Snow plows deployed, even without snow

The nighttime roads were dry and smooth and silent, although the forecasters said they wouldn’t be for much longer. It is the night before the supposed Snowquester — the biggest storm event in three years.

The truck driver had been called in for an overnight, 12-hour shift. He’ll be the first responder to the storm: the man who lays down the salt.

He drives a Ford pick-up about one lane-wide, carrying a big plow in the front. “Old Faithful,” he calls it, though he has no idea how old it is. There was a big bin in the back of Old Faithful to hold the ice-melting material, but it was empty now because he didn’t need it.

“SNOW TEAM DEPLOYS FOR THE BIG ONE AT 11 PM” announced the Department of Transportation press release, saying 230 plows would be used during this storm. At 11:05 p.m., not a single flake had fallen.

Of all the plows, Old Faithful was a small one, designed for scaling up and down residential roads. The driver liked that. He’s the man that every neighborhood has — the one to make the morning a little smoother when adults wake up with the dread of shoveling out their sedans.

How can it snow so much when it's not freezing?

The driver’s route was for zone 10, route 1001. It ran to the District’s Northeastern border, along the side streets near Riggs Road and New Hampshire Avenue.

Because there was no snow, the driver first goes on a trial run. His heat on full blast, he creeps around at 20 miles per hour to look for any new speed bumps or metal plates that could damage his snow plow if he moved quickly.

His path is hilly terrain of narrow roads. The truck hardly fits through the cars parked on either side. He’s not intimidated; he’s driven down this path many times before. When the sun rises, he’ll expect to be greeted by the neighbors who have seen him in the last few moments of his shift over the past three years. They ’ll thank him for keeping sludge off their streets. He won’t say much, just nod and wave mostly.

“I just love being able to help the citizens,” the driver says, whose name the Post is withholding because he wasn’t authorized by the Department of Transportation to speak.

During Snowmaggedon, the driver worked every day for two weeks, he recalls. Nothing’s been like it since, so this so-called Snowquester has taken on an extra added excitement.

It is 11:4o when the first drop falls on his windshield.

“Looks like it’s coming!”

11:46. His Nextel phone starts to buzz.

“Come get some salt,” the man announces.

The driver returns to the maintenance facility nearby on the 400 block of Farragut Street NE. He parks near a cavernous dome filled with ice melt the color of spearmint. A tractor scoops from the salty mountain and deposits the goods into the back of the driver’s truck.

Snow is falling. Time to salt the earth.

The driver heads toward Second Street NE. He pushes a button that controls how wide the salt will be spread, and another that controls how fast a fan will dispense it. The whirring sound overwhelms the truck. He inches uphill at 5 miles per hour, the falling ice melt crackles as it hits the ground.

The truck gets hot. The driver opens a window and opens another button on his uniform.

The snow has turned to freezing rain. The driver continues anyway. If snow does start to fall, the tiny crystals on the ground will make it harder to stick.

He heads through his streets: Oglethrope, Oneida, Sligo Mill, Rittenhouse. Past apartment complexes, attached homes that have been there decades and town houses just being built.

He tries to drive uphill as much as possible because its easier to control the truck that way. He remembers to skirt through the alley because he’s learned it is a public street. One time, the supervisors called him out for missing the spot — the reason the salt is that bluish green color, not white, is so deposits are easier to check.

By 12:20 a.m., he has gone through his route about one and half times before he needs to return to his home base for more salt. It will be a familiar routine until 9 a.m. — varying in frequency depending on how heavy the snow falls. If it comes.

But before the drivers returns to the snow dome, he parks Old Faithful at the intersection of Sligo Mill and Rittenhouse. He steps out of the truck and examines the street. No snow has fallen. But, from his truck, tiny freckles of ice melt have.

“You see how it glitters in the night?” the driver says. “This is the how the people know, I was here!”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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