In the 11th hour of his shift Tuesday, Donald Hite shoved his three-ton International dump truck into gear on northbound Route 17, lowered its plow and put into one word why he loves days like this.
Hite, a Virginia Department of Transportation worker, was only half-kidding, and the half that wasn't included his sore back, his weary eyes and his tested nerves. "I'd like to be someplace it wasn't snowing," he said, maneuvering his lumbering vehicle to clear a turn lane matted with snow. "But you've got to do your job."
In scenes repeated throughout the area during the last two days, the men and women responsible for clearing the roads settled into well-regimented patterns. Hite, 53, is based out of the Bealeton office of VDOT, one of three area offices in Fauquier County, which had a routine all its own.
At the low-slung building that amounts to the area headquarters a few miles south of Bealeton, Ellen Weber, the day-shift office manager and aide to the area's superintendent, was filling out paperwork, answering phones and monitoring the radio traffic of the 40-plus vehicles deployed in the area.
"She is a busy one. It took her 30 minutes to make a pot of coffee. Every time she came out [of her office] to do it, the phone started ringing," said Robert Jackson, a contractor who sat at a fold-out table, talking with colleagues about old girlfriends, ignoring the tinny-sounding country music playing on a small radio and waiting to see whether VDOT crews needed help taking down trees.
In a corner sat Tommy Carter, 53, arms crossed over his chest, smoking a cigarette and waiting for his evening shift to begin, while he invited everyone entering the well-heated office to try a piece of his wife's caramel cake.
"Whenever we have a snow day, she makes something," he said.
And then there was Wayne Jenkins--"the well-dressed guy," Jackson said--coming in from the cold after monitoring the roads for half a day, often fielding complaints from residents on back roads.
Jenkins, the area superintendent, exuded the middle-management confidence of someone who has the situation under control. He is the one who decides where to deploy vehicles on the 125 miles of primary roads and 643 miles of secondary roads in his purview. He has about a half-dozen VDOT vehicles at his disposal and about 30 more from contractors, mostly area farmers.
This week's storm, he said, was made manageable because overnight crews Monday were able to get some chemicals on the primary arteries such as Routes 29, 28 and 17 to prevent the snow from icing and because the dry nature of the snow meant it didn't stick--or knock down trees. The difficulty was the high winds that blew snow back across roads as soon as they were plowed.
Jenkins credited people such as Hite, who do the heavy lifting. "I consider him a little more dedicated to what he does," Jenkins said of Hite, who hadn't stopped to eat lunch that day. "He puts forth a lot of effort."
Like a sailor swabbing the deck of a ship, Hite was going back and forth along Route 17 on Tuesday from the Stafford County line to Route 29 at Opal, working in tandem with two other trucks that followed him at 20 miles per hour or so.
"I couldn't tell you how many times I've been up and down this road today," he said.
Having driven a truck in other jobs, Hite said he is familiar with the kind of big thoughts about life and religion that can be pondered on the open road. But that can't happen too much when plowing snow, he said. "You've got that thing going off all the time," he said, motioning toward his communications radio.
Besides regular shots of caffeine, there aren't many mental tricks to keeping up the concentration. "You've just got to do it," he said.
He said the key to a well-plowed road is deliberation. "You have to watch it," he said. "If you go too fast, the snow will come right over the top of the plow, cake your windshield."
Another marker is knowing just when to "shoot" the road--douse it with liquid calcium chloride, or with a mixture of abrasive sand, salt and flake calcium chloride.
If that is done when it's too cold, it could lead to melting and freezing, creating an even more dangerous situation. If it's done right, though, it leads to navigable roads.
Some of the danger from a storm like this one, Hite said, comes from drivers themselves. "Some of these people drive right fast, and some get too close," he said, as an Oldsmobile tailgated his big vehicle. "There's a sign on back that tells them not to get to within 100 feet."
Hite said he had some danger of his own during the blizzard of 1996, when his truck veered off the road on a merge lane at the Opal interchange.
"I had to dig myself out, and I lost my wedding band," he said. "Wife wasn't too happy about it."
The situation, like the roads on Tuesday, cleared up in time--"after I bought a new one."
CAPTION: A VDOT truck clears Route 7 eastbound outside Leesburg. Crews had gotten chemicals on the primary arteries to prevent the snow from icing.