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Wave when you pass by, partner

Linda M. Hallstrom

When I was a child living on my family’s ranch in western South Dakota, my father waved to the driver of every car we met on the way to town. He might say, “Oh, Gus got a new car,” or “Cliff ought to get that headlight fixed.”

Of course, he knew everyone in the neighborhood, but he waved whether he did or not. And everyone waved back. Now I live in Cheyenne, Wyo., and commute to the ranch. My neighbors wave despite my license plates– acknowledging, I like to think, that I am still part of this community.

But our paved two-lane highway is bloating into a divided four-lane called by its promoters, “The Heartland Expressway.” I started fighting the expansion 15 years ago. I lost.

On a four-lane, the average driver wouldn’t notice her own mother dying of heat stroke in the opposite lane; its size invites and abets anonymity, speed, competitiveness, ignorance of the surroundings- the opposite of what most people say they want in the country. Most four-lanes collect convenience stores and developments as a prairie dog draws fleas. Speeding, we collaborate to destroy the countryside we profess to love.

The state Department of Transportation already has condemned some of my land to build additional lanes; now, I am bargaining for an underpass to allow me to move cattle between my pastures on both sides. My home county wants to tax those pastures as development land, and has marked my road with a green street sign. So, waiting to pull out of the ranch on a spring day, I am overwhelmed with feelings of loss for a slower way of life. Wistfully, I remember my father waving, and so I devise an experiment in community relations: If I wave in the year 2002, will anybody wave back?

Waving in the country has been the subject of too many humorous essays written by city folks to review here. So ignoring tradition, I use a simple signal visible to oncoming drivers. With my right hand at the top of the steering wheel, I extend my index and middle fingers, palm out. I gesture when I can see the oncoming driver’s face, allowing time for a response.

My first Waving Experiment lasts 28 miles, to Hot Springs, S.D., and includes 84 vehicles, with return greetings from six. For the next few miles, I review my data. My headlights are on, a signal for “passing is dangerous”; many residents adopted this custom after losing too many relatives and friends to accidents, so cars showing headlights may have been local. The school bus driver waved but Highway Patrol trooper didn’t. I waved three times at three cars too close together; no response, perhaps because the first driver was nervously watching the two tailgating idiots, who were zig-zagging, peering ahead.

Intrigued by the results, I repeat the experiment while driving two-lane roads from Edgemont, S.D., to Lusk, Wyo. The first vehicle I meet is a battered pickup with local plates. Surprised, he waves, grins, waves some more. When I wave at two semis hauling hay bales, the first driver looks astonished; the second is talking on his cell phone. Experiment Summary: 158 waves, 10 returned, and what have I learned?

Some plains folk are dangerously out of practice in the friendly Western wave. If they just moved here, maybe they don’t understand what used to be custom. Perhaps long-time residents aren’t feeling friendly these days.

A friend suggests that waving might be considered an aggressive act, reminding her of the traditional New York third-finger wave. She suggests it symbolizes my refusal to adapt to “modern” ways, and calls me “a holdout, an old fossil practicing neighborliness.”

Nonetheless, I suggest we all start waving at each other on two-lane highways. If you choose to wave to express hostility to bigger highways and look-alike communities, that’s fine.

Waving certainly won’t solve the problems of growth and development in Western communities, but we have to start somewhere. Waving a hand is better than brandishing a firearm, and maybe our ulcers won’t flare up. See you down the road – I’ll be waving.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). Her latest book is “Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work.”


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