Rural drivers’ ‘hi sign’ is great — but how do you respond if you’re on foot?

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Fig. 1: The pedestrian variation on the traditional one-finger wave. Fig. 2: The traditional automotive one-finger wave (a.k.a. "hi sign," "trucker's wave").

Last fall, for the purposes of art and the furthering of the glories of pedestrianism, I walked from Minneapolis to Northfield over the course of a day-and-a-half. It was that second day, which began in Farmington, which really put me in the middle of some remarkable landscapes, both physical and social. I’ll write a bit about the physical landscape, but it’s one particular aspect of the social landscape I’d like to have a look at: the “hi sign,” also known as the “one finger wave.” 

You may know this gesture, if you’ve spent any time driving in the rural parts of the country. It’s not necessarily specific to Minnesota, but rather binds the entirety of rural America together, at least in the middle of the country. You can also find it referred to as a “hidy sign,” “trucker’s wave,” “Texas finger wave,” or even “Texas two-finger” (everything, as you know, is bigger in Texas). When, while driving, you pass someone on a country road, friend or stranger, you raise the forefinger of your driving hand in a quick salutation as you pass. The gesture is usually reciprocated.

Anne Dingus sums it up nicely in Texas Monthly:

… By using it, we convey our goodwill to our fellow drivers and reaffirm our reliance on each other during long trips across isolated country. The hi sign is strictly a highway courtesy, an automotive gesture developed for a modern age. A person on horse or on foot raises his whole hand, but the demands of travel on wheels dictated a specialized wave. Body language for “howdy,” the hi sign is the simplest of waves, merely the raising of the forefinger of the driving hand, which does not budge from its draped position across the top of the steering wheel, the attitude struck by most long-distance or travel-wise drivers … It wastes no energy; it is a model of efficiency, like all nonessential movements by country folks who must save their labor for the land.

For some regional perspective, I called my friend Shanai Matteson, who grew up in Aitkin, Minnesota. Coincidentally, she was visiting family in Grand Rapids when I called, and she put her uncle Craig on the line. When the topic came up, everyone at her table chimed in. “We invented the one-finger wave!” exclaimed her aunt in the background.

“We were in Chaska before we were up here,” said Craig. “I’d never seen it before I came up north.”

***

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Near Eureka Township, October 2015.

Driving through Dakota County is one thing, but walking through it is something entirely different. After a harrowing few miles on Highway 3, walking while facing traffic, I cut across 240th Street and took dirt and gravel roads the rest of the way down – Denmark Avenue to 280th Avenue, past the Greenvale Cemetery, and then Eveleth Avenue to Northfield. The landscape opens up enormously at that point. Being a lone figure against that landscape, walking at a pace where it barely changes from mile to mile, is almost like being out at sea.  

Off the state highway and on the back roads, the mood of the drivers changed enormously. People blowing down Highway 3 were typically coming so fast they barely had time to register me at all, much less make any kind of gesture. (Well, OK, one of them had time to make a certain gesture.) But once I got on Denmark Avenue, the driver of every passing automobile would invariably send a hi sign my way. I only encountered maybe seven or eight over the entire 10 or so miles – two or three cars an hour. But they all did it, without fail.

Which led to an interesting crash course in etiquette. I’d encountered the hi sign many times behind the wheel of a car, but never while on foot. What’s the correct protocol?

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The nearest auto mechanic is very, very far away.

There is a great deal of information about the one-finger wave online, but little about how it works from a pedestrian standpoint. Over the few hours, I assembled my own ad-hoc set of rules.

The first thing that occurred to me is that while of course I should wave back, I can’t really give a full wave. I didn’t encounter another pedestrian while out on foot, and the fact that I was out there on foot at all, and not obviously a person who lived within walking distance, probably looked a little bit odd. (Then again, I’ve heard from plenty of friends and acquaintances whose family members take long walks on country roads, so perhaps it didn’t seem that unusual.)

But when you’re on foot and you’re waving at cars, there’s a certain restraint you need to have. A full-bodied wave to an automobile doesn’t always signal casual sociability. Anything too overstated, and it may appear as if you’re signaling for help. You want your wave to convey, “Hey, doin’ OK, thanks for waving, have a nice drive,” and not “help, my car broke down, I need a ride to the gas station, can I use your phone.” The latter is a scenario that’s entirely plausible. There’s already maybe a question in the driver’s mind about what exactly you’re doing all the way out there in the first place, especially if the driver knows every person who lives within walking distance of where you are. 

