by Judy Garrison
In snowy winters the snowplow is ubiquitous and can feel like the personification of salvation. Like when you’re losing control of your vehicle and realize that if you get behind that plow up ahead which is clearing and sanding the road, you may survive. For some of us the plow has a kind of anthropomorphic personality. Maybe that’s because we read Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton as children, and then read it to our own children. After many mild winters, waiting to be useful, Katy—a red crawler tractor, with plow— has her moment of glory in the city of Geopolis when the big one finally hits. “Everyone and everything was stopped but …KATY!” Suddenly, the entire community is dependent on one little snowplow. Our own town plows may be pure machinery, but they sure perform what Katy did, and there are many human faces behind the wheel. I decided to meet them.
Michael McAdams, a 28 year veteran of the Town of Andes Highway Department who became its Superintendent only last year, obligingly offered to set up a group interview with this reporter. In addition to Mike, the department is made up of Sam Balcom, Tom Brainerd, Brad Darling, Tom Hall, Charlie Melvin, Donny Melvin, Richie Peck, and Robert Smith (“Smitty”).
All the men came to the job with a commercial driver’s license (CDL). But we can imagine there is a lot to learn in terms of the operation of trucks on the hilly and curvy roads that weave through Andes. It’s got to be very demanding, maybe occasionally hair-raising work. Luckily, even in the far reaches of this 100 square mile town, they are all in radio contact with the main garage for advice and backup.
The guys clearly get along and enjoy a sense of camaraderie. This is essential, they say, and one of the aspects of the job that they appreciate. When asked what the public might not know about the department, McAdams quickly offered, “These are good men who really work hard.” The guys may have to put ice chains on –never a fun or easy chore—in very frigid weather. They also do their own maintenance like greasing, oil changes and changing flat tires. They have to beat down the sand in the box when it freezes in chunks. Otherwise the chunks would clog up the spinners during the spreading process. In a warmer year they’d be out cutting a lot of brush (to improve visibility), but in this year of virtually daily snowfalls we don’t have to wonder what they are doing. They plow 108 miles of Town road, with additional contracts of the City roads around the reservoir and County roads such as “the Kill” (Tremperskill). It’s not unusual for the grade to be 20-30%, and some roads are as steep as 45% (you wondered why we were named “Andes”?). It’s essential to know what gear to be in, on what hill, and part of the training the experienced employees give the new guys entails very particular driving strategies for specific roads. They presently have seven trucks, but the favorite and most important one is the single four-wheel drive Autocar. This is the one which rescues the others when they get stuck.
The winter work hours are 4 a.m.-12:30 p.m.. The workers spread sand on the dirt roads and salt on the blacktop. The school bus runs naturally get top priority. Then come the secondary roads. A dead end town road with only seasonal dwellings will get plowed, too, but after the traveled roads are done.
What was it like on Christmas Day when snow was falling at the rate of four inches an hour? Four to five men came out, starting at 2 p.m. and worked until midnight. They received holiday pay, but we know without being told that a little extra money can’t make up for losing Christmas with the family. Visibility was almost nonexistent, but they kept on trucking as 2 ½ feet of snow fell and accumulated in the unplowed areas.
Speaking of accumulation, we learned that there is no repository for extra snow: the plows just keep pushing it back. Which makes this reporter wonder what happens if we have lots more snow upon snow this winter and visibility around snow banks becomes more of a safety issue, particularly in the commercial area of the village. (The Village government would probably have to request of State, County, and Town Highway teams that they haul some of the snow to a designated spot.)
When it’s snowing and it’s obvious that the plow is coming soon, we should all remember to move our cars off the road. And also to remember to say a silent “thank you” to the snow plow crew of Andes who are out before we have opened our eyes in the morning navigating icy and dicey roads, and sometimes even missing a holiday dinner, just to keep our roads clear.~