The Wisco Four-Way

pondering the conundrum of polite Midwesterners at stop signs

Ron Davis

My daughter’s boyfriend was telling me a story the other day. In the middle, he used the phrase “A Wisconsin Four-Way.” I think from my furrowed brow he sensed I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion and quickly explained the phrase refers to those face-offs of Midwestern civility taken to dizzying heights that take place when two or more drivers arrive at a four-way stop at the same time: “Go ahead” (a polite waving gesture), “Thank you, but no, you go” (another wave), “No, please, go ahead,” and on and on. This often ends with both or all drivers finally deciding to go, then stabbing at their brakes to avoid an accident, which of course leads to another exchange of profuse apologies: “My fault” (two-handed waving off), “No really, my fault,” “Go ahead,” “No, you…” (more waving, repeat). Anyone who’s passed through the intersection of Hamilton Avenue and State Street has been there.

I’ve only recently moved to Eau Claire after 40 years in the sticks. Our former home was so isolated, not only could I usually identify the owner of the infrequent vehicle coming down the road by its sound, but I could often predict where the driver was going: Eight am, the high school kid from the farmhouse to the west going to his summer job on his moped. Five-thirty? The snowbirds with the cabin headed into town for their take-out. As I said, it was the sticks.

Well, now most of the boxes have been unpacked, the furniture has been arranged, I’ve met the neighbors, and we’re almost adjusted to life in the city. Almost. I still have to remember to check the blinds before changing clothes and to close the garage door at night. My daughter still asks, “Now, are we taking our keys out of our cars?” I’m doing pretty well resisting the urge to pee in the backyard, though. 

However, driving in the city and dealing with situations like “The Wisconsin Four-Way” is still taking some getting used to. Where I lived before, there were one or two stop signs and one traffic light between our house and my job 25 miles away. Though there are plenty of those four-way stops here, the system for signage at other intersections in my new neighborhood, whether it’s a four-way, two-way, or unmarked, could best be described as “whimsical,” and am I wrong, or are there at least three different East Hamiltons? A new wrinkle is also the roundabout, which, in theory, is an elegant solution to the Wisconsin Four-Way problem; however, I have a feeling many of us may still be somewhere on the learning curve of using them efficiently. Admittedly, some of my skepticism was probably created when one of my buddies had his dreamy, fire-red Ducati reduced to a pile of alloy steel and plastic after another driver seemed to find the meaning of “Yield” ambiguous.

My daughter’s boyfriend is originally from southern Illinois and finds “The Wisconsin Four-Way” experience (and what he feels is our general obsession with courtesy here) quaint – and maybe a bit foolish. He mentions how a blanket laid on the grass in Phoenix Park for a Thursday night concert, occupied or not, will never be touched, moved, or stepped on, no matter how early it’s spread down. 

I get it, but aside from a little frustration with that little dance at four-way stops, I’m proud of the endearing graciousness I’ve seen here in Eau Claire and all over Wisconsin. And I happily wave to other drivers to “Go ahead.”