I grew up just outside of Grand Marais, or “in town” as we say around these parts. So although I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in Cook County, I am still what you’d call a Gunflint Trail transplant. Least this seem like an overstatement, let me remind you that the sense of geographical location can be so strong in Cook County that people can live here for 30 years and still, not quite, be considered a local. Because of this pervading mentality, I fear someday soon, someone from the Trail will realize that I didn’t have an hour-long bus ride to school when I was growing up and that they will drag me out of my cabin and shoo me back to town where I belong.
To quell this largely irrational fear, I have done my best to assimilate. I have kind of conquered my fear of winter driving, I now own a pair of wool pants, and I have been known to go grouse hunting. Sometimes I even go fishing.
But I remain baffled by “the wave.” That is, when I am driving along the Gunflint, when am I morally obligated to wave at the car in the other lane? Since I pass by relatively few cars on a typical drive to town, does it behoove me to wave at every car that comes my way? Or should I be more selective and only wave at vehicles I think I recognize? After all, when does that fine line between friendly neighbor and creeper crop up anyway?
Also, because my waves look less like waves and more like my right arm is having a spasm, I am afraid my wave will finally give it away to Trail residents that I am not the real deal. True Gunflint Trail residents don’t have waves that are evocative of an overly excited puppy greeting their master at the end of the day. True Gunflint Trail residents acknowledge each other stoically as they pass each other, with the nod of a head or the raising of two fingers off the steering wheel.
I have no Scandinavian heritage and I feel that allows me slightly more animated acknowledgements of other people’s presence than the typical Minnesotan. But since almost everyone I meet on the road does have Scandinavian blood, I feel a responsibility not to completely freak them out by raising my entire hand off the steering wheel to wave at them. It’s quite the dilemma.
The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for a canoe outfitter on the Gunflint Trail, which is how I got mixed up in this messy “living on the Trail” business in the first place. Among other things, one of my daily tasks at the outfitters was to pick up customers who were returning from their canoe trips. One time after I’d picked up a couple and was heading back down the road to the outfitters, a pick-up passed us in the other lane. The guy in the pick up waved. I waved back.
“Did you know that guy?” asked one of the guys in the van I was driving. “Oh yeah, that’s Whathisface,” I said. “Ah,” he said. “I thought this might be one of those places where you wave at everyone.”
I hemmed and hawed for a little while about how it kind of is that sort of place and he said he’d grown up in that sort of place too. During high school, he explained, he’d worked on his uncle’s farm in southern Minnesota. At the time, his uncle had been running for election for some position in the town. To ensure, no hard feelings among the townspeople, the uncle instructed all his employees to rest their elbows on top of the tractors’ steering wheels so their arms bobbed in greeting to whoever passed. It was a really good idea.
I still haven’t perfected my perpetual wave, but if our paths cross on the Trail this summer, be sure to wave.
For WTIP, this is Ada Igoe, with Of Woods and Words.