It’s 4 a.m. and there isn’t a soul on the country roads of Montcalm County.
The sun hasn’t yet risen. With a hot cup of coffee in his lap and only the dull scraping of his snow plow along the gravel road and the humming of the diesel engine in his ears, Yale Parker finds an unspeakable peace.
“There’s just something about plowing snow before daylight,” said Parker, 50, who’s been driving plow for the Road Commission for Montcalm County for 31 years. “It’s just heaven, so peaceful. It’s just enjoyable, I can’t really explain it.”
With no opposing headlights, Road Commission drivers can take in the snow-covered fields, sometimes the rising sun hitting off them just right, and the lines of leafless trees that flank them.
“That’s the best part,” said Jake Sias, 27, who even in his free time likes to take in the great outdoors with hobbies like ice fishing and riding quads. “It’s nice, you don’t have any traffic so you can get a lot done. And it’s peaceful.”
There are 21 full-time Road Commission drivers in Montcalm County, and each one is different.
Veterans, like Parker, enjoy the sounds of the early morning plow over the radio, which he hasn’t turned on in his truck for nearly a decade. Others, like Sias, find comfort in the twanging guitar of a good country song.
Some chew, some smoke. Some keep their cabins cool, some like it warm. Each has their own style of how best to plow the snow.
But they all have one thing in common… they enjoy “pushing snow.”
“It’s fun to put a plow on every now and then and get into some deep snow,” said Sias with a wry smile last Wednesday just before the fluffy white snow left over from last week’s blizzard hit his plow and splashed up over the windshield.
It’s a constant test of their skills as drivers and for some, plowing through an enormous drift can be a rush.
“It’s the challenge of it, seeing if you can make it through it,” Sias said.
It’s that attitude that Road Commission Managing Director Mark Christensen loves about his drivers.
“Most of them live for snow. They love plowing snow,” he said. “Some of them are happiest when they have deep snow to plow. It gives you a little sense of accomplishment.”
Dedication to their designated areas
Plowing snow can bring all sorts of satisfaction to drivers. It can be a stress reliever, a pastime and a job all rolled into one.
But among the drivers there is also a sense of duty to county residents.
Each driver is assigned a township and even though they abide by certain restrictions — such as priority roads, such as federal and state roads, must be first to get plowed, followed by paved roads, dirt roads and then developments — each driver has found how best to navigate their region.
They try to avoid retracing previously plowed roads, according to Sias, and have an honest goal of clearing roads for people to commute to work, school or wherever the day takes them.
“We take pride in our work. Everyone wants their township to be happy,” said Sias, who last Wednesday came across a stranded driver and plowed a path to make it easier for a neighbor to pull him out of a drift. Because of liability he couldn’t pull the car out, but said he still tries to move as much snow in front of drivers as he can. “You want it safe for people to drive.”
They learn the roads like the back of their hands. Sias, who has been driving for six years, has stories about nearly every road he drove down.
Whether getting “sucked” into a ditch by deep snow or stuck in a marshy roadside, each of the tales began with “Right here is where I…”
The stories, whether the drivers want them to or not, usually make it around the break table as drivers filter back in from the day’s round.
“It’s just one more thing for them to get at you with,” Sias joked of the other drivers.
But each one of them have had their day in the ditch.
The veterans say it takes five years to get a good feel for pushing snow. Sias, who is right at that threshold, said he’s almost there.
“In my first few years I got stuck a lot,” he said, shaking his head. “But I haven’t been stuck yet this year, knock on wood.”
The other side of plowing
While most days are quiet and aren’t particularly eventful, it can in an instant turn into a nightmare.
What is a driver’s biggest fear?
Drivers with more miles have seen dozens, and been involved in multiple crashes. Some are minor, but others can be fatal.
Christensen told of two fatal crashes that Road Commission drivers were involved in over the years.
In one, an oncoming van lost control on slick roads, slid sideways and crashed into the front plow of a truck, killing a young girl in the back seat.
There was zero time for the plow truck driver to react, but the image, Christensen said, lasted forever.
In another crash, a car carrying three nuns ran a stop sign and was struck broadside by a plow. Two people in the car were killed.
“It sawed the car right in half,” said Christensen, a choke in his voice.
“Those are tough on the guys. You just can’t make things better,” he said. “Sometimes you see the ones where someone is pretty beat up and those are tough. You couldn’t make the roads good enough fast enough.”
They are those tragic stories that keep drivers’ heads on a constant swivel.
They’ve learned to manipulate the truck’s three plows, shifter and radio without any thought, so it’s most often traffic that keeps their attention.
And while they don’t mind going unnoticed with the jobs they do, Christensen said, the hope is they never go unnoticed on the road.
Winter has come
With last week’s storms, the 20-plus drivers with the Road Commission have been on the roads seemingly all day, every day. Sometimes the salt helps, sometimes it makes things worse. Sand can help in spots, but with the freezing temperatures and nearly a foot of snow, it’s tough to maintain all the roads.
“Each storm brings its own challenges,” Sias said.
And while they enjoy being on the road with a plow strapped to the front of their truck, winter only lasts three months and it’s on to the next task.
The guys are busy year round, with roadwork, patch jobs and maintenance on equipment.
It’s a gritty job, working on the Road Commission. It combines physical strength with mental toughness.
And as the seasons change, so does the work.
The spring construction season, summer roadwork and wrapping up projects in the fall … all until winter comes around and they hook the plow back on.