Thursday, January 10, 2008

Snow Patrol

Burleigh's guiding the big Case loader along the curb, the heavy chains on the massive tires grinding against the concrete. In his wake, sloughing off the big steel blade, a three-foot high, four-foot wide windrow of dirty snow clogs the right westbound lane of Harrison Drive. Peterson's behind him in the snarling Caterpillar blade, peeling four-inch-thick ice out of the gutter, cluttering what's left of the lane with miniature glaciers the color of murky, strong tea. Brody follows up in the other loader, a butter yellow New Holland; his blade folds the frozen hunks into the windrow like a Kitchenaid paddle mixer kneading doughy batter. The chains on his wheels are finer and hang loosely, jingling on the asphalt.

Add to this mechanical cacophony the snowblower, with Jim at the wheel. Another smoke-belching, eight-cylinder Caterpillar contraption is fastened to the front of his marigold Case loader. Its curved spout rotates seven feet above a five-foot wide horizontal spinning auger wrapped with a spiral blade two feet in diameter. The thing makes flying hamburger out of the ice-littered windrow; Jim has complete control of its direction and speed from inside the cab of his loader. He's essentially the quarterback of this team, his full winter beard steel gray except for the white at his chin, and calling the shots on the radio, he calls everybody "kiddo" in the kindly way a favorite uncle might.

I'm in one of four massive diesel dump trucks collecting the snow Jim can't blow off the road into empty lots, taking turns pulling around him in the left lane and dodging in front, right front wheel riding the edge of the windrow like a rail. We back up until the base of the blower, a case around the bared, devouring auger, bumps gently into us, and we put the truck in neutral. Jim's loader will push the chugging dump truck at the speed he needs to travel, depending on the amount of snow the blower's chewing up. If you're headed down an incline, you gently ride the brakes to avoid drifting away from the blower. Jim drawls friendly suggestions into the radio, patience personified. Occasionally the auger encounters something it can't chew up, a hunk of concrete pried loose by the blade or a rock or cinder block or hard metal rod that was littering the gutter. Everything, not just the blower, grinds to a halt when this happens.

I get distracted worrying about traffic. By the time the trucks (mine is a 1979 GMC, as old as I am, painted a matte green the color of jungle fatigues) are fully loaded, they might weigh 14 tons. That makes stopping the moving truck a joke, especially on slick roads. Drivers behave unexpectedly around heavy equipment removing snow. They assume you can see them. You usually can't. They are often erratic, timidly following for a while, then frantically diving past the big trucks. Teenage drivers are generally foolish, occasionally zipping under the arc of blowing snow. Hard frozen chunks from the blower frequently take the side mirrors off the dump trucks. I can imagine what an errant piece would do to those kids' Hondas.

We've gotten more snow already this winter than I remember getting throughout an entire season in any of the seven years since I've been home. I took my Tubbs snowshoes to work today to hike between the U.V. and the pump house, clumping over drifts six and eight feet deep; one appeared large enough to dig a blue cavern in the size of my bedroom. Nature is clobbering us, and there's plenty more where that came from. I was amused at the pageant of heavy equipment I participated in this morning. Amused at the things we do to beat back nature, to try to control the world around us, to make it "livable." What's going to be interesting is the "January Thaw" we'll finally get in March. Water is the most difficult earthly element of all to control, and there's going to be a lot of it come spring. Maybe that's when I'll get away. Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer. But not in a dump truck.

1 Comments:

Blogger mister anchovy said...

Lots of snow means lots of water will make the trout and the fly fisherpeople happy for 08.

January 11, 2008 at 8:16 PM  

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