Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Wave


When you first drive through this area of West Texas you notice one thing immediately - most of the drivers lift a finger as they approach you. No, it's not that middle digit but the forefinger, though some will lift two or three fingers - it's a matter of personal style. They are waving.

Now sometimes they won't wave, particularly if you look like an out-of-stater. That's because outsiders rarely respond or respond too late. But if you look local, especially if you're driving a pickup truck and/or wearing a cowboy hat, you'll likely get the wave, and you need to be prepared to return it.

Here's how: always drive with one hand on top of the steering wheel. As someone approaches you simply raise your index finger and hang it in the air for a couple of seconds. You'll almost certainly get a response if the person is a local.

Why the wave? Well, it's friendly, or more accurately it's neighborly. I think it's also an acknowledgment of the situation: here you are miles from nowhere with perhaps one car coming into sight every 10 miles or more. In other words, you're not in a crowd. You are, in fact, among a very sparse group of people, people upon whom you may have to depend if you break down or have a medical problem. You need the very next person coming down the pike to stop and help. So, you bond. That finger wave is a "glad to be here with you". It's a "you can count on me, buddy, we're all in this together".

Last year I started out from my house at about 6:30am and drove the 10 miles to the main highway. I saw no one on the way. When I hit the highway I headed north to our nearest town of any size. I drove 20 more miles without seeing a vehicle ahead or behind me. Then along came a telephone company truck. The next vehicle headed my way, also a phone company truck, came 6 miles later. In the 72 miles from my house to town I counted 6 vehicles.

Out here you have to depend on your neighbors (neighbors meaning anyone else in the county). There are some folks here I just plain don't like and some who don't like me. But if I see them stuck or broken down or signaling trouble, I'll stop and help. They'd do the same. We may not speak much during the time but we'd assist each other and then be on our way. When you live remote that's the way things are. That finger wave is a pact, it's a code we all know and it goes beyond friendly - it goes to basic survival.

We're almost a clan. We're not city, suburb or even rural. We're remote, and that carries certain obligations.

It's also part of the politeness of folks here. West Texans pride themselves in their courtesy, in their "yes, ma'ams" and "yes, sirs", in the touching of their hat brims as you pass, in the shy, almost imperceptible head nod and in that flick of the finger on the steering wheel. Howdy, neighbor.

For all this, people are generally reserved, they don't talk much - at least not the natives. The newbies who've come out and who haven't seen another human in a week or so will grab you with a haunted, desperate look and talk your ear off. Some can't stand the quiet, the reclusivity, and they will eventually leave. Others of us try to adapt, because it's the only alternative. We do the wave, we nod hello, we tend toward being a bit reserved in our conversation. We try to fit into this rugged environment where the next person down the road may be essential.

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