Then, of course, we started reading reports that today and tomorrow, the 26th and 27th of January, the whole of the East Coast would be inundated with one of the worst snow storms on record. Brace yourselves, NYC.
In light of the more than two feet of snow that's set to crush one of the most populous corridors in the world, it seems appropriate to revisit Dan and his ilk out East, who are certain to be busy, working insane hours, clearing untold tons of snow from roadways and generally digging a way to normalcy for millions of drivers.
2014 found us a nation obsessed with winter.
The first Polar Vortex – a thing non-meteorologists had never heard of until this year – gave birth to a second and a third generation. Temperatures fell so low in places that throwing perfectly good hot water into the frigid air became a video meme.
Snow fell in locations so southerly that their residents didn't have the requisite comforting wool socks, to say nothing of a good pair of Sorels to do the shoveling in. The snow choked Atlanta twice; Texans and Alabamians alike shared shocked Instagrams of snow on their front walks and backyards. Lions most certainly would have been lying down with lambs simply to stay warm, if only their zookeepers left them alfresco.
And of course, the snowfall in places that are normally pretty snowy was equally biblical. The fat, middle part of the US is still digging out from the load that has been dumped on us for the last four months.
In a year that's seen snow steal the headlines more often than not, it's still sometimes easy to forget that it's all got to get moved somewhere, and by someone. Around Ann Arbor, MI, moving a great deal of that snow falls to guys like Dan Clark, a snowplow driver for the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) on the Michigan State Trunk Line crew. I recently hitched a ride with Dan in his brand-spanking-new Freightliner 11SD plow truck to see just what it's taken to keep the roads clear during this snow season. In the process, I learned a truckload about pushing powder.
Dan has been on the WCRC crew since September of 2005. In the winter, his primary job is to run a snow route, driving a tremendously advanced Freightliner plow truck over a roughly three-mile stretch of I-94. His typical turnaround is the Jackson Road exit into and out of Ann Arbor, a little over a mile from my house. That means that, in a very real way, Dan has been my snowplow driver for almost a decade – a point that I'd been clueless on until I climbed into his truck to watch him work.
His primary job is to drive a tremendously advanced Freightliner plow truck over a three-mile stretch of I-94.
The WCRC is contracted by the Michigan Department of Transportation to maintain some 1,649 miles of roadway, with multiple garages across the county to handle the load, including the one I visited in Ann Arbor. As you might guess, that load has been pretty massive this year. The agency had a budget of $778,000 for winter maintenance this season – its current expenditures sit at $1.1 million. Salt is another bellwether in the field; right now WCRC is at 23,000 tons used versus a planned 19,000 tons for the full season. For Dan, all of that has meant some paychecks with 70 or more hours of overtime attached.
Working all those hours means working early. There are morning people, hardcore morning people, and there are snowplow drivers. After a brief meeting with WCRC Director of Operations Jim Harmon about an upcoming "weather event," Dan and I had agreed to meet up at the county's headquarters for the start of the day shift on Saturday morning. "Day shift" is accurate only in the strictest sense of timekeeping, as I'm told I'll have to roll into the garage by 3:50 AM to make it for the 4:00 AM start. Anyone at Autoblog will tell you that I'm at my best at the start of the day, but even my morning ardor wanes in the face of waking up a couple hours after Letterman.
Of course, time is irrelevant to the weather and the roads, and while the day crew is finishing off breakfast over a rapid-fire morning meeting, the four-man night shift is already headed home, and the guys in the massive maintenance garage next door are up and moving. When the weather demands it, these trucks are out plowing 24 hours per day, less time for refilling their "material" (that's salt, or a mixture of salt and sand around here) and the inevitable maintenance issues that crop up from the seemingly unending workloads.
In fact, by the time Dan has let me wander around the garage and take a set of photos of his recently cleaned-up rig, the rest of the drivers have cleared out and gotten to work. After I'm handed an orange safety vest and climb up into the Freightliner's cab (something that takes some doing, even if you're a six-foot, five-inch Dutchman like me), my watch reads 4:21 AM. We're late.
The snow is falling lightly, it's darker than a pocket outside, and Dan is downright convivial. We stop off by his '03 Ford F-150 – "with the 5.4 V8" he assures me – so that he can grab a thermos of green tea. "I had to give up coffee," he tells me with a smile and a laugh that I'll hear a hundred more times over the next few hours. I'm pretty sure this time he's laughing at the way I'm limply scrawling notes and trying not to nod off, simultaneously.
