The Death of the Wave


Do something friendly that nobody else does.

Recently, I took my annual trip out into the open spaces of America (in one of the few such sanctuaries that still remain), and came away very disturbed by the realization of something painfully missing out on the road these days.  This particular loss for America has been a long time coming actually, and I knew it, but my observations on this trip served to confirm the end of an era.

My trip took me from hometown Seattle down into the basin and range of Nevada, with the core of the adventure a transection of the Silver State on US 50, “America’s Loneliest Road”, as it is called. Given the number of vehicles and RV’s out there this summer though, I don’t think the nickname really applies anymore.  There were a few stretches of perhaps 7-10 minutes when I met no car coming the other way, but mostly there was little fear of my Conestoga breaking down and stranding me alone in the desert.

The really dispiriting experience of the journey however, came whenever I did chance upon a fellow traveler approaching on the opposite side of the road.  In that brief, two-second passing, my Southern-bred hand wave of friendliness received no wave in return. Not once.

Even worse, on the rare occasions that the opposing driver actually looked my way and detected my wave, a look of strange incredulity invariably crossed the driver’s face, as if my wave was some kind of proof of extraterrestrial life in the middle of Nevada.

To me, that inaction constitutes a piece torn right out of the American heart, the fading of a very simple yet very friendly act by drivers on less-traveled roads to wave at each other as they pass.   In the grand scheme of life, drivers failing to wave hardly causes a ripple in the universe, but the passing of the custom has more significance than a mere movement of a hand.

I grew up in Texas, where drivers on country roads never failed to offer a greeting.  Long drives to Alpine or short forays to Bastrop on any Texas State highway would invariably find friendly drivers flailing their hands at each other in happy Hello Pardner along the way. It wasn’t just a custom or obligation, it was an honest feeling, born from not-so-long-ago Texas days when meeting someone on a lonely road could truly become a comfort.

Here in Seattle, people are generally appalled at the idea of friendliness anyway.  I suppose our city is like many other icebergs where people tend to keep their distances both physically and emotionally, but Seattle somehow seems to have exceeded even the famed New York City reputation for a lack of stranger kindness.  At least folks here aren’t downright rude like in The Apple, but the ‘Seattle Freeze’ as it has often been termed, is a quite real phenomenon.

Even when I drive out of my own neighborhood, people walking their dogs along the street won’t return a casual wave. Most won’t even look up and make eye contact, which of course obviates any obligation to acknowledge your presence, much less wave back at you. If I don’t see you, I don’t have to care about you. And I don’t want to care about you.

During my summer sojourn, most of the drive from Seattle down through Oregon and parts of Idaho until making landfall in the great (big) state of Nevada followed Interstate highways where no waves were expected.  Upon reaching Fallon, NV, and heading into the outback, I cranked my own wave up to full Texas power and started saluting every oncoming driver, be it car, RV, 18-wheeler, or pickup. Didn’t take long to get disappointed though, as driver after driver stared straight ahead and passed on by in a vapor of detachment.  My disenchantment continued on all the Nevada highways I explored as well as the unpaved backroads of the state. Eventually, I returned to the sterility of I-80 at Elko where I could find comfort in believing the lack of civility arose from the presence of a divided highway rather than the absence of courtesy.

Once, on a long drive out across a barren patch of desert headed towards a hot spring, I met only one car on a 10-mile stretch, but even then, no return wave.  I won’t slander the identity of the very large, west coast state’s license plate, but my anecdotal observations of that entire week tell me it didn’t matter; the absence of a wave appeared to be characteristic of drivers from all over the country.

So why do I have all this angst about people hurtling past my windshield at 80mph and not making a simple hand gesture?  Because it’s symbolic of a larger disintegration in our society; the effort to make a simple, direct, eye-contact, heart-felt connection is becoming extinct.  We work from home, we shop online, we do our jobs on a laptop, and we routinely connect to the world electronically for the better part of our lives, leaving us entirely arm’s-length from the rest of humanity. It seems a friendly wave can only be found today when a Passenger Pigeon flaps at a passing Dodo.

This lack of a simple hand wave between strangers is no surprise. It’s just another step in the process of dissociating ourselves from the world at large.  We don’t care about anybody else because we don’t have to. We can get along without other people just fine.

Not waving at each other on the road is not the cause of our dissociation of course, it’s only a symptom.  Lack of civility someday will eat up our cohesive society like an aggressive fungus.  I don’t know if this degenerative process is reversible, but I do know it is not an advancement in human relations when we no longer care to connect. It’s a clear deterioration.

So next time you are out somewhere on a lonely road making your way through a strange land and the driver of an oncoming blue Toyota Tacoma pickup waves at you, would you please wave back?  It’s probably me, since nobody else seems to be waving these days.

Thanks for taking this little trip with me.  It was fun having you along. See you on the next one!

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