So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon
What do you do when a signal won’t change? What do you do when you have no director, coordinator, or flagger to tell you what to do?
The other day my wife and I were traveling up to visit relatives we hadn’t seen in a couple decades. We came upon one of those portable traffic signals the state puts up when they are doing road work and, as is usual, the light was red, so we stopped.
Aside from the signal and a little white sign directing us to “Stop Here” (with a helpful little arrow pointing at a specific spot on the road in front of us), there was no evidence of construction in progress. There were no parked cars indicating workers were in the area. There was no flagger standing by the signal to indicate all was as it should be. The road itself was clear as far as the eye could see for a mile or more until it curved and disappeared behind the mountain heading into a valley.
I was a bit perplexed but as that is my normal state of mind I thought nothing of it. There was a car in front of us and the license plate indicated they were from Quebec. I guess red lights are universally understood to mean Arrêt, so our French Canadian neighbours (sic) must have felt at home. I wondered, though, what they thought of a stop light out in the middle of nowhere with no apparent raison d’être.
I sat quietly pondering the imponderable while waiting for the light to change or for some pilot car to approach from beyond the bend in the highway, but nothing was happening.
This went on for about five minutes; then I remembered a line from a movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, go on without me.” That led me to another line from another movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, wait longer.”
Oh what to do; what to do. I felt stupid sitting at a red light that had no apparent reason to be there, and yet I also didn’t want to set a bad example for our Canadian voyageurs by going around them with a “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead” bit of derring-do. After all, David Farragut I am not.
After a full ten minutes had passed I knew we had reached the end of reasonableness. There had still not been a single car (pilot or otherwise) approach us from the other direction. I deduced from that fact that the road was likely closed or blocked at the other end – wherever that might have been. What if there were folks sitting at another traffic signal like us, waiting for the powers that be to finally decide it was time to end the joke and let traffic pass? Is it ever OK to assume a traffic signal is malfunctioning, or that it has been forgotten by a road crew?
Unfortunately, the alternatives before us were not good. In the wilderness there just aren’t that many detours that would have worked with regards to getting us to our destination. We were stuck at a red light with nowhere to go and no other way to get there.
“How long, O Lord,” cries the psalmist. I could relate.
Meanwhile, cars were lining up behind us and, like us, each was committed to obeying the law. A red light means stop. The signal also had unlit amber and green lights, so one couldn’t treat this as a stop-pause-and-go light.
The law is clear: One must obey a traffic signal – or be willing to suffer the consequences of disobedience (a fine or jail time?).
After fifteen minutes wresting with this moral conundrum, a car approached from the other direction. The state’s Pied Piper led a veritable train of hardy pioneers around the bend and past us. Only then did another vehicle come and lead us on toward the Promised Land.
We passed no construction, by the way; both lanes were open in both directions. I’d say we passed a moral test in this, our valley (but I doubt Hemmingway would have).