Highway to Wobegon

What happens when Minnesotans get behind the wheel?

As glad as I am to welcome summer, I am less enthusiastic about the arrival of weekend driving season. More people leaving the house means more people on the road. And on the road, Minnesotans are a funny bunch. We line up a full mile before our exit. We refuse to nudge into the intersection before turning left, so no one can get by us. We tsk at jaywalkers. We like the rules.  

But there’s a darker side to our decorum, and it blossoms as the roads become crowded. As nice as we are—or claim we are—outside of our cars, we are decidedly not nice as soon as we get behind the wheel. Living here is very pleasant. But driving here? It’s the worst.  

Say what you want about the gridlock in Boston or the casual aggressiveness of New York drivers—they look you in the eye as they flip you the bird. Making eye contact from behind the wheel in Minnesota—that simple gesture of hello, fellow humans!—is nigh impossible. It’s like spotting a yeti.

I once honked and waved at my friend Ben for a full minute while entering the highway before he stomped on the gas and wouldn’t let me merge. I asked him later, “What was that about?” And he said, “Oh, that was you?”

I should clarify: by worst, I don’t mean that everyone is always crashing into things, like they do in Providence. Rather, we’re crashing into ourselves—after seven years of living here, the chasm between how I behave outside my car and inside my car has become unbridgeable and is a cause of deep personal befuddlement. I wave to my neighbors on the street and try to run them off the road in my automobile. I shut that driver-side door and something snaps: I become the least friendly, most discourteous grump you can imagine.

To my own amazement, I have become an inveterate tailgater and a right-lane passer. Yet I don’t feign outrage when someone signals to change lanes in front of me; I am genuinely outraged, and hit the gas to close the gap and make such a merge impossible. If the car continues to merge, I simply cannot believe it. I have mastered the after-the-fact honk, which isn’t to alert another motorist to impending danger—which is what the horn was designed for—but to tell them: I very much disapprove of the move you just pulled, and I’m going to make my displeasure known.

What has happened to me? “Minnesotans think traffic is for other people,” a friend recently told me. Which is how I’ve come to feel about it: I cannot accept it in a place as otherwise benevolent as this. But it’s not just me who turns into Angry Hulk when I get behind the wheel. You do it, too. It’s true. So where is this pent-up rage coming from?

I have a theory. All the niceness? That might be the problem. We spend our whole day being so nice to other people—bending over backward for friends and strangers alike, telling everyone “You first”—that when we get on the road, we finally think: “No, you know what? Me first. “

What to do about it? This summer, let’s do ourselves (and the highway patrol) a favor: let’s blow off some steam before we get in our cars. Be a jerk. Shirk some responsibility. Embrace the pleasure of saying “no” to someone’s face, rather than waiting until we are behind the wheel of three tons of metal, on the road, going hell-bent for leather. The North Shore awaits! And this way maybe we’ll all survive the trip.

Ethan Rutherford, of Minneapolis, is the author of The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories (Ecco, $14), a short-story collection out this month. He drives a silver 2003 Subaru Legacy.