Vestal: No wonder if thankless job leaves them cold

FRIDAY, DEC. 31, 2010

It’s 6 o’clock on Wednesday night, and it’s dumping snow. If you’re smart, you’re getting off the roads about now.

But the crew inside the small shop in Spokane Valley – perusing maps and keeping an eye on the Weather Channel – is getting ready to go out into it. All night long. A handwritten note on the board reads “Let it Snow,” and the dense, purplish skies seem ready to oblige for hours.

Welcome to Thanklessville.

Whenever the snow flies, so does the snowplow snark: They don’t arrive fast enough. They leave a berm in my driveway. I saw a driver passing with his blade up. They do it better over in Idaho.

So it’s no surprise that there’s a bunker mentality among snowplow drivers. Still, when I decided to try and catch a ride on one, I had no idea it would turn into something out of “All The President’s Men.”

Hours spent working the phone fruitlessly. Rebuffed by official after official, concerned about my safety, their liability and the great god PR. Then, when all seemed lost, a breakthrough, followed by a clandestine meeting at a garage.

It took a lot of time and effort to penetrate the heart of the biggest, most-debated municipal service of the season – the one government job with an immediate impact on everyone – but by nightfall on Wednesday there I was, in the front seat of a city of Spokane Valley snowplow with Tom.

First name only, please.

If the sensitivity and secrecy seem a bit much, he says it’s because he endures plenty of abuse for keeping the city running.

“They’re mad at you when you don’t plow, and they’re mad at you when you plow ’em in,” he said.

He relates a story about a woman who recently blocked her street with her car and screamed “every expletive in the book” at him. He advises me to keep my window rolled up to block the occasional hostile snowball.

By 6:35, we’re in Truck 204 on Sprague Avenue, idling at a stoplight behind the “General Sherman” – the big, three-axle truck that will lead a convoy of five plows up and down the street to kick off the night’s festivities.

“Normally, we’d wait until later in the night to do this, but we’re afraid with the cold temperatures everything’s going to freeze up,” Tom said.

We head down Sprague in a V-formation, like a wedge of rumbling, greenish-yellow geese. The plows kick the snow off to either side. When we leave the one-way stretch of the road, the trucks switch to a single wing, sending the berms to the right, growing larger as they move from one plow to the next.

When we stop at lights, Tom has trouble getting the truck moving again, especially if he’s got a big pile of chunky, icy snow ahead of him.

“It’s like a sheet of glass out here,” he says into his radio handset.

The plows proceed methodically down Sprague, heading west, then turning around and traveling east. Snow keeps falling. Berms get bigger and heavier. Cars line up behind the convoy, which moves at 15 or 20 mph to avoid sending snow flying too fast or too far.

Tom understands that sometimes he leaves behind problems for homeowners. If someone has just plowed a sidewalk or cleared a driveway, it’s frustrating to get a fresh berm laid over it. But he doesn’t have much choice, he says – the roads have to be cleared for emergency vehicles, school buses and daily life. People like to talk about Coeur d’Alene and its gated snowplows – which allow drivers to avoid dumping huge berms in front of driveways – but he points out that the drivers don’t decide what equipment to put on the trucks, or how and when to plow.

“That’s not our call,” he said.

Spokane Valley is in its second year of plowing its own streets, after the county gave it up. But its public works director, Neil Kersten, came from Fairbanks, Alaska, so it’s not like he’s new to plowing. Spokane Valley has seven plow trucks and hires graders as needed. It has just three full-time employees like Tom. When it’s not snowing, they keep busy maintaining the equipment and working on the streets.

“They’re plenty busy,” Kersten said.

Back on Sprague, the drivers talk by radio about “chatter” on the road, ask each other if they’re clearing the asphalt – “She’s all black,” Tom says – warn each other to lift their blades as they approach the railroad tracks. No one hits anything, but it’s always a possibility.

“You get a manhole that sticks up a little bit” – Tom says, indicating a space of about a quarter of an inch with his finger and thumb – “and you hit it, it’s pretty unnerving.”

Once they finish Sprague, they’ll move onto other arterials and then into the hilly neighborhoods, where things can get gnarly. It’s been a couple hours, and Tom has a long night ahead of him. His stay-awake strategy involves an energy drink at 8, with a Five-Hour Energy bottle in reserve.

He’s worked a lot of nights this winter, between plowing and “shooting mag” – spreading liquid magnesium chloride de-icer in advance of storms. Moving back and forth between day shifts and nights can be disorienting.

“Is today Wednesday?” he asks at one point. “I certainly don’t want to be running Friday night.”

We finish Sprague, and my ride is over. As we head back to the shop, there’s a sign that it’s not always hostility that greets the drivers.

“Wow,” Tom said. “Somebody just waved. And it wasn’t with one finger.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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