July 23rd Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

(This column was originally published in 2009.)



To my left, at the 4-way stop, sat a pickup truck with three 20-something occupants: boy, girl, boy.

As I turned left in front of this vehicle, the driver waved a big wave out his side window.

My brain initiated its face-recognition program. Nope, I didn’t know the guy or the vehicle. I did wave though, a little late perhaps.

Maybe he knew me; maybe he thought I was someone else. Or maybe he was merely trying to get a response.

Trying to get a response, hmm. I smiled as I recalled another waving incident which had occurred on a Kansas highway long ago and far away.

One day when we were 17, my friend Karla and I wanted to see how many waves we could encourage on the 8-mile stretch between Larned and Pawnee Rock.

I was at the wheel, driving Mildred. Mildred, a blue 1973 Plymouth Valiant, was named after my third grade teacher, Mrs. Dunavan. (I can’t explain it; the car just looked like her.)

As far as waving goes, that was just something we all did in the tiny town of Pawnee Rock. During our outgoing and obnoxious stages of girlhood, say, at 8, 9, and 10, my friends and I would walk along U.S. Highway 56 on our way to the gas station to buy Super Bubble bubble gum or Zero candy bars. And as cars zipped through town, we’d wave to show travelers that the natives were friendly.

When semis came by, we’d do the one-arm pump, the gesture required to get truckers to blast their air horns. Making a truck driver react provides an incredible feeling of accomplishment to a pre-teen. And his acknowledgment meant that we were not invisible kids living in an invisible little town.

I don’t know if the waving habit was merely a custom of the time (the ‘60s and ‘70s) or the place (Central Kansas), but I grew up in a culture of general goodwill, which included waving to oncoming cars in town, on dirt roads, and on the highway.

Because it was an agricultural community, many folks lived their entire lives in one place, so we all knew each other.

Even now, the further west you travel in Kansas, the more likely you are to encounter people who have a habit of waving. The population is thinner out west and drivers are more likely to assume they know the oncoming vehicle and its occupants – because they probably do.

Or maybe Western Kansas folks are just friendlier.

Or maybe they’re simply excited to see another human being on those empty highways.

But things change, and there seems to be less highway waving these days – probably because drivers are talking on their cell phones, which means: 1) They have no free hand with which to wave, or 2) Because they’re on the phone they’re not as lonely and don’t need a shot of connection from another vehicle.

And waving is all about connection.

On that particular day in 1977, driving from Larned to Pawnee Rock, Karla and I assumed we could get everyone to respond. About one-third of all drivers waved spontaneously anyway, but pretty much everyone would wave in return.

Karla and I raised our hands when the first car drove by. Nothing. Well, there went our perfect score. The next car, no response.

We got bolder, filling the windshield with our moving hands. Yet no one waved back. We were shocked. And powerless. Five cars, six, seven, and not one wave. What total failures we were.

A mile or so from Pawnee Rock, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and noticed that the Buick that had been following us since Larned was about to pass. The car overtook us in the left lane and Karla and I turned to look at the occupants.

In the Buick sat an older man and woman, both smiling, and both waving big waves at us. Then they sped away.

Karla and I burst out laughing.

That couple had been observing us; they got it. Then they connected, and they made us laugh. Three decades later I still remember that simple gesture of kindness.

Sometimes all it takes to make someone’s day – is a smile and a wave.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh




  1. In rural Friesland as well in my rayon in the province of Groningen, we do greet allmost everybody, vocally, or you wave or nod your head.
    People who do not react or look startled as if you come from another planet, do have a backgrond in a city.


  2. And… a friendly wave, smile and nod… to you and yours… raising my cup of coffee, I send thanks for all the wonderful writings and photos. Cheers..!!

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