The Big Question | Snowplow Driver Rusty Churchill
Ever wondered what it takes to drive a snowplow in New England? We asked seasoned snowplow operator Rusty Churchill: “How are the roads in Vermont?
Walter “Rusty” Churchill says plowing for his hometown of Cabot, Vermont, is the second-best job he’s ever had. First best? Dairy farming, which he did for 30 years. Now In his 12th year as new kid at the Garage (Charlie Pilbin, just retired, had 30 years in, and Dave Pike has worked there for 26 years), Rusty plows, salts, and sands some of the town’s 65 miles of schoolbus routes and blacktop, hilltop, and back roads. We caught up with him during one of his plow runs.
“When I sold my cows, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Thought maybe I’d wind up working at [Cabot] Creamery; then [a friend] called and said there was an opening at the town garage and I should throw my name in. They hired another guy, but he didn’t last.”
“Most times it can take five to six hours to plow out in a good storm. Some storms you’re here 3:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.–whatever it takes. [Charlie, Dave, and I] were all farmers in a previous life. The advantage is the ability to get up early and work long days. Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Easter–we work them all. It’s more fun when you’ve got more snow to plow–then it seems like you’re doing something. An inch or a foot–you gotta plow it. I salted the blacktop twice on Christmas Day. It all depends on the temperature: dusting to an inch, just salting, but more than two, better plow it off. Of course, I used to work every day when I was farming anyway. Working on a holiday … I’ve done it for so long it doesn’t bother me.”
“When the lady on the news tells you it’ll start after midnight and you get up at 3:00 … nothing … get up at 4:00 … nothing … Well, that’s kind of a pisser.”
“There aren’t too many out this early. You’ve got [Cabot] Creamery help–they have a shift that starts at 4:00 a.m.–and milk trucks. Otherwise it’s just us three out here. Kinda peaceful. As long as the radio works, I’m all set.”
“The old days–rolling the snow instead of plowing it, or when they did it with one guy driving the bulldozer while the other was sitting in the back operating the V-Plough with two wings–now they were tough old guys.”
“You know what makes this job really exciting? When you’re plowing in the dark and your headlights quit ’cause a fuse goes. Or sometimes when the whole thing [the truck itself] just shuts down, ’cause of a wiring problem. It’s happened.”
“In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve hit those–[a row of nine mailboxes sitting like chickens on a roost]. One time the plow tip caught the edge of it and I peeled the whole thing right off … When I’m turning, I don’t leave much room. Sometimes you couldn’t even pass two pieces of paper between me and a vehicle coming the other way–it gets scary. Makes your old heart pound. Everybody wants to hog the middle of the road … This here’s ‘Celley’s Corner’–it’s kinda slippery. The Celleys live out in the woods. Me, Charlie, and Dave, we’ve lived here our whole lives. We tend to go by who lived here when we were kids, rather than who lives here now.”
“It’s easier plowing blacktop than dirt ’cause you’ve got a nice hard surface. Otherwise you’re plowing along [those dirt roads] and you’ll hit a spot and the plow’ll dig right in. Then again, you don’t run into so much traffic on the back roads. As far as riding around in the truck goes, well, it ain’t like riding in a Rolls Royce–it’s more like riding a horse–bareback. I go about 25 miles an hour when I’m spreading salt.”
“Well, everybody’ll feel safe now that the roads are brown.”