In your own wave, you can’t really give back a standard hi sign. You can’t really replicate the circumstances while standing upright. The hi sign requires a hand on a wheel, raised to the chest level, as a starting position. The whole idea is that it takes a minimum of effort – you flip up the finger in a friendly way, because the finger is right there anyway. When you walk, your hands are at your side. Lifting your hand all the way up to give a standard wave exerts much more energy. It makes you seem a little too desperate, a little too eager to please.

What I settled on was a sort of adapted one-finger wave, suitable for the pedestrian. It looked a little like the two-finger wave sitcom characters give when they’re in a restaurant and signaling to the waiter for the check, or like a flashing a half-hearted peace sign, but with only the index finger instead of two.

This seems to have done the trick (which is to say, nobody stopped and asked me if my car had broken down). I asked Craig later if he’d noticed anything similar from walkers he’d pass, and he more or less confirmed the technique. “They just do the one finger,” he said. “Just flip it up like that, yeah.”

***

While walking in the country, on a dirt roads with no shoulder, there’s another piece of etiquette I figured out pretty quickly. It’s flat enough in southern Minnesota that you’ll see an approaching automobile coming from some distance – you’ll see a plume of dust coming off the dirt road before you see the automobile itself. It might be a car or truck, but it’s just as likely to be a combine or tractor.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
If you squint, you can see a Ford F150 approaching in the far distance.

What you should do is walk over to the other side of the road. This improves your visibility, of course, but it also serves a more important function: It gets you out of the way of the haze of dust the passing automobile will kick up as it goes by.

These casual, person-to-person interactions are a good way to tether yourself to the rest of the world in a part of the state that seems very remote from it. Walking a few hours through the sweeping vistas along the gravel roads in that part of Dakota County are about as far removed from the typical pedestrian experience as you can get. It’s good to know that, if you actually were stranded and did need a ride to the gas station, someone would probably stop and help you out. In some ways, the hi sign is a gesture toward that sense of mutual reliance. If one of us were in trouble, it says, the other could lend a hand. 

But since neither one of us are in trouble, it goes on to say, enjoy your trip down the road.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 02/25/2016 - 10:01 am.

    a tip to the hat

    I’d use one finger to the brim of my hat.

    I like the idea of moving to the opposite side of the road. You are in clear view of the driver and it gives them more leeway to move over.

    With a finger to my hat, I say “til next time”.

  2. Submitted by Leon Webster on 02/25/2016 - 10:25 am.

    “The Microwave”

    I agree that this small gesture of civility is a nice affirmation that “We are all in this together”. I know that it was common when I was a young man growing up in North Dakota. I think that it was while I was in Indiana, riding my bike on many rural roads that I first heard it referred to as “The Microwave”.

  3. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/25/2016 - 11:07 am.

    bicycling in rural areas you have the same experience

    On the back roads which I greatly prefer for long-distance rides, people (usually in trucks) usually give the ‘hi’ sign as they pass you. On a bike, though, because you clearly have a working machine, and because your arm is already bent forward at an acute angle, it’s far easier to go for the “tip of the cap” gesture or the “bike bar high sign”, a raising of two fingers from the road-side brake lever. I prefer the former, many roadies seem to prefer the latter.

    I am curious if you encountered farm dogs and whether or not they chased you.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 02/25/2016 - 12:19 pm.

      No farm dogs.

      I saw hardly another living creature for most of the walk. I did come across a horse toward the end, though — an enormous, noble steed who walked up to me from behind a fence and snorted with approval. I thought I was hallucinating. 

    • Submitted by Julie Barton on 02/26/2016 - 07:53 am.

      tip of the helmet

      I also encounter this a lot when out on cycling rides. I usually do a long slow nod of the head (b/c invariably, I meet someone as I am negotiating some cracked pavement or gully on a gravel road)- but a deep nod, so they can definitely see I’ve acknowledged them.

      When meeting fellow cyclists, it’s the two fingers from the road-side brake lever, just as you said.

  4. Submitted by Gary Horn on 02/25/2016 - 11:33 am.

    one suggested alteration

    Another entertaining article, Andy.

    While I agree with your technique, your diagram shows the left hand being used for the wave. However, if you are walking on the correct side of the street/road (facing traffic), it makes more sense to wave with the right hand, as that’s the hand that is closer to the street/road.

    By the way, we motorcyclists employ a similar low-energy, safety-preserving wave. We release the right hand (the clutch hand) from the handlebar and drop it briefly to about waist-level and quickly return it to the handlebar.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 02/25/2016 - 03:48 pm.

