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The Way They Wave In Washington

THERE is an area of earth - a frontier triangle extending north through the Colville Indian Reservation to the Canadian border and then southwest to the four towns clustered around Grand Coulee Dam - where ``Howdy, friend'' waves come from every oncoming vehicle. When we first homesteaded here in the northeastern part of Washington, I thought: ``We don't know these people, what are they waving at?'' But my friend Brooks always waved back.

Some of the drivers - male and female, driving any sort of vehicle from battered or bright compact cars to 4x4 pickups to logging trucks - we waved at for months before we met, and they've since become friends. Some of the people who wave we know only by their gestures.

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Ours is an area with probably 80 percent unemployment, but such frontier good-heartedness you've never seen. Some waves are Chaucerian in robustness. Or they may be chopped off and terse, the kind you'll receive from logging truck drivers barreling past (and relieved you are, too, when the passing is completed, especially if the load leans your way). But they're always offered.

Well, almost always. There is one woman with black-framed glasses and a shiny, new, high-off-the-road black rig (everything up here, automobile, jeep, or truck is a ``rig'') whom I have met on the bridge across Sanpoil River on Silver Creek Road who has never waved. Her problem may be nearsightedness, but more likely a need, as Grandpa Petite embodied when driving his Model T, to keep both hands firmly on the wheel.

Her middle-aged son drives a bright red, repainted 1955 Ford pickup; he waves exuberantly back-and-forth, wild as a boy with his first horse, whenever he meets me.

What folkway makes for waving? I read of it, in another section of the country, in ``Blue Highways'' by William Least Heat Moon, where Chapter 3 begins: ``By midmorning I was following Route 22, as I had from the Alabama line, on my way to Selma.... Then an outbreak of waving happened - first at Maplesville, again in Stanton, again in Plantersville; from galleries and sidewalks people waved. Where folks are friendly.''

One winter, at a Grand Coulee gas station that we used to patronize and never shall again, we filled our pickup's tank with gas that turned out to be, on large part, water. This became apparent when we were well along the highway above Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake which Coulee Dam impounds.

``I think the car's dead,'' Brooks said, pulling off the four-lane highway and turning on the ``trouble lights.'' In minutes a cop pulled up and called a wrecker to take us to Grand Coulee's then-only garage. Twenty minutes later, the wrecker appeared, backed up to us, and tied on. We sat with Walt Ayling, the wrecker, in his cab. All the way to the garage, Walt's left hand was in a constant wave ... a sign that he knew everyone, that this was his turf.

On our turf, the reservation, waves are kaleidoscopic in their variety, from a strong V or thumbs-up signal from some men to a palm flat up to the windshield from others to a wigwag wave like that of a railroad fireman. Some Indian women drivers shake their fingers as if tossing off water droplets, while others ripple their fingers as if they're playing a piano.

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It was in waves that I found some sort of spiritual resurrection two years ago.

The day wasn't one of total hopelessness. The truck barely floundered its way through slush four inches deep. An early afternoon fog had settled in all along Sanpoil River, settled down on the tops of ponderosa pines, closed down about the surrounding mountains. Still, that day was not at all right. Driving home it was as if I had turned to fog, too. As I turned onto Old San Poil road, with my driver's window rolled down and arm out to signal (the left-turn-signal light had quit), the driver of a white pickup, waiting at the stop sign, raised his right hand to his peaked cap in salute to me.

He smiled. Then he waved. Thirty years younger than I, a foot taller (I could tell from his seated position), a man I'd never seen before, he was still full of energized earthy care for me, another human being. My life regrouped.

Farther along, I met Ray Peone, driving his new 4x4 wildly from the home of his mother-in-law, and as he whizzed past he gave me his usual six-gun, thumb-and-forefinger ``shot'' through his windshield, topped by his white-toothed grin.

``This day may be your best one yet,'' the road signs say.

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