Norwich's Road Crew in Winter: Long Hours, Hair-Raising Moments... and Lots of Ribbing
There's snow in the forecast tonight, followed by the whole nine yards: sleet, freezing rain, and rain. Which means that whatever you're doing for New Year's Eve, it's a safe bet you'll be enjoying yourself more than the five guys in the photo above.
Norwich has about 85 miles of roads, and between plowing, salting and sanding, by the time Tuesday morning comes they'll have covered each of those miles several times. When you get home safely, you can thank them.
Or better yet, let's do that right here, right at the beginning. So you know whom to keep in your thoughts:
-- We'll start with Neal Rich, who lives in East Thetford and has been working on Norwich's roads for 37 years, ever since he was a young man doing farm work out Turnpike Road and one Monday morning one of Charlie Hodgdon's crew didn't show up for work;
-- Gary Durkee, who gets to Norwich from West Fairlee, has been on the crew for 18 years, and claims that because he's the oldest he bears the brunt of the crew's teasing. "Well, you're easy," Neal confirms;
-- Mike Koloski commutes in from the far reaches of White River Junction, and if any practical joking's been going on--like an annoying bell that tinkles every time the truck bounces, which is constantly, and seems to be coming from under your seat--just assume it was him. Everyone else on the crew does;
-- Sonny Lewellyn is from Hartland -- he's not only out on the roads but is also the guy chiefly responsible for keeping the trucks running;
-- Adam Moore, the crew's youngster, lives in Plainfield -- "Under a rock," Gary insists -- but his family has deep roots in Norwich (think Moore Lane).
Neal Rich gets ready to head out to sand Norford Lake Road. Norwich maintains Thetford's portion of the road out to the trout club, while Thetford handles Norwich's portion of Stowell Road.
Sitting around the table in their break room/meeting room out at the town garage, they banter with the ease of people who spend a great deal of time together. "We don’t get much family time in the winter months," says Sonny. "And if we do, we’re usually sleeping."
"This group," Gary adds, "is family during the winter." They keep one another company by radio when they're out on their routes, step in for each other when someone's sick or unable to make it in, load one another's trucks with sand or salt, and in general have forged a camaraderie through shared hard work that makes a challenging job more bearable.
Because here's the thing: Whatever winter throws at them, they have to deal with it. They'll get called in at 3 in the morning and not get home until many hours later. Or they'll get home, get an hour or two of sleep if they can -- "You're still jazzed up," says Mike -- then get called right back out again. Whatever the conditions--ice storm, heavy snow--they have to drive through it just to get to work. "I was coming to work in freezing rain four or five years ago," Gary remembers, "and next thing I know the car's turned right around. It went into the rail, turned the other way. 'That ain’t very fun!' I said."
Adam Moore loads Neal Rich's truck with sand.
And this is before they even climb in a truck, which is when things get even more interesting. Even with chains, trucks struggle on hard ice. Norwich has some steep, twisting roads -- Patrell, Tigertown, Tilden Hill and others -- and a 23,000-pound truck loaded with 9 tons of sand can still slide backward or sideways off the road.
"You try to stop, but you just keep going," says Adam.
"I'd rather plow a foot of dry snow than deal with an ice storm," says Mike. Of course, sometimes the snow can be so blinding that they can't see the edges of the road. "You just stay in the center and hope that's where it is," Gary says.
Then there's the heavy, wet snow we've had so much of in recent winters. Neal was out Norford Lake Road a few winters back when the snow brought down a pine tree just in front of him, bringing power lines down with it. He was stranded until the power company could get out there. Trees come down across roads four or five times a year.
Or take this winter, whose relative mildness has brought its own challenges. It's not even January and already it's been a miserable year if you're a road guy, because of the constant freezing and thawing. Without a prolonged freeze, the gravel roads haven't really had a chance to set up; since the plow alone weighs half a ton, they've had to be careful about using it on top of soft gravel. "It's a fine line," says Mike. "We've had to decide not to plow the gravel roads, because of the damage we'd do."
The view from up high.
Over the years, plenty of motorists have been rescued by the crew. They're not allowed to pull you out of a ditch with chains, because of the damage they might do, but if they can push you out, they will. Or, as Gary once had to do, cut you out of your seat belt while your van's upside down in a brook, filling rapidly with water.
There's a flip side, though. The one annoying constant they have to deal with is drivers in a hurry. They've been run into, honked and yelled at, passed at insane moments. "They are not conscious of how wide you are, and they expect you to maneuver around them," says Sonny. "It’s not possible." Their advice? "Give us a wide berth," says Mike, "and we'll get the road clear for you."
If you've noticed a change this winter -- the roads cleared earlier than in the past -- you're not imagining it. The crew is out earlier, with a goal of getting roads plowed or sanded ahead of the school buses. This did not always happen in recent years, and crew members found it embarrassing. "You’re taking somebody’s kids and the road should be safe or passable," says Gary. "Even now, sometimes it comes to where you can’t really stay ahead of it, but the buses can still go. That’s the key."
For all the stress, the job definitely has its moments. Riding up high in the truck as the woods and fields unfold in front of them, they see things. You get an ice storm, and then the sun comes up the next day and the light's sparkling everywhere -- "It's really pretty," Neal muses. But of course, he's a road guy. So his next thought? "All that ice. The trees could come down. And what's going to happen if the wind starts blowing?"