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Casual pass

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"Three in a row!" I yelled to myself over the din of the White Stripes song that rattled the poor speakers of my 12-year-old Jetta. The third consecutive oncoming pickup had greeted me with a two-finger wave—you know, the one where the hand's at twelve o'clock on the steering wheel, with middle and index fingers raised without lifting the hand. It's the rural salute. I had just begun a five-hour blue-highway drive to the Shenandoah Valley for a reunion of college buddies during Super Bowl weekend. I was enjoying a stretch of cruise control and coffee, heading north on NC-86, somewhere between Yanceyville and the state line. The salutations made me really happy.

I returned each of them in kind, having been schooled on the wave etiquette by a friend some time back on flat Iowan cornfield roads. It had been new to me then, having grown up near Boston, where a certain one-finger gesture was a much more common roadway conveyance. I was impressed by the ability of this casual, effortless gesture to transmit such a general feeling of goodwill.

Those who grew up with the wave know it to be a decidedly rural phenomenon. Geographically, it seems most common in the Midwest and South (including Texas, but excluding Florida), but it must be practiced in the agrarian West, too. The wave's urban cousin, mapped similarly, is any form of sidewalk greeting between strangers—unheard of in New York, mandatory in New Orleans.

As I snaked up Route 29 past Danville, Va., I reflected on the wave's requisites: single-lane highways, reasonable speed limits, utilitarian pickups with non-tinted vertical windshields. But there was something else, something intangible, that seemed to perpetuate the wave. Maybe it was a farming community's sense of place, perhaps a collective memory of horse-drawn wagon trails and an old-fashioned willingness to acknowledge passersby. In this light, the simple sign became much more than an unspoken hello. It was an invitation to slow down, shun anonymity and reciprocate a bit of human interaction in the face of our modern technologies of alienation. It's hard enough to text while driving; it's impossible to text, drive and deliver the rural salute—or so my caffeinated, indie-rocked road-trip thinking went.

Last May, I needed something that could pull a trailer. I found a great deal on a candy red '87 Dodge Ram with less than 80,000 miles. When I returned from Virginia after the Super Bowl, I eased myself onto the pickup's cracking vinyl bench seat, placing one hand on its black faux-leather steering wheel cover. I practiced the wave in my driveway. I think I can get the hang of it. At first, I suspect I'll reserve the flourish for country roads and fellow pickup owners. In honor of habitual wavers everywhere, though, I'll work to expand my reach. Don't be surprised if you pass an old wide-grilled half-ton in town sometime soon and catch a two-finger flash above its die-cast ram's head hood ornament. A wave back is all I ask.

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