It's not really until we pull out on Zeeb Road, headed for our circuitous, six-mile route around the highway, that it really sinks in what a monster of a truck I'm riding in. No wheeled vehicle that loads out at over 45 tons is ever going to feel particularly quick, but there's certainly a palpable sensation of power when Dan puts the spurs to the turbocharged, 12.8-liter inline-six from Detroit Diesel (DD13).
There's a palpable sensation of power when Dan puts the spurs to the turbocharged, 12.8-liter inline-six from Detroit Diesel.
The engine was built with two missions in life: make mountains of torque with which to move mountains of stuff, and do it reliably over continuous running that would make most consumer vehicles quake. Rated for maximum outputs of 470 horsepower and 1,650 pound-feet of torque, the DD13 has enough power to push powder all day and night, including that which is required to run the hydraulics system that allows Dan to operate those critical plows.
The rig I'm riding in has a staggering amount of equipment welded, bolted or stuck to it. There are provisions for up to three plows, but we're only running with two today (the front plow isn't workable on the highway): a belly plow under the truck (sometimes called a "hydro" or a "scraper," depending on who you ask) and a massive retractable wing plow on the right side of the truck. The 14-foot dump box out back is made from stainless steel (a surprisingly new improvement, I'm told), and feeds side- and rear-mounted material spreaders. There are two huge brine tanks affixed along the flanks of the box, as well (brine is sprayed with salt dispersal to help melt ice and snow). The county specified that these new plow trucks come with an onboard lubrication system for the hydraulic system – a $6,000 option – meaning one less piece of maintenance to do for drivers and mechanics.
Inside, the cabin looks slightly downmarket compared to other $220,000 vehicles I've been in, though the Freightliner wins outright on sheer gadget count. The gray plastic dash and 'wood' trim are straight out of GM's Malaise-Era playbook, but the bevy of toggle switches and buttons add a lot of excitement for the five-year-old in me. The center console is littered with said switches, some conveniently marked out with stickers from a label gun, as well as a push-button transmission control that looks only slightly less user friendly than that which Aston Martin employs. There's a big laydown steering wheel that seems standard for a truck in this class, and a super-cool, fighter-jet style joystick to control the various plows. Stuck up in the air between my rarely used seat and Dan's full-air-ride throne, is a digital display that controls the salt application, or "giving it a shot" as they say in the plowing biz.
Dan effortlessly explains all of this to me as we get started down a stretch of highway that I'll see a great number of times over the next eight hours or so. There's some snow buildup on the road surface as we start out, not much more than a dusting, really, and practically zero traffic at this hour on a weekend.
Even with the easy running, I'm immediately impressed with the way Dan is able to operate three discrete systems while seamlessly answering my questions about his family, growing up in Brooklyn, MI near Michigan International Speedway, and his resulting NASCAR fandom.
He's enough of a Jimmie Johnson fan that he pushed for his old truck to get the three-digit designation 348 in honor of the No. 48 car. His coworkers joke that he "stayed with the same team" for his new truck, it wearing 388 and reflecting Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate #88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (I make several conspicuous efforts to show off my Chevy-branded reporter's pad, to no response.)
The cabin looks downmarket compared to other $220,000 vehicles I've been in, but wins outright on sheer gadget count.
Jimmie and Jr. would be quick to notice that hand speed and touch that Dan displays with the plow blade-controlling joystick. With traffic so light, we run with the wing plow deployed through most of the early morning, Dan also moving the stick in micro-adjustments to raise and lower the hydro. Part of the mastery comes from knowing this snow route, frankly better than I know the back of my own hand. Dan knows exactly where drainage grates lie, for instance, precisely raising plow to clear them off without catching their sides.
At a steady 30 miles per hour, we're not exactly flying, but we're moving a good deal faster than I'd be apt to considering the number of moving pieces involved. I quickly see that it's not just plows and grates and Jersey barrier that a good plow driver must watch out for, either. Our first eastbound pass reveals a couple of cars abandoned in rather close proximity to trafficked lanes, one stopped improbably at the very delta of an onramp feeding the highway. Winging something like a Corolla with our 11-foot wing plow would be disastrous on any number of levels, but Dan avoids it with a "whoops!" and a chuckle, deftly maneuvering around it for the remainder of the day.
It takes about three passes to clear the light snowfall from each three-lane side of the highway, at which point, we start hitting the on- and off-ramps that feed our section of the highway. Some time in the still early morning, we notice that the windshield wiper fluid isn't spraying, and the supposedly heated side mirrors are cold and fogging. With the weather still pretty clear, we stop back in to the garage to have one of the guys in the shop take a gander.
