Give Me the Finger

NEThere’s a somewhat curious practice curious to city folks, that is which entails country folks giving each other the finger as they pass in on-coming traffic. Not the middle finger (most of the time, anyway) that cititarians  love to give each day during epic road rage events, but the index one in particular, good to point and read with, text with while driving (insane) and, I dare say, the one used to pick your nose.

Handy tool that it is, the index finger helps me hunt and peck on my computer while writing silly pieces such as this, but I do engage in the “waggle,” as it’s called; only executed with verve (country cool) in rural America. I’ve have tried waggling at urbanites to see what kind of a reaction is coming my way in the big city. Sadly, they’ve just looked at me, dumbfounded, wondering what kind of invasive fool I am, intruding in their fast-paced, insane lives. So be it!

So back to the hinterlands I go, ready for peace, love and harmony dispensed by a single, salutary waggle of the nose-picking finger (well … at least some kind of illusionary facsimile).     

 

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I really don’t have any trouble “getting on down the road,” especially when my job covers parts of five states and my ever-present lust for trout fishing in pretty places keeps me behind the truck’s wheel for close to 60,000 miles every year.

In spite of that, when I’m not chasing small reconstruction jobs or on a pilgrimage to fish yet another stream, I’m still driving the old truck, kind of exploring … not going anywhere special; not worrying about an annoying ETA … just going nowhere without the strictures of time and place. There’s no real purpose to this wander … no Johnny Appleseed in my DNA.

Not too long ago, with the prospect of an open-ended day throbbing in my shirt pocket and all day to go no place in particular, I turned off highway pavement onto a county road. There’s no better real estate to “crunch gravel” than in the twenty zillion square miles of the Nebraska Sand Hills, seemingly stretching forever as far as the eye can see and the mind can imagine.

“Welcome to the Big Lonely!” the sign should have said; but instead it warned, “End of County Maintenance.”  Instructive though the sign was, implicit was a cautionary indication that a person might get lost, stuck, broken-down or even lonely. Probably not a very good place to troll for friendly finger waggles; still the temptation was too inviting as I stared at the two-track curving through miles of blue stem waving in the morning sunlight. The sea of grass of the Sand Hills is my ocean and I am the happiest adrift there.

The first thing I saw was a land terrapin with three little “terps” trailing behind mama, who was moving at a fast rate of speed for a turtle … getting out of my way. I was going 10 miles per hour or so, and she and her kids were in no peril. That kind of turtle usually has a lot more young following behind looking for bugs to eat. Most likely raccoons or some other toothy predator had taken their toll on that prairie tortoise family.

Moving on, I waggled at the “family” as I passed by. Rounding a looping bend of the two-track trail I spotted a rancher coming my way, bouncing along in his pick-up, probably driving faster than he usually did, hell-bent for town. This was truly finger waggle territory and I had this one almost bagged. Sure enough, he acknowledged my best country cool wave (my wrist casually drooped over the steering wheel with my gnarly index finger ready to be angled slightly upward, as if pointing at a bug on the windshield … perfect!).

The timing was right as he passed by, giving me a two fingered salute as he neared, grinning like life was all about nothing more than just what we were doing. Suddenly though, he slammed on the brakes and backed up. “Morning,” he said through another big grin. “Good morning to you!” I replied.

“Whata ya’ doin?”

[long pause]

I was sure he was about to nail me for trespassing on what I figured was his land. The default response from my childhood was spontaneous:

“Noth’n.”

The rancher burst out in laughter. “That sounds like something we used to say when we got caught with our hand in the ole cookie jar!”

“Well, pretty close.” I thought you were about ready to jump on me for being on your property, and that’s all I could come up with!”

He was a good sort, telling me not to worry, but he did say not to park off the two-track because of the danger of the hot manifold igniting a grass fire. The Sand Hills are semi-arid; usually dry in summer and even more vulnerable under the mantel of a protracted drought.

I quickly got back on the trail to avoid such a disaster. Telling me his daughter would be along pretty quickly driving about 20 head of cattle, he headed for town with a plume of dust tailing behind his truck.

fingerCALLOUTAs the cattle moved toward me at a pace seemingly slower than the turtle and her kids, my mind wandering, I thought about what another cattle rancher had said to me in the dim lighting of the Hungry Horse Saloon some time back.

“Never ask a cattleman how many head he’s runnin’! Not ‘less you’re ready to tell him how much money you have in the bank and if you paid your IRS taxes! … and another thing, don’t come out here from the city ask’n to hunt grouse, go birding or whatever, and enjoy the hospitality of my good wife’s lunch, and then when you get your gear out of the truck, you lock the damn doors! If you don’t trust me fella, I don’t trust you! … You want another Seven-n-Seven?”

“What a waste of good booze,” I was thinking as the herd got close enough for me to get a better look at what was coming. I could see the rancher’s daughter clearly. She was young but pretty, sporting a ponytail with a prairie flower tucked behind her ear. No longer a child, not yet a woman, she couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old. She sat tall in the saddle – as they say in the movies – a young woman-person doing a traditional man’s job … and all by herself!

The whole effort of moving cattle was orchestrated by the girl, from horseback, whistling and using hand signals to direct the dog. Just at the right distance for a waggle, I gave her the “finger;” she smiled politely. Then she gave the two finger salute just like her dad did, and then sternly looked at her dog that had just peed on one of the truck’s tires. “Teaser! Get over here!” She whistled sharply. Then the girl on horseback and the dog named Teaser went back to the business of driving cattle in the middle of nowhere.

This whole thing, acted out in mere minutes, most likely appeals as somewhat charming or perhaps a bit heartwarming, but weighs in no more than a non-event. Time will tell though; maybe decades from now something like this will seem so improbable, it can only gain mythical status but never happen again … and will exist in a land that is only a memory.

But as long as the Sand Hills are empty in their vastness, yet overflow with a sense of freedom, people will know.

The girl on the horse knows, and the finger-wagglers suspect they’ve got something good. They are very smart people. Give ‘em the finger!

 

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Photo and text by Bob Johnston