The wave

My parents and I moved to Cat Spring in 1987. Prior to that, my entire 11-year childhood consisted of a suburban life in Houston — the fourth largest city in the United States. In 1987 I was plunked into a rural sprawl and a township that consisted of a post office, a gas station/beer saloon called Crossroads and a population of 38 and a ‘coon dog. At the time, I hated it. I hated moving away from my friends, my neighborhood, the big city where everything was at my fingertips. What used to be a quick trip to the movie theatre was now an all-day event. Going to the grocery store with my mom was an outing, not an errand.

Cat Spring is an hour west of Houston. It’s close enough to Houston so you can go there if you needed to, but not close enough to go if you wanted to. At 11-years-old, I had no other choice but to acclimate myself. And my parents had to acclimate as well to our new community. Part of my family’s acclimation was understanding “the wave.” Most of Austin County is veined by farm market roads on which the locals travel to and fro. And the locals, without fail, always waved to oncoming vehicles. The men, while leaving their left hand at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel would lift their single index finger to say “howdy” with a single digit salute. The women usually wave with all four fingers while keeping their thumb on the steering wheel, as if they almost would prefer to pick their entire hand up, show you their full palm and jiggle the entire hand in full and excited waving motion.

It only takes a few times where you, as the driver, are compelled to reciprocate the gesture. It’s like you’ve been bitten by a zombie and have now become one of them. You’re now a tribesman (or woman). As a city dweller, the first time you return a wave, it feels silly, almost childish. You’ve grown accustomed to hostility among seas of strangers on interstates and the notion of waving to someone on the road means you’re either in need of help, or you actually know the person that you’re waving to. Your brain cannot comprehend the idea of a friendly hand gesture while driving.

After traveling for a few days on a farm market road in Austin County, waving becomes a habit. It’s now second nature. Now you’re the instigator of the wave, instead of waiting for the oncoming traveler to wave. Gone is the thought that perhaps this waving business was just a fad that you happened upon. You moved to their county and they waved to you to simply say “howdy” — to remind you that people are inherently nice and good and might actually care that you have a decent day, doing whatever it is that you’re going to do.

At first, for me, as a pre-teen, the farm market wave was laughable. But I quickly learned to appreciate and expect the wave. When I turned 15, and against state law, I started driving. And I immediately started waving at the folks that I passed on my commute to school, football or track practice, Tae Kwon Do, or an outing to visit with friends. It always felt good to give a wave and to receive a wave. The wave meant community.

Not really conscious of it, I waved goodbye to the wave when I moved to Austin in 1994 for college. Like any college kid, I made many a trip back to my parents’ house for weekends, and was always comforted by the farm market road waves when I returned. It reminded me of that widely adopted notion of a community that just doesn’t exist in urban settings.

Just this past weekend my daughter and I drove the 10 miles to Shultz’s general store in New Ulm for fishing worms. I waved to the 7 vehicles that we passed. One gentlemen, in a pickup truck, hesitantly waved back. In my mind, as that guy drove on past me, he probably thought, “That was nice, but I guess that guy just doesn’t know that we don’t do that around here anymore.”

People on the farm market roads in Austin County (and surrounding counties) don’t instinctively wave to oncoming vehicles anymore. And it’s been that way for at least 5 years, as far as I can recollect. I think too many people from larger cities have since moved “out to the country” and didn’t allow themselves to actually become part of the community. Instead, they kept their hands at 10 & 2, with NPR on the radio to remind them of the “real” outside world, while they kept their eyes focused on the country road, in a hurry so they can get to the antique store to procure “authentic” country goods with which to furnish their quaint country cottage.

Country folk have a saying: “Don’t be a stranger.” When my wife, daughter and I go back to visit my mom out in Cat Spring, it feels like we’re strangers once we exit Hwy 71 and make our way down the farm market roads. It might take me passing a few cars before I remember to instigate the wave. I just hope that one day they start waving back again.

2 Replies to “The wave”

  1. Josh,

    Great story and boy is it just the way you describe it. Was back home in Austin County myself this weekend and noticed the same thing.

  2. I was not aware that you cared about rual customs. It’s nice to know though. Surprise me more because I love reading your observations.

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