      Left / right

      All true, Gary. However, when I saw the vehicles approaching, I’d cross the road to avoid being in the way, so drivers would get my left hand on their side. Probably the ideal thing to do would have been to stay on the side against traffic, but those billowing clouds of dust made me nervous.

  5. Submitted by Luke Soiseth on 02/25/2016 - 11:54 am.

    I’ve pondered this for years

    Great article as I’ve wondered this for years – walking along the county roads at the family cabin and now living out in Lake St. Croix Beach – exactly what the rules and regs are around the wave. Sometimes I feel like I over-do it and then feel like the newbie and embarrassed for the next 100 yards of walking. Or I wave and they don’t (maybe not from our neck of the woods?). Or I only catch their wave late and don’t get mine up until they pass, at which point I raise my arm – possibly overdoing it again. It’s all very complicated.

    I was also going to point out the motorcycle wave that Gary Horn mentions. I just became aware of that last summer and have enjoyed seeing it employed on the roads. It doesn’t work in the car.

  6. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/25/2016 - 01:24 pm.

    There are a few appropriate ways to “wave” back. If traffic is slow enough, a shy smile and a nod is good. Or, if you want to kind of wave and you’re feeling manly, there’s the masculine two-fingered-half-wave-that-doesn’t-follow-through-and-ends-in-kind-of-a-point-indirectly-toward-the-sky done simultaneously with a half nod that ends with the eyes being directed to the ground (it’s the farmer/rancher waving version of the bro hug). It’s reminiscent of a salute. If you’re wearing a hat, as mentioned above, the 2-finger-and-a-thumb touch and slight lifting and lowering of the brim is good. If you’re feeling extroverted and you’re wearing a hat, you might even lift it all the way off and nod, but don’t wave it.

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 02/25/2016 - 03:49 pm.

      Good to know for next time.

      I was wearing a hat, and a pretty cool one, too. I’ll throw in the hat tip in the future.

  7. Submitted by Kathleen Doran-Norton on 02/25/2016 - 01:31 pm.

    MN vs NY wave

    Ah yes. One of the great discoveries in moving from upstate New York to Minnesota, near Northfield, some years ago was that the one-finger wave was given with a different finger – and a different attitude to match. You gotta love Minnesota nice.

  8. Submitted by Dave Deal on 02/25/2016 - 02:15 pm.

    What shoes?

    Hi Andy,

    Lovely “ART – tickle.” I’ve gotta ask you, what shoes did you wear?

    And if different from above, what shoes do you wish you’d worn?

    Cheers!

    • Submitted by Andy Sturdevant on 02/25/2016 - 03:50 pm.

      Footwear.

      A year-old pair of New Balance ML402, very well broken in. They were great. I recommend them to anyone.

  9. Submitted by Bess Tsaouse on 02/25/2016 - 05:21 pm.

    Male vs Female waves

    Is there a certain wave for women that’s different from the ones given by men?

  10. Submitted by Peter Spooner on 02/28/2016 - 09:19 am.

    hi sign

    My Dad used to do this all the time – I thought it was his own little quirk. Now I see it probably came from his truck driving experience – milk and logging trucks in Vermont. Although he was in Texas while in the army, driving and fixing trucks.

  11. Submitted by Maria Jette on 03/02/2016 - 11:25 am.

    waving in self-defense…

    I live in rustic Deephaven– right on its absolute edge, abutting Highway 7. I married into the house, and it’s lovely out here in many ways, but utterly hostile to pedestrianism. It’s a sidewalk-free community; and in my view, being sidewalk-free is detrimental to BEING a community. Every time I walk the dogs, I feel that it may be my last day of life, as there’s no alternative to walking in the street. We face traffic; I wear a big loud neon yellow vest with lots of reflective material on it, and if it’s darkish, I wrap blinking LED light strips around my sleeves. Even with all that, though, I use my whole R arm to wave at approaching cars. I hope a distracted driver is more likely to see a big, bright, blinking object if it’s also waving an appendage. But I think the most important tactic is smiling broadly and attempting to make eye contact with the driver. When that happens, they usually wave back, and some even smile– and most do give us a wide berth on the road. Those who are texting while zipping along the winding, shoulder-less road generally don’t. I comfort myself with the thought that knocking us all down will interrupt their Facebook post; and when they get out to inspect the damage to their SUV, my blinking, neon-clad corpse might at last catch their eye.

Leave a Reply