Plow takes reporter on road less traveled

TAGHKANIC–Tom Youhas, the town’s new highway superintendent, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a chance to ride with Mike Conn during Tuesday’s snowstorm.

So that afternoon, I joined Mike aboard the town’s legendary “green machine,” an International 6-ton, 6-wheeler dump truck equipped with tire chains and a 17-foot plow blade and a 6-ton load of road sand. At the end of a run, with the sand gone Mike tells me, “It likes to slide around a bit.” He keeps the truck, which doesn’t have four-wheel drive, under control through judicious down shifting.

The engine roars and the wipers squeak, the heater, kept on high to ensure that the front window stays clear, hums. I remove my hat to cool down.

Mike’s first priority is to plow roads that the Hudson City School District buses will soon travel. It’s a mystery to him why the school district, which his kids attend, did not declare a snow day, when nearby Taconic Hills did. He’s worried as he looks at the state of the roads. His mission is “to make sure the kids get home safely.”

This is Mike’s second time out since he started at 7:30 a.m. Mr. Youhas and George Hotaling, the senior member of the highway crew, decide when the crews go out. Mike said he’s used to getting calls in the middle of the night.

Traffic is one of a plow driver’s worst problems. “A lot of people don’t know how to drive in snow. I wish people would stay home,” he says. Visibility can be a problem too, especially in a nighttime blizzard.

Mike applies the brakes going down a steep incline to avoid a driver who has stopped his car at an intersection at the foot a hill to check his mail box. The truck trembles. He says it takes a lot of energy to stop such a heavy truck on a steep incline. We travel slowly. I see a deer galloping off in the distance and, later, a couple of wild turkeys foraging in the woods. We peer at farm houses, snowy meadows and bare trees through the veil of falling snow. From the vantage point of the truck cab, several feet higher than a car, the curves of the topography are much more visible than they are from the seat of a passenger car.

“You’re in for a treat, you’re going to get to go up the worst road in the town, Tompkins Hill,” Mike tells me as we plow through Camphill Village. In places the blade, which only has two settings, up and down, or “float,” clears the snow right down to the dirt and sometimes gouges the road surface.

The narrow Camphill Road requires an experienced driver. It is only one lane wide at its beginning off Pumpkin Hollow Road. Ancient Maples close to the road present special hazards. “One wrong move on this road and you could tear the plow right off the truck. It’s been done. There’s absolutely no room for error,” says Mike. One spring, the truck sank up to its axles in mud. In three years on the job, it’s the only place he ever got stuck and needed assistance getting out.

Around 3 p.m. the snowfall gets thicker. “If the snow stops at 7, we’ll get home at 11:45,” Mike says. “Nights like this, coffee becomes your best friend. Sometimes I have to roll both windows down and turn the radio up as high as it goes. The snow and monotony can get to you,” he says. When all else fails he’ll go back to the garage and grab a few winks in one of the Lazy Boy chairs that line the office.

We are back on Route 27 heading toward Tompkins. Plastic posts that the crew has installed in fall stick up along the roads. It can snow so hard they have trouble knowing exactly where the road is. We get to the Livingston town line, turn around, and retrace our route.

This storm isn’t so bad, he says. “We’ve been lucky this year.” Ice is the worst. It takes twice as much time to plow and sand, and it’s more dangerous.

The pickup trucks plowing private driveways are an annoyance. Some leave a ridge of snow a few feet high in the public road, which creates hazards for cars because the snow gets spread along the highway and can quickly turn to ice. “If you plow but don’t put sand down, it turns to ice,” he says.

The forecast was for two to four inches, but now it’s starting to look like five. We turn onto a road he had just plowed and it looks like he hasn’t been there at all. “That’s the most common complaint,” he says. “People call; they’ll swear you didn’t plow.”

“Now the fun begins,” says Mike as we start up Tompkins Road. Its steepness and curves, coupled with elevation that can cause it to ice up more than other roads make it one of the biggest challenges of the job. “This is the only truck that can do Tompkins,” he says, coaxing the truck, “Come on, girl, come on.” The engine strains. He’s in first gear. It can’t handle the road in a higher gear.

Most roads are plowed twice and sanded only once, on the return. Otherwise you’d plow off the sand you just put down. But this road is sanded both ways.

Mike remembers the first time he plowed Tompkins. It was his first day on the job three years ago. “I almost had a heart attack. That road’s insane.” Before working for the town, Mike had had plenty of experience plowing private property but had never worked on public roads.

“You’re going to love this road,” he says as we turn down Banor Road, another extremely narrow road that dead ends in a constricted area, with a six foot drop-off on one side. As we return to Tompkins I notice unlit kerosene lanterns hanging from trees at intervals. Mike appreciated it when the owners lit them one dark night during a blizzard to provide him with extra light.

Turning back onto Tompkins, heading downhill, we come to the “worst place,” a steep descent combined with two closely linked hairpin turns. “On that corner, you don’t want to go through the guy’s living room,” he says as we pass a Victorian house with a bay window just a few feet from the road. Once he slid, and the plow caught just in time to avert a disaster.

As we approach the town highway garage, Pumpkin Hollow Road once again looks like it hasn’t been plowed. After a break, Mike will go out and do it all over again, making one or two more trips before calling it a night. They’ll wait for the storm to end and make a final run.

I ask whether the repetition gets to him.

“It’s my job,” he says. “It’s monotonous sometimes, but what are you going to do? It’s a never-ending battle until the snow stops.”

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