From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

They’re Waving at Me

Every year, I experience an odd moment shortly after my family and I arrive at the country house we rent in Montana.

I drive down a back road, minding my own business, when I gradually realize that people are waving at me.

They wave from their pickups and cars, barely lifting their hands off the steering wheel. At first the gesture is unsettling. I wonder if they are trying to tell me my lights are on or a tire is flat. Or perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity. I’ve never seen most of these people, so who do they think they are waving at?

Then I remember. I’m not in the city anymore. And if anything distinguishes city folk from country folk, it’s that in rural areas people make a habit of waving at strangers.

Soon I’m waving at everyone too. I lift my fingers a little from the steering wheel, and the other driver lifts his. Or I shift my arm outward a bit as it rests on the window frame, raising my palm, and the other driver does likewise. One needn’t be too obvious or exuberant about these things. A raised index finger speaks volumes, and a simple nod is eloquent 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; I can almost imagine her saying “Tootle-ooo!” A detective with the sheriff’s office waves as though he’s firing a six-shooter—with the thumb up and a quick jab of the index finger. (I’m still waiting for him to blow away the smoke.)

People in the country will wave whether they’re going sixty miles an hour or ten. 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.

If for some reason I forget to wave back—say I’m fiddling with the radio dial—I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Did the people who just waved know me? Were they neighbors? Do they think I’m putting on airs? I worry that I’ve violated one of the cardinal principles of the universe, ordained when the first good person waved hospitably to another from his cave.

To understand the geographical nature of this custom, try a simple test: Wave from your car at strangers along a city street. You may be stared at as if you are crazy. But most likely you will be ignored. I also suspect that if a city person spent a couple of weeks on country roads, he’d be waving just as much as any dairyman, cowboy, logger, beekeeper—or darn-fool visitor like me.

The reason is that, in the country, the human figure stands out against the landscape; it demands recognition. A wave is simply the easiest way of confirming that recognition. But I think waving is also a way of recognizing the setting around the human figure.

I wave at the farmer passing me in a pickup, and my wave extends to the grasses swaying 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, as long as I’m in the country, I’m a dedicated waver. Howdy, I wave to the far range of mountains. Howdy, I wave to the horses trotting in the fields. Howdy, I wave to the kids and dogs romping in the yard.

When I pull into the driveway, my wife waves from the porch. Then she tries to teach our baby daughter to do the same. Howdy, I wave to them. Howdy, I wave. Howdy! Howdy!

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