In August, I vacationed with my daughter in Northern Montana near Trego, not too far south of Eureka. To reach the place we stayed, we drove backroads. When we passed by other vehicles, drivers waved.
It’s one of the first things I loved about Montana back in the 1970’s - the wave. I had completely forgotten it until my daughter and I started spending time around Gardiner and drivers on the road to Jardine would wave as I drove by. It didn’t take long to hit my groove — I like to do a two finger wave, sort of like a rodeo queen but from my car’s steering wheel, not my non-existent hat. Why? I don’t have a clue. It’s just my style.
In the 70’s, when I lived in Crow Agency, we waved at each other on the freeway. For a girl for whom the San Francisco Bay Area already felt too populated and impersonal, there was a seductive charm to the backcountry wave. Certainly in Bozeman, where people talk on their cell phones even though it’s illegal, where they are busy and distracted, no one waves.
About the driver’s wave, a friend who lives North of Belgrade said, “It's just something I grew up with and continue to do. I've been asked on several occasions if I know the people I wave at and always answer no. I also get asked why I wave then. Because that's what you do. I rarely wave on pavement and I only wave with one finger.....my index finger. Why? Because my mom does and it cracks me up, so I do too. It's funny to see it pop up off of the steering wheel all by itself.
A Montana native remembered, “My dad always waved. He used his middle finger. He said the people who liked him knew him. The people who didn't like him waved the same way. I still wave. It is just a part of driving.”
Another Montana country dweller says, “I always wave even though some of the folks on our dirt road are driving so fast they almost run me off the road. I figure that they might think I'm asking them to slow down and then realize someone is just being friendly...and offering a gesture that means we're all community here, connected by the Earth of the road. My husband and son also wave but they also notice every car that they meet on the highway...even the crowded busy ones. I just realized that comes from the beginnings of driving on a dirt road and waving at whoever passes by.”
Until working on this piece, I didn’t realize how pervasive the wave is. I really did think it a rural Montana thing. But I found an older article in the Christian Science Monitor about it, a friend who grew up in Idaho weighed in and another friend who lives in Southern California wrote, “People in my beach town still wave in the old neighborhoods of tiny curvy roads, it is kind and friendly.”
So I was charmed all over again, driving back roads in Northern Montana, passing No Trespassing after Private Property, No Trespassing sign and yet on the shared road, waving, briefly connecting, remembering that regardless of worldview or politics, brand new white pick up or battered silver Toyota Corolla, in that moment, we remembered, we are neighbors.
Jenna Caplette migrated from California to Montana in the early 1970s, first living on the Crow Indian reservation. A Healing Arts Practitioner, she owns Bozeman BodyTalk & Integrative Healthcare. For relaxation, she reads novels and walks the trails around Bozeman with her four-legged-companion. Oh, and sometimes she manages to sit down and write.