The Oft-Neglected Symptoms of Rural Road Rage

Essay by Ed Quillen

Rural Life – December 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

RECENTLY THE MEDIA, from national network specials down to the local weekly interviewing a convenient state trooper, have been bombarding us with messages about the horrors of Road Rage.

Since four out of five Americans live in Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas and endure freeways, the features have focused on eight-lane provocations and reactions: the aggravating jerk who insists on driving at the speed limit, the aggressive weaver pinballing to the exit ramp, the aggrieved 18-wheeler operator so wired on crank that he hallucinates obstacles rising from the pavement and feels compelled to smash them.

Amid this coverage, there’s an assumption that we, the fortunate fifth who don’t habituate freeways, are somehow immune to the horrors of Road Rage.

To some degree, this is true, if the National Rifle Association is correct that “an armed society is a polite society.” I don’t know about you, but I tend to get rather polite, even humble, when I’m within range of the archetypal Western vehicle — a dented, oil-burning cracked-windshield beater pickup with a loaded gunrack in its rear window.

Even amid those common inducements to civility, though, the rural motorist often faces provocations that inspire, if not formal urban Road Rage, afflictions that must be close relatives:

Mud Rage. One of your bald tires comes to the end of its working life. No problem, you’ve got a somewhat-inflated spare, and so you pull over onto what looks like solid ground. Only when the bottom of your jack starts sloshing its way to China do you realize that the solid ground was a deceptive crust. As soon as the jack breaks through, the wheels start sinking, followed by your own feet.

My extensive research here has demonstrated that continued beating on the ground with a yard-long Handyman jack handle does not keep anything from sinking further.

Tool Rage. More precisely, missing-tool rage, as in “where the hell is my lug wrench?” It could have been lent to a friend last week, or it might be behind the pickup seat, under several years of beer cans, oil cans, jerky wrappers, flashlights with dead batteries, ammo cases, barbed and entangled fishing tackle — all of which must be removed into the mud before one can be certain.

Naturally you’re glad if someone pulls over to offer assistance, but you might have trouble expressing your elation at first, since you can’t exhale without a stream of obscenities that would shame a mule-skinner.

Side-Street Rage. Although this can occur on a country lane, usually it happens in town. You see somebody you know coming the other way, so you both stop in the middle of the street and swap some speculation about the sex lives of county commissioners and the probable effects of El Niño. Then some dolt pulls up behind one of you, and starts honking.

I grant that the desire is strong to go back there and smash in the jerk’s windshield with the lug wrench that suddenly leaps into your hand, but resist this temptation. Better to approach politely, and explain that you’ve lived hereabouts for quite a spell, and thus you know that there’s absolutely nothing within a hundred miles worth hurrying to, so take it easy — or else.

Steppe Rage. Nature calls, especially after you’ve been chugging road coffee, but you want to be somewhat modest. Thus you search for forest cover, but there isn’t any. Mountain drivers, when forced onto the barren Great Plains, often suffer from the resulting rage, which worsens when the first decent opportunity announces “Restrooms are for customers only,” and nothing inside costs less than $5.

THOSE ARE SOME of the major Rural Road-Related Rages, but hardly the only ones:

Detour Rage, when they could have warned you 30 miles ago, when you could have taken another route, that this bridge was washed out, but they didn’t.

Closed-Road Rage, when a rancher understandably locks a gate that had always swung freely before, because too many folks didn’t know enough to leave gates the way they found them.

Yupscale Invader Rage, a nearly uncontrollable desire to hammer vicious dents into a shiny new four- wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle with city plates that took your parking space at your favorite fishing hole.

The national campaign against Road Rage hasn’t mentioned any of these varieties, and so we may be forced to find our own solutions. That won’t be easy. The Old West method, a showdown on Main Street, would just increase the carnage, and a New West approach won’t work either — when it comes to road-related anger, we’re already quite in touch with our hostile feelings, and caffeine-laden cappuccino just energizes those deep-seated emotions.

Ed Quillen lives, works, eats, and sleeps for Colorado Central Magazine. This piece, however, was first issued by Writers On the Range, a project of High Country News.