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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Ode to a Snow Plower

Air Date: Week of January 3, 2003

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We sleep while they work. Without them, economic activity would freeze. Who are the night snowplow drivers? Robin White rides with one plowman who's written an ode he reads over the CB radio, by request, to other drivers as they work.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Even normal wintry weather can be a challenge to deal with. And in places where it snows – and piles up – the white stuff can put a real damper on daily life. Which causes us to ask when was the last time you honored your snowplow driver? Robin White visited the town of Allegheny, California and met the man who keeps its 145 residents connected to the outside world.

NEWSCASTER 1: Snow level dropping to around 3,000 feet this afternoon.

NEWSCASTER 2: Chains and snow tires are required this morning on I-80 over Donner Summit, on 50 over Echo Summit--

[SOUND OF DRIVING]

NEWSCASTER 3: A winter storm warning is in effect through tomorrow for much of the Sierra, including the Lake Tahoe region, where forecasters predict more than two feet of new snow could fall.

WHITE: "It's very misty outside. It's like some primordial forest out of a fairy-story." That's me, driving into the town of Allegheny, looking for Jim Buckbee, who's the keeper of the mountain roads here. Allegheny's a little gold-mining town, home of the oldest hard rock gold mine still operating in the United States. It's a ramshackle collection of houses and rusty old cars in a snowy landscape stuck on the side of a deep canyon. The road into town goes over a ridge 5,200 feet high. Jim Buckbee is a man with a belly and a twinkle in his eye, and he's the one who keeps it open.

[SOUNDS OF MACHINERY]

WHITE : That's a mighty fine snowplow you have there. Nice to meet you.

BUCKBEE: Nice to meet you.

WHITE: How are you doing?

BUCKBEE: Good.

WHITE: So hey, here we are. This is fun. Is there a seatbelt there somewhere?

[SNOWPLOW DRIVING OFF]

BUCKBEE: You can look off in the canyon off of the side there, and it's pretty much straight down.

WHITE: You're telling me! Wow.

[LAUGHTER]

BUCKBEE: So when we have a warm spell like this, our berms all get melted away. This is when you really have to be careful. Cause we're plowing right on the edge of the road, and there's only about three feet of good, solid ground before it gets soft, and it can just pull you right on over.

[GETTING OUT OF PLOW, SOUND OF WALKING IN BACKGROUND]

BUCKBEE: Watch your step going down. When you're out there plowing snow there's certain things that you see constantly. And so they just start digging into your soul, you know? And when I wrote the poem, we were discussing all the different counties and how they do their snow removal. And the biggest thing is when you're working a day shift and then you switch to a night shift without any sleep. So the whole thing is geared towards surviving another night, and it just started clicking. I just started writing, and it was like, "Wow. Hey, that sounds pretty good."

[VOICES ON SCANNER RADIO]

BUCKBEE: One night I was just really bored and I was doing a back-to-back shift. It was snowing really hard and so I recited it over a radio. All of a sudden they had all these requests coming in from different areas that had picked it up on their scanners, wanting to know where it came from and if they could get a copy of it. So I started sending these people copies of my poem.

[READ OVER SCANNER RADIO]

"Another night" By Jim Buckbee.

When the snow flakes fly and the wind blows so cold,It's the sound of steel that curls my toes.It's a long night ahead, and that's my foe.As I drop my plow and head down the roadI only pray that my lights will be bright.As the snow flakes danceI strain at the sight,But my chains bite deep into the iceAnd I look for that guiding lightThat makes everything all right.The snow piles high,But that's all right,Because I'll just hit itWith all my mightAnd shove it over to the right.The sky finally lightensAnd I know it's all right,Because I just made it throughAnother night."

BUCKBEE: Just a small little town way up at the end of a road. What an office, huh? [Laughs]

CURWOOD: Our feature on Jim Buckbee, the snowplow guy, was produced by Robin White. Thanks to Duncan Lively and Duncan Howitt at KXJZ in Sacramento.

[MUSIC: Greg Brown, "Rexroth's Daughter," Covenant (Red House Records - 2000)]

 

 

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