Sunday, August 10, 2014

Country Road Culture

Every culture produces social norms, societal rules. They cultivate stability and engender civility so we may live in relative peace. There are endless sub-cultures, and each of us belongs to various sets, whether we acknowledge them or not. There are subtle, and not so subtle, pressures for us to conform. There is a sub-culture for people who travel country roads.

The supreme rule of country roads culture is to always drive to the right when cresting a hill. There is no formal enforcement of this rule, of course. The first time you almost crash head-on into your neighbors, you thereafter pay strict attention to that rule. Continue to ignore it, and natural selection will handily cull you from the herd. I grew up on county roads. I learned to drive a car and a motorcycle on gravel roads, so I knew this, but I appreciated the friendly reminder from neighbors who took the time and consideration to first welcome my son and me to the neighborhood. They are very nice folks, but I am sure the purpose of the visit was primarily to deliver the reminder to drive right. It was an act of self-preservation.

My son ignored this cardinal rule until his little sports car met a 4 wheel drive, full sized truck, also ignoring the rule. Both went into the ditches to avoid a crash. The big truck:  unscathed - speeding sports car:  totaled. No one was hurt, though the open beer in the truck may have been spilled.

There are also rules of who pulls over first when approaching a narrow place, like a culvert or a bridge. The informal rule, as I understand it, gives the person going to work first passage. The person heading home from work yields. In case this is a rule I simply imagined, I typically yield going and coming. Tractors, feed trucks, combines and particularly slow drivers normally yield the right of way, which is very considerate. Anyone who moves from the city to the country should know to be tolerant and patient of the fact that the big equipment belongs to people making a living. I always feel a little guilty when the men pull their tractors over to let me pass. I am merely on my way to the cube farm, but they are doing real work, feeding cattle or tending their fields. Their time management is a bit more organic and natural than the 8 to 5 that rules my working life, so perhaps they take pity on all cube farmers racing to beat the clock.

Passing does not happen on county roads except in extreme circumstances.  Tractors, combines, and true lollygaggers like tourists, artists, or photographers will normally pull over and considerately allow you to pass. Unless it has rained at least a good four inches within the last twenty minutes, the dust is so bad that you simply will not follow anyone closely, even if they are driving 20 mph and you are late for work.

Most of the time, people drive as fast as they are comfortable driving, which can be surprisingly fast for the experienced. The higher the speed, the higher and denser the dust cloud. Ah, the dust cloud... destroyer of car interiors and exterior paint. If I see an unprotected and unshielded human being in time, I will slow down to a crawl so as not to engulf them in a horrible cloud of suffocating dirt. If I see my neighbors attempting to enjoy the outdoors - grandchildren riding a pony in the driveway, for instance - I will slow down. If I do not see someone in time and go roaring by, sucking tons of dust behind me, I feel so guilty. I am sure I get cussed, and rightly so. When I am trying to take photos from the side of the road and someone blasts past leaving a dust bowl behind, some cussing and obscenity might occur. Just sayin'.

There are also various forms of sign language in this subculture. The most common sign is the one or two finger wave from the top of the steering wheel. It is an acknowledgement given to just about everyone you meet. If it is someone you know (and like) you can give the fully raised hand in greeting. If a person yields, or allows you to pass, you must give the fully raised hand with a friendly wave denoting "thank you". To fail to acknowledge considerate behavior is exceedingly rude. Waving at every oncoming car is just what you do because chances are, even if they live ten miles down the road, they are your neighbors, or they are friends or relatives of your neighbors, and they will know who you are even if you do not know them.  I can still hear my mother saying of long ago country neighbors who did not wave, "They sure aren't very friendly!" or my father snorting, "Son of a bitch won't even wave!"

An ancient maxim that continues to be relevant and true, even in the 21st century on the gravel country roads of Kansas: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So, if you are going home after a long day of work, and come face to face with several hundred cows being herded by men and women on horseback, just pull over and turn the car off. If you cannot occasionally spare a few quiet moments out of your busy day, you better not move to the country.
Sometimes, there is no passing!

4 comments:

Don said...

I like to get in those "smooth" mud-packed grooves during Springtime, but when I see that hill on the horizon I get my butt over to the right as you never know what might on the other side of that hill. A close encounter with a rancher and his big pickup loaded with straw bales could be quite an impact.
Some of the locals out there get so use to my picture shooting they slow down on dusty days and that I really appreciate.

Jackie said...

Absolutely, you must get right on those hills. If it's not a load of hay, it's a rancher with a stock trailer of cattle, and he WILL be in the center of road (avoiding the soft shoulders). Those fellows were the reason I stored my Harley in town. Sooner or later, I was going to meet one on a hill or on a curve and going in the ditch on a Harley would not be conducive to any form of fun! Most people are considerate in Kansas, and that's a great thing about living here, isn't it?

Kathy said...

I remember the first time we drove through the Highlands of Scotland. Our first time driving on the left, and they were all one lane roads. But no worries. There were pullouts every 1/4 or so, and it seemed every other car on the road was determined to pull out before we did -- super considerate. So it is universal in the countryside, of most countries.

Jackie said...

I am envious of your world travels! I think the country road etiquette would just about have to be universal - if people were pigheaded about it, eventually they would all be weeded out, and only those willing to share the road would be left driving. (Maybe that's what happened in Scotland? Natual selection?)