The Idaho wave
By Billie Johnson
I embarked upon my personal bike tour this past weekend in lieu of the Tour de Vin. Boy oh boy, is the Portneuf Gap beautiful. I cycled south on Bannock Highway to the cement plant in Inkom. I intended to continue on to McCammon but my tired thighs and the day’s to-do list had me head back along Old Highway 91 after a snack in the Inkom City Park. I love those Idaho back roads.
When I was a kid my dad knew every back road and fishing hole within 90 miles of Lava Hot Springs. As an aside, I’d like to point out that this “Lava” is pronounced with a short “a” as in “lad”, not a schwa sound like in “lawn.” The relaxation and calm evoked in childhood memories of back road adventures and Lava are violently disrupted when people mispronounce it.
When I was really little, Dad used to take me on drives to scout out fishing and hunting spots. This was before seat belts. I stood and wobbled on the passenger side as his truck crawled along the dusty roads. The windows were always down and the drives were quiet. He was surrounded by a continuous stream of booming country music while running his bar, so he protected his personal silence.
I was not a still kid. I probably drove him batty. Luckily he was charmed by my angelic red-headed Dorothy Hamill haircut, and he could bargain for brief bouts of stillness in sharing his pastel orange circus peanut candies. They tasted like perfume. But I liked their bounciness in my mouth and I ate them on our drives to be like my dad. I’d sneak sips of his Budweiser to be like him, too, but Mom put the kibosh on that quickly.
I watched how Dad drove. His left elbow rested on the door’s window frame and he held a cigarette or fiddled with his false teeth. His right hand was atop the wheel at 12 o’clock. He didn’t grip it, but rather rested the heel of his hand with his fingers loosely draped toward the hood. He had strong square hands. I’ve got his hands.
When we’d pass people, he’d keep the heel of his palm on the top of the wheel, but raise all five fingers in a slow, purposeful wave. His hand had the same cadence with every car that passed. A closed mouth, wide-eyed smile complemented each gesture.
While he was working, I would slip into his truck in the parking lot of the Lava Lounge and pretend to drive like him. I hauled an old mop bucket out so I could step up and reach the door handle. Then I’d situate the bucket upside down on the driver’s seat and climb up so I could see above the dash.
My wing span wasn’t long enough to hold the wheel where he did and reach my other elbow to the window. I adapted the pose but made sure my waving hand was perfectly placed. From his parked truck just off Lava’s Main Street, I’d wave to people heading to and from the hot pools. Sometimes I’d forget the slowness and ease and I’d find myself doing an over-exuberant kid wave which, although notable in its own right, is very different than the slow, easy Idaho wave I picked up from Dad.
I lost count of the Idaho waves I collected on my bike ride last weekend. It’s a little tricky to manage from road bike handlebars, but you better believe I waved, too.
With our recent rain, the Gap was greener than usual for this time of year, but it’s still a beauty to behold. The leaves in the weekends to come will be a perfect backdrop for people to perfect the Idaho wave.
If you’re not a hunter or if you’re new to the area or if it’s just been a while, I encourage you to hop in your car or truck or on your bike or motorcycle and hit some Idaho back roads this fall. Whether you go alone, with a partner or the whole family, a serene tour with friendly waves scattered about is so grounding. It’s so cleansing. It’s so Idaho.
Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She has worked as an engineer for 16 years, participated in numerous K-12 math and engineering outreach programs, and is an avid community volunteer.