Bouncing in the passenger seat of the dual wheel truck, dust billowing behind us, I rest my arm out the window, letting the leaves and bushes tickle my hand as we drive past. If we were driving faster it would hurt to do this, but the ruts and rocks of this particular stretch of dirt road keep our speed at a minimum. The truck eases right into the bushes and we slow even more as we make room for a jeep coming down the road toward us. As that cloud of dust draws closer my father raises his left hand and waves at the jeep. A man with a cowboy hat lifts his hand in response as the two vehicles ease past each other.
“Who was that?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” replies my dad.
“But you waved at them,” I venture.
“Yup,” he says.
“So if you don’t know that man, why did you wave to him?” I push.
“Cuz, that’s what you do out in the country.” He punctuates the sentence in a way I know means that’s the end of this conversation. Not abrupt, not angry, just “that’s all there is to say about that,” communicated in an inflection, a tone or a breath.
A few minutes later, a truck lumbers past us, he waves, they wave, and I ask. “Who was that?”
“Don’t know,” he responds.
“Yup, that’s what we do out here,” he says with a relaxed twang to his voice.
The fifteen mile road we bump along that day provided several more similar scenes. As we emerged on the asphalt and headed toward home I dangled my hand out the window to ride the slipstream of air that blew past. I felt the temperature rise as we s-curved our way down the mountain pass. I sighed as the scent in the air changed from pine to scrub oak, and from scrub oak to suburb.
We drove past many cars once we reached the main roads of our town and never did my dad raise a hand in a hello. I didn’t ask. When we reached our neighborhood, he wave once, twice. Then we pulled into the driveway and I hopped out of the truck.
Country roads were a staple in my life, for a variety of reasons, camping, canoeing, checking on the beehives my dad had stashed in various places, breakfast picnics, a day at the reservoir, or simply to go for a drive. Often my siblings came along, sometimes the whole family, occasionally just me. Always the same ritual of waving to strangers happened. Sometimes he even talked to strangers. “Anything biting?” he might ask a man with a fishing pole. Or “Howdy!” he might say to a couple of kids walking in the dusty dunes of tire tracks.
All those roads taught me a kind of etiquette that isn’t in books. Out in the country, on back roads, on hiking trails, lakeside, or mid-river, there is an unspoken understanding. There is a camaraderie in solitary places, in nature, that temporarily suspends the walls we erect in ordinary places. There is permission granted in green open spaces that lets us, encourages us even, to be friendly, to be kind, to be more than ourselves.
To pass someone on a hiking trail and not say “hello” or “good morning” is unthinkable for me. Brief eye contact seems like a given as well. At the very least, a nod of the head or a smile is a must. Conversation is optional, but allowed.
Similar behavior at a shopping mall, in the grocery store, walking down the sidewalk, gets you weird looks and feels completely off the mark.
I haven’t analyzed this too much. Just noticed it. Seems there are many unspoken rules that are difficult to explain, but make sense just the same.
One thing is clear to me. I need to travel fewer paved roads, and I need more dust clouds in my rearview mirror.
I’m drawn to the outdoors by the beauty and serenity of it all. There is energy and peace found in nature that nothing else can match. I wonder if maybe part of the attraction is also the relaxing of barriers, the lowering of the defenses, the slightly more open connection with other human beings.