It’s 9 a.m. and you are already running late for your appointment. You were up at 7 to shovel your driveway from the latest Pagosa Country snowstorm, and were happy to see that the road in front of your house had already been plowed. As you are loading your last item into the car the blade comes by again, creating a hefty berm at the foot of your driveway. You slouch and groan, head to the porch for the shovel and spend another 20 minutes digging the berm away so you can leave.
If this story is familiar to you, may it be a consolation to know that you are not alone; and even the plow operators themselves have to deal with berms and unplowed driveways when they are done with their day of work.
Although the past three years of winter storms have meant a lot more shoveling for area residents, local town and county road crews have been following a plan that has kept roads clear, busses running and routes open for emergency vehicles, even in the midst of the harshest storms.
When the big snow storm hit between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Archuleta County Road and Bridge Superintendent David Guilliams pulled two of his workers from their vacations to help with the roads so the entire crew could get the work done and be with their families. After their long day of sitting in equipment, squinting through snow and doing their best to stay on the road, the crew headed home, many facing berms and snow-packed driveways of their own. After a late dinner and less than eight hours of sleep, the crew was out again early the next morning.
“It’s all part of the job during snow storms,” says Guilliams, who was an operator himself for four years before becoming the department superintendent in January 2009. Guilliams grew up in Aztec, N.M., and came to the county in 1982. With only 15 operators available to clear snow off of approximately 320 miles of county roads, both Guilliams and county Public Works Director Ken Feyen are also drivers during storms. Prior to the county financial crisis in 2007, the road and bridge department had a staff of 24 men working the roads. After the drastic budget cuts and three consecutive winters of big snowfall, the crew is working harder than ever.
“I don’t feel understaffed until people want their driveways cleared,” says Guilliams. “We just can’t do it.”
A big part of the job for the road and bridge crew is trying to predict the weather.
“A typical day,” says Arthur, an operator for the county crew, “can start at midnight when a big storm has hit.”
The drivers make their way to the county Road and Bridge department shop, located about a mile down U.S. 84, to get their equipment started and warmed up. By 2 a.m., the crew is on each of their 17 routes, with Feyen and Guilliams filling in the two extra spots. If school has been cancelled, the drivers will clear everything on their route as they go through, including the smaller side streets and cul-de-sacs. If school is open, they will clear the major arteries that are bus routes, then go back and clear the side routes.
The road crew tries to quit for the day after 15 hours, but that is not always possible. During the 31-inch storm in mid-January, Guilliams had worked for 17 hours and was on his way home just as the sheriff’s department called, requiring him to turn around and work another shift. Other members of the crew also worked 17 hours, arrived home at 7 p.m., and were back at work at 3 a.m. the next morning. Five mechanics work the same hours as the drivers, to keep the equipment operating, which is not always an easy task.
“Without the mechanics, we couldn’t get the job done,” a crew member says. “They are the ones who keep us running.”
It is not uncommon for a mechanic to have to fabricate a part for some of the aging equipment in the county fleet. Several of the county machines are over 20 years old and, in addition to not being as efficient as newer equipment, it requires many hours of maintenance to keep them operational. But when just rebuilding a machine costs $132,000, the crew does their best to work with what they have.
“I am amazed to see their ingenuity,” Feyen notes of the mechanics.
Because there are only enough crew members to cover each route, when someone is sick it makes it especially difficult to cover the area. But, as the crew sits in their break room at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, it is obvious that they are a tight-knit group and each man knows that if someone calls in sick, it is serious. The crew shares stories of having to come into work sick during snow storms, of working 16 hours on Christmas Day, and often working through their lunch breaks to hit all the uncleared roads. Although crew members like Harvey, Charlie and Bruce, who have all spent over 23 years with the department, talk about their trials of working long days, the words don’t come as complaints, but more as defense to the criticism they get from county residents.
“Some people just don’t appreciate us,” says a crew member. “They throw snowballs or even shovels at us.”
Frustrations arise when county residents end up with berms at the foot of their nicely shoveled driveways, or when their two-wheel drive vehicles can’t make it down the plowed road. According to Dixie Daugaard, the office administrator, the department gets at least one call a day from residents with a two-wheel drive vehicle asking for a plow to be sent out to help them.
“I feel their frustration,” Daugaard emphasizes, “but I have to tell them that we just can’t do it.” She adds that she can receive up to 47 calls in a 24-hour period, with nearly all being complaints. But for every 40 or so calls, she does receive one or two positive ones offering thanks. “I really appreciate the happy calls,” she says.
For Chris Gallegos, the street superintendent for the Town of Pagosa Springs, the snow removal process in town limits is similar to the county’s, and Rita Prokop, the deputy clerk for the town, receives similar phone complaints during storms.
“We have a good crew,” Gallegos says, “and we get the streets taken care of.” His crew consists of himself and four full-time workers: Brad, Frank, Brandon and Shane. He also has extra help in the winter from the town Parks Department with Jim, Tye and Robert doing snow removal on town sidewalks. Because of the density of many areas downtown, Gallegos and his crew often have to haul the snow away from an area using snow baskets on the front of two loaders and a backhoe. The town crew often starts their shift before 2 a.m. and works throughout the day to keep the streets cleared. The priority areas are the main arteries to the schools and town offices, such as 8th Street and Hot Springs Boulevard, as well as the bus routes on Trujillo Road and Four Mile Road.
Gallegos, a Pagosa Springs native with 23 years as street superintendent, notes that they don’t have a mechanic on staff, so, when a piece of equipment breaks, his crew has to do it all. During the interview, while standing in lightly falling snow at front of the shop, Gallegos pauses to answer the phone and explains to the caller that the reason his crew hasn’t been able to adequately clean a street is because of the number of vehicles parked on the road. He apologizes to the caller and tells them he’ll send one of his guys door-to-door to ask the homeowners to move the vehicles so his crew can get in and remove the snow. After hanging up, he mentions that many downtown residents have no place to put their vehicles because of the deep snow in their yards.
“We try our best to do driveway cleanups,” Gallegos says, “but we can’t always do it due to resources.”
If there is a perk to the job of plowing roads in Pagosa Country, it could be the increase in non-verbal communication skills.
“We can read lips and have learned sign language,” a county crew member half-jokes about the words and gestures they receive from angry homeowners. In the same half-joking tone, the crew asks that only their first names be used in this article (to avoid phone calls at home). Despite all of the hard work by both the town and county snow removal crews, some residents will not be satisfied with the results. Although it is not legal to park any vehicle on the regularly maintained portion of our roadways or to push snow into the road right-of-way, the crew members do their best to proceed without involving the sheriff’s department.
Residents who have lived here through many years of snowstorms understand the work that goes into removing snow during and after a big storm. In many ways it is an art, and homeowners develop their own routines and techniques to keep their driveways clear. And to the residents who also work long hours for the town and county to keep the roads cleared for us, thank you for all that you do. Keep plowing along!