Wild West on wheels: A walking man's view

2011-03-27T17:51:00Z 2011-04-16T17:46:31Z Wild West on wheels: A walking man's viewRICK KEMPA Casper Star-Tribune Online
March 27, 2011 5:51 pm  • 

‌I walk every day to and from work, about three miles round trip. It’s the one good habit I have.

Half the hike is beside a railroad track and up a steep canyon where the resident fox and deer, flushed by my heavy footfalls, fan out ahead of me. The other half takes me along city streets, over a railroad bridge, and across three roads that pass for thoroughfares in my small town. This is the part where the most encounters with Wyoming wildlife occur.

Certain teenage boys, members no doubt of some secret cult, like to roll down their windows, stick their furry heads out and let loose with wild, in-my-face yells. Once, as I approached a street corner, a big truck rumbled up behind me. I looked over my shoulder just as it lurched and accelerated around me, the driver snarling at me to get out of the way of his right-turn. Another time, a drunk attempting a U-turn reared her pick-up onto the sidewalk in front of me and then reviled me for being in her way. One summer night, I was pelted in the chest with a water balloon, an assault that made me spin and raise my fist and shout out words that were, let’s just say, uncivil.

Walking women I know report a whole different kind of attention from motorized mouths, and a separate set of strategies to assure their safety and peace of mind: enlisting guard dogs, varying their routes, taking assertiveness training.

The antics of these fools-on-wheels make me think longingly of that bastion of civility, the Bay Area, where motorists are so well-behaved that all you have to do is glance at a crosswalk and they will screech to a halt and wait for you to step off the curb. Out there, police even stage sting operations to drive the point home. A friend reports getting a hefty ticket because she coasted through a crosswalk, at the edge of which a woman was standing with a baby carriage. There wasn’t even a baby inside!

Bay Area civility would never fly here, where crosswalks are few and far between and snowed under half the year, and where pedestrians are a rare enough sight that even sane motorists sometimes don’t know how to behave. Wyoming statutes, while they do encourage drivers to “exercise due care,” seem to put the burden of survival on the walker. Except in crosswalks, “Every pedestrian ... shall yield the right of way,” they dictate, and “No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb.” That sounds reasonable enough, but the fact is that every time I step into the uncertain street it feels like a “sudden” event.

Some motorists treat walkers as if we were no different from a two-ton pickup. They calculate our speed and measure it against their own, and make their moves with very little margin for error. Thus, a car turning ahead of me might flash by a foot or two from my toes, and another, on a straightaway, might accelerate as I cross in front, so that I feel its tires nipping at my heels. It doesn’t occur to the drivers that I am erratic. I might suddenly break into a jog, or slow down to navigate a patch of ice, or even fall. Cars never “fall.” It is not a safe bet that a motorist will even see me — especially the ones on cell phones, who are seeing something entirely different from what’s outside their windshields.

Deluded no doubt by too much oxygen to the brain, I sometimes fancy myself to be one who has been called upon to train the motorized masses in matters of civility. I raise my hand in a gesture of benediction for those who stop, at a proper distance, to let me by. I give the palms-up sign and the evil eye to those who surge past. In my most foolhardy moments, I step into the street like Moses into the Red Sea, full of faith that civic virtues will prevail and the traffic tides will cease. And so far they have. Given that there’s just not that many of us out here, it actually seems possible that, in due time, the entire populace will be trained.

But the truth, I am happy to report, is that the larger share of us need no training in the basic civil behavior of the street. We just need to spread the word to those of us who do.

Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, where he teaches at Western Wyoming Community College.

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