Here’s how it works: It’s after sunset but before full dark and you’re in your 18-wheeler (truck drivers call them “big trucks” or “large cars”) driving in the slow lane of any section of four-lane insterstate that perfuses this surprisingly empty country of ours. Your marker lights are on, 100-plus amber lights lining the top and bottom edges of your trailer, so that when you look in your rear-view mirrors, you feel a low-grade cheerfulness well up at the sight of all that light and color, as if a little bit of Christmas were trailing behind you on tandem axles. You see another tractor trailer approaching in your mirrors in the passing lane (the “hammer lane”), and you ease over a little and hug the “fog line”, that solid white line that marks the shoulder.
Then the truck is passing you, slowly, steadily. The mass of air it’s pushing seems to bump unpredicatably against the mass of air you’re pushing so that it’s hard to tell whether your trucks are slightly attracting or slightly repelling each other, as if a weak but unpredictable magnetic force were in operation. And then the truck is all the way past you and you’re looking at its back doors, its red LED rear marker lights glowing cheerfully against the backdrop of the darkening sky. When it’s gotten far enough ahead of you for it to be safe — 35 or 40 yards — you reach out to the silver headlight toggle placed center right and high on the dash and you flick it down, wait for one beat, two beats, then flick it back on. The driver then puts on the right turn signals, eases back over into the travel lane, and then, most times, signals back.
It’s that signal back that’s so sweet to me. Some drivers turn their trailer marker lights on and and off. Some simply turn on their hazards for a count of 3, 4 or 5 pulses. Others have rigged their lights in such a way that they do something complicated — like flicker in a pattern impressive enough to catch you off guard and make you feel thanked in an especially elaborate way, like getting a handwritten note for holding the door for a stranger. The form the light show takes doesn’t matter at all, though — it’s what’s behind the signal that counts.
Let me be clear: professional drivers do not really need to be told when it is safe to come back into the travel lane after passing another vehicle. But judging distances in rear view mirrors is a little trickier at night, and driving at night is harder than driving during the day, and fatigue is always hovering in the background as a threat, a danger with night driving, so anything to make the job easier is good. Put simply, it’s nice to have someone else shoulder a tiny bit of the burden of keeping yourself and everyone else who happens to be on the road with you safe.
I love flicking my lights on and off, and I love turning on my hazards for a count of four to thank other drivers. Every time I do it, it gives me pleasure, a slight but unmistakable buzz of connection. It reminds me of my childhood — do children have a universal fascination with flashlights? — and of the way people treat one another in natural disasters and of the rare moments in your life when a stranger you meet immediately feels like a friend.
Here we drivers are, isolated and alone, doing a difficult and dangerous job in our surprisingly cramped quarters, these tireless, amazing, imprudently large machines that carry us on and on through the night. And here is this tiny form of connection: we send signals with our lights, first to let each other know it’s safe, and second to thank each other. One signal for safety. One signal for gratitude. And for a brief moment you’re not alone in this strange business of always trying to be somewhere else.
I am, of course, totally sentimentalizing things here. But indulge me… let me be sentimental. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s so little to feel sentimental about on our highways, that one candle blinking on and off in the darkness can seem like a sunrise.