Mornings in Michigan: Take a trip inside a snow plow

Mar 9, 2018

This story is a part of Mornings In Michigan, our series about the sounds of morning rituals and routines in our state.

The rumbles and scrapes of passing snowplows are familiar winter sounds for Michiganders, but what's it like to be inside one?  To find out, Michigan Radio’s Lauren Talley tagged along with the Washtenaw County Road Commission during one of this season’s biggest snowstorms.

It was already snowing heavily when I arrived at the commission headquarters in Scio Township just west of Ann Arbor. Day-shift plow drivers typically roll out at 4 a.m. and trucks were already passing between the garage and storage buildings.

Across the county, about 50 plows went out during the storm. They covered nearly 1,700 miles of county roads plus 94, US-23, and other state highways.

Jim Harmon is the commission's director of operations. He spends a lot of time thinking about sand and salt. That’s why his nickname is "The Salt Czar."

“I brought some sandwich baggies of material just for show and tell," he said, spreading bags of rock salt, sand, and gravel out on the table in a conference room. 

In a typical year, the county uses about 18,000 tons of salt. This year they’ve already used 25,000. They keep a lot of it out behind the offices.

“Here at the main yard we have a salt dome,” Harom said. “[It] can hold approximately when full 12,000 tons of material.”

The salt barn is about 50 feet high. It's made of concrete and resembles a Cold War-era bunker. There's one giant pile of salt, but unlike table salt, it's bright blue. It kind of glows a bit.

“It’s coated with an anti-caking agent,” said Harmon. “It’s an inert material, but it helps keep the rock salt flowing, so it doesn’t clump up and then bind up in the back of our dump trucks.”

But enough about the salt. I wanted to get out on the road.

During a snow storm, Tim Hackbarth starts a 16-hour shift at 4 a.m. His route includes U.S. Route 23 along the Flex Route.
Credit Lauren Talley / Michigan Radio

I hitched a ride with plow driver Tim Hackbarth in one of the commission’s massive orange trucks. Hackbarth likes the early mornings. It’s easier to plow when there isn’t much traffic. The plows go about 45 miles an hour. That’s frustrating for some commuters, but he says passing him is a bad idea.

“The safest road is what’s behind me,” he said. “If you drive behind us, we pretty much have it cleared off. Most of the time we’re putting material down, which,  if nothing else, will give you traction as a grit.”

Hackbarth followed another driver and the blowing snow from that plow made it nearly impossible for us to see. One commission employee told me plowing is like a life-size video game, but it seemed more like being inside an enormous square snow globe, just scarier. The drivers keep in touch by radio. Hackbarth says when he can’t see, he goes by feel and memory.

The day shift lasts 16 hours. Hackbarth passes the time with music.  “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by electronic dance music superstar Skrillex.

“My biggest thing is techno, dub step and stuff like that,” Hackbarth said. “The beat keeps me awake and just keeps me focused for the most part.”

Once the temperature warmed up a bit, Hackbarth started putting down salt. It’s meant to melt ice and snow, but drivers aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“There’s turkeys all the time on the shoulders of the roads. They’re trying to eat the salt that we’re laying down. That’s their way of getting their minerals for the winter,” he said with a chuckle.

When I got back to road commission headquarters, I sat down with foreman Paul Schneider. The storm that day turned out to be a big one. It dumped just over 8 inches of snow in Washtenaw County.

“It can be very stressful at times,” Schneider said. “You have to kind of look out for yourself, look out for your fellow crew members and in a way, kind of drive for the public. Sometimes they don’t seem to drive well for themselves.”

A plow driver usually clears around 400 miles of road, but foreman Dave Kint says it doesn’t always look like it.

“Hopefully at the end of your shift it looks better than what it did before you started, but sometimes that’s not always the case,” he said. “Sometimes it looks worse. Pretty discouraging at times.”

Spring is coming, though, and the road commission will be back out there ... patching up all the potholes after a long winter.

Doug Tribou contributed to this story. It was edited by Sarah Hulett.