Dan rustles up mechanic (and buddy, it seems) Robert Ecklond to have a look at the truck, while I wander around the shop some more, taking pictures and trying not to make a nuisance of myself. Rob isn't the only mechanic in the shop (not by a long shot), though I didn't get an exact headcount, and our wiper/mirror snafu is pretty minor compared with maladies suffered on a few other rigs. I see a truck with its belly plow completely pulled off, apparently suffering from some kind of hydraulic system issue. Old and new, the plow trucks and other equipment seem completely over-built, but the stresses of pushing snow, day in and day out, simply wear out even the most rigorously engineered equipment. It's just a fact of life around here.
Rob has opened the hood of 388 when I find he and Dan again, so I snap a few engine pictures (huge turbo!). Rob's pronouncement is that all the systems seem to be working fine now... just one of those things. He confirms for me that the strategy of turning something off and back on again is sound, if not universally effective.
As it turned out, we would really need the wipers. Less than an hour after getting back on the route, the weather event that I'd come for began in earnest. Just in time for the arrival of Saturday morning traffic.
The stresses of pushing snow, day in and day out, simply wear out even the most rigorously engineered equipment.
It's important to understand that I've lived in Michigan for the better part of my 36 years. I know winter, and I thought I understood the intersection between snow and road surfaces; namely how the former affected the latter. While I might have understood the rudiments of the relationship, it wasn't until this particular Saturday morning that I grasped the speed at which snow can ruin your drive in to work, at the very least.
After spending most of the dark morning completely clearing our route, it took about ten minutes, maybe five, for the work to get undone. Completely. No sooner had the snow started coming down thickly, than we hit our turnaround to see a highway that looked as though it had been untouched by a plow all day. "That's unreal," I told Dan. "Yeah," he laughed, "All these people are probably wondering what the plows have been doing." I would've, for sure.
This may sound fundamental, but when the snow keeps falling – and man, oh man, has it this year – this is one tough job.
Do the math here: Dan's particular snow route is three miles in each direction, a roughly six-mile loop. On snowy days his shift goes from 4:00 AM to 8:00 PM. That's 16 hours. Figuring for a couple of breaks and miscellaneous short stoppages, he says it's nothing to drive 300 miles in a shift. Remember, that's at an average of well under the 30 mph that was our early plowing/cruising speed. Also remember that means Dan has to be really paying attention that whole time. Anyone that's driven long distances and long hours can understand what a grueling schedule this is.
And, of course, that traffic I mentioned earlier makes the whole shooting match more palpably dangerous every minute a plow truck is on the road. Imagine every stupid, rude or aggressive driving behavior you've ever seen or demonstrated on the highway – about 90 percent of those moves were on display in just an hour riding in a county snowplow. Cars scream by on either side of the truck, whether the lane they're in is clear or completely coated in snow. Drivers basically treat the truck like a part of the road itself, cutting in front of it at the very last second, driving up from the side when we're trying (slowly!) to change lanes.
Dan's pretty placid as the tempo of the traffic increases. He calls traffic the biggest stressor of the job (along with breakdowns), but it doesn't show when I'm watching him work. I see him ease the hydro up by a few inches at the same time he's being flanked by two slightly undulating semis – a snow-plow sandwich. We're going 30 mph still, and it's utterly nerve-wracking for me. For Dan, of course, it's just another couple beats in his minute-to-minute job of staying in control.
He's defensive of the drivers on the road, understanding that they're going to come out of any incident with his truck the worse for it. Even though he's certainly not treated in kind. "Sometimes you get told you're number one... not in a good way."
On snowy days his shift goes from 4:00 AM to 8:00 PM. That's 16 hours.
I asked him if he'd ever actually seen a car go off the road – which elicited his trademark laugh and something along the lines of "more than I can remember." He radios them in if they stay stuck, plows around them when they break down and generally goes about the business of getting all of them, good drivers and bad, safely down the road.
I like to think that I did pretty well hanging in the passenger seat for nearly an eight-shift. Never mind that I wasn't the one doing the work (well, not the hard work, anyway). And never mind that Dan had another eight hours left in his workday and hadn't even finished all his green tea yet. That's how the roads get cleared; with skilled operators, and mind-boggling machines and getting up early and doing the job until its done. Or, in winters like this, until the next man is up.
He's a smart guy, Dan Clark; funny, and earnest and good to talk with. He's also one hell of a driver. In winters like this one, with record blizzards and ice-blanketed roads, I'm happy to have him as my snowplow driver, too.
Driven To Work is a new Autoblog series exploring the vehicles that do the work of the world and telling the stories of the people who operate them. If you know of a person, job or vehicle that you think we'd be interested in, feel free to drop Seyth Miersma (seyth.miersma at autoblog dot com) an email with the specifics.