The Town That Waves – by Jesse Hardin
Intro: Our Animá school is situated in isolated Catron County, New Mexico, only 2 percent private land and a populous nationally famous for their their anti-government, libertarian, and sadly but understandably anti-environmentalist views. Even as they have embraced a tree hugging ex-biker philosopher named “Wolf” as their own, they are terrified of the real wolf introduction program and angry over the ways the program has been operated. For all its twists and complexities, we are very fortunate to live in a place where individual liberty is a paramount value, wide open spaces treasured, wild food eaten, medicinal herbs appreciated, gardens grown and human bonds strengthened. Folks jump to help us and each other, and are disappointed if we don’t stop to visit. If you ever make the trip here you will expect to see the disparaging sign about spotted owls in our landmark Uncle Bill’s Bar, but you may be surprised at the friendly greetings of folks walking or driving your way. There is a reason why I may be calling my upcoming “straight shot” book of rural humor and land based insights “The Town That Waves.” This will likely be its opening chapter. -JWH
The Town That Waves
by Jesse Hardin
I will never forget rolling into my home country for the very first time, awestruck by the sheer physical beauty, giddy with excitement as Sonoran desert gave way to vast stretches of piñon-juniper, then into thick stands of ponderosa pine bearded with dangling usnea. The continental divide. The exposed cliffs near the village of Aragon, with that inviting cave within sight of the road. The bright green meadows fed by generous springs, the twist of the Tularosa river, the view to the north of the Frisco box. Elk feeding at the edge of the pavement. Bald eagles circling. A fox dashing for cover at the sound of my engine. The vast distances seemed to cast a spell on me, soothing my beastly youthful impatience. And the land… the land felt animate with the ghosts of the past, its human and natural history somehow still alive for us to sense, learn from, and give thanks for. Call it the presence of God if you will – or call it the power of the Great Spirit as previous generations of awestruck natives did – but the land seemed to me then and still seems to reflect, embody and vibrate with a divine force, appearing magical even to a hardened modern mind. The closer I got to what would become my lifetime home, the closer I felt to heaven. Blooming wildflowers and a buoyant northeastern wind worked in consort together, easing me into a timeless state of mind steeped in reverie on that long, long drive.
I was amazed on that fortuitous initial visit, however, not just by the landscape but also the people. First, that there were so very few of them, with me seeing only a handful of trucks in the final one hundred and thirty miles. And second, amazed that the drivers waved as they passed by!
I don’t think that a roadside iguana race hosted by hula dancers would have have been any greater a surprise to the 23 year old me. Having been a teen runaway in the harder neighborhoods of several cities, I’d grown to expect a “dirty finger” flipped in my direction, or an occasional beer bottle being tossed at me by someone with an aversion for “long-hairs” or chopped motorcycles. And even in the nicer parts of town, I could expect stiff indifference, pedestrians as well as drivers understandably going by without making eye contact, with me largely anonymous and irrelevant to them. But waving? I was dumbfounded. Nonplussed. Flabbergasted. And I might add, deeply touched.
For the first few weeks here I felt guilty, like an impostor, worried that they were confusing my vehicle for someone else’s they knew. Surely if those folks realized I wasn’t a local, they’d resent the effort. And up until then I still preferred being ignored to being resented. But that’s all changed in the decades since, and it’s gotten to where I’d rather be actively disliked than ingloriously ignored. At this stage, I only feel guilty if I get so distracted with changing the music on the stereo that I fail to wave back.
For all those who wave, needless to say, I’ve noticed there are a few who never do. These include the occasional stockman, too John Wayne-like stoic to do anything so ostentatious and undignified. The nearly blind, who drive ten miles an hour and can barely see the yellow lines, let alone make out a raised hand behind the glare of an opposing windshield. The teens scarcely old enough for a license, who are characteristically way too cool for such things. And those who are both extremely old and stubbornly willful, working with white-knuckled determination to keep their thirty year old pickups on the road, justifiably afraid to take either hand off the wheel even for a second.
The above are the exceptions, while the majority of my community faithfully continue with this valued practice, going through the motions because we care. Being a county of individualists, however, no two of these waves are exactly alike. The personal variations demonstrate both the degree of emotional investment and the current mood of the waver, such as: A single pointer finger lifted. The same finger lifted, but wagged. Two fingers doing the same. The whole palm lifted, with the heel still on the wheel. An entire hand raised and held still in the air, like pinto pony-riding Plains Indians meeting up in a flat stretch of buffalo grass. The whole hand raised and waved back and forth, like a bobbing dashboard hula-dancer. And there is both hands momentarily off the wheel, flapping wildly in the air because the driver happens to be truly excited to see you.
Such waves are about bonding, affirmation and membership in a way, about being genuinely pleased the other fellow is out on such a good day to be alive! About fellow county residents sharing a common place and history, and a number of values and hopes. But the wave is also about recognizing each other as fellow human critters only temporarily boxed up in ironclad machines on wheels, no matter our fellow driver’s place of origin… as sister and brethren sharecroppers working in a fractured economic system, breathing the same air, struggling with the same issues of growing up or parenting, of aging and health. The same prostituted politicians and freedom-robbing legislation. And similar purpose and belief, hardship and hope.
That said, my rural neighbors and I aren’t any too bothered if some tourist or house hunter motors by without giving us the courtesy of waving back. We understand. He or she just doesn’t know any better yet.
(Post and forward freely)
Categories: Sense of Place