couple years to resurrect that simple act. Not of course while driving on Highway 82 to Aspen during morning rush hour. But, when I am driving on East Valley Road or Two Rivers Road while traffic is light, I raise my first two fingers to those traveling in the opposite direction. Most people do not even notice. And some who do seem surprised, maybe even offended, like I’m inserting myself into their space unbidden. But occasionally, someone returns the gesture, usually accompanied by a smile. And that brings me back to the fetid shores of the Chesapeake Bay, at a time when everyone knew everyone. Or at least everyone knew everyone’s car. And we recognized our recognition with a simple hand gesture.
Got an observation on the vehicular wave? Send it to email@example.com. M. John Fayhee pens Kill the Curmudgeon whenever his fingers start twitching.