The Montana Wave

The Montana Wave, Backroads, Montana Highways

The Montana Wave

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Holden Sieler

This summer, lighten up. 

After the long slosh and skid of winter finally recedes, the sudden profusion of thawed tarmac, green valleys, and snow-capped vistas cannot but tickle already itchy feet. On any given summer day, the eager outdoorspeople rise with the lark before the rest of the neighborhood can sully their personal patch of national forest, and unless you’re also is willing to adopt this Spartan schedule, you can bet by noontime the trails and bike paths will be teeming with life like an artist’s rendition of the Cambrian explosion.

Sharing the outdoors with people whose very presence ruins it bears a certain resemblance to the aforementioned epoch: competition breeds further resentment for one’s fellow creatures. But on the Sunday drive along the provincial two-lane, kindred souls encountered behind the wheel are no mean company. There’s plenty of slow and scenic travel to be had out there, enough space in either lane for all, and lesser odds that the experience will be sabotaged by one’s fellow citizens. Whether it be the bumpy and beautiful Trail Creek drive or the languid turns up Jackson Creek or the pavement-to-gravel reaches of Springhill that parallel the mountains, some of the greatest aesthetic experiences of Montana can be had on road just as well as off.

Like the etiquette of the trail, there are unwritten customs of travel that apply to the intrepid motorist designed to promote the common joy of the countryside. The most essential of these practices, without question, is the good ol’ Montana wave. A goodly portion of locals have already made this a habit, but recent backroad tours have proven to me that some still need reminding. Additionally, if you happen to be a transplant to the treasure state, you would do well to heed the following advice so that, even if you are a shameless stockbroking socialite who wheels about in a Tesla, you may at least appear to be nicer than you are, and maybe less conspicuously exotic.

It would be unspeakably churlish to scamper past an oncoming hiker on the same trail without so much as a tip of the hat, a howdy, or banal comment about the weather; how, then, could one ignore a fellow traveler of the road on equally serene routes? The least you can do is acknowledge each other, and in doing so, secure mutual goodwill. If you wind up stuck in a ditch or your tire explodes or you collide with a large animal, provided it is not some rancher’s prize-winning beef, the Montana Wave serves as a guarantor of joint charity and communicates in not so many words, “If you or I are ever in a pickle out here, we’ve got each other’s back.”

The most congenial wave is, of course, the full hand lifted from the wheel, accompanied by a smile (the toothier, the better) in passing. There is no ambiguity about your good-natured gesture, and you’ll have the satisfaction of making someone feel appreciated. Besides the full-on wave, there are a number of other greetings that you might likewise employ. The forefinger salute, for example, is stoically sufficient. The preferred greeting of the laconic, one-hand-on-the-wheel driver (who is usually wearing sunglasses), this extended pointer is probably the bare minimum in backroad diplomacy. If you drive a large pickup, though, a solitary finger wave can come off as a bit callous, especially if your truck is very shiny, has four doors, or an onboard computer in the cab. The inclination of other drivers to return your cold greeting with a single and less polite finger of salutation will be very strong, indeed. 

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The two-finger variation has the possible advantage of more salutes, quantitatively; however, one must be cautioned against flashing the peace sign while driving most gravel roads, particularly those between Wilsall and Clyde Park, and especially if one is driving a vehicle less emissive than an F-150; here, the casual “peace, dude” may distress rather than cheer many locals. It is important to remember how the Crazy Mountains got their name when you’re driving in the vicinity, and while one should not generalize about the latent homicidal, it’s safe to say that most of the nearby residents would not flinch from dispatching an urban ignoramus with one of those rifles hanging on the rack behind them––they, like the Copenhagen rings on a rancher’s butt pocket, are not for decorative purposes. Hipsters cavorting about the country in car models with names like “Fit,” “Malibu,” “Tree-hugger,” or whatever, needn’t try to earn more cause for loathing. Parenthetically, should you throw a hang-ten at the oncoming flatbed, I cannot guarantee the outcome.

A proper wave will get you far anywhere, though, and if you should not return a wave from another driver, you deserve any feeling of embarrassment, shame, or impertinence that your discourtesy may beget.

Montana is filled with good people and wide spaces, and there is nothing so disgusting as someone who takes this for granted. Lighten up a bit, ease on the gas pedal, and contribute to someone’s happiness this summer: you’ll find it does a lot of good for you, too.

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