Plowing through her workday
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories about workers who face challenges in the winter. The stories will run every Monday for the next several weeks.On a cold December afternoon, flakes of snow fall heavy on Glenwood Springs.Skiers and snowboarders welcome the powder as commuters curse it.Adonna McDade-Ward lives for this stuff.
The Colorado Department of Transportation junior foreman walks to the rear of truck No. 0279 that’s refilling with 1,600 gallons of magnesium chloride. The hydraulic pump is out on her normal truck she hasn’t had time to fix it.”We do a lot more than just plow snow,” she says. “And I learned it all right here.”A gust of wind circles around the truck, blowing up snow for a chilly reminder the roads are in need of reclearing. Especially in Glenwood Canyon, where conditions are dangerous, even deadly.When duty calls, McDade-Ward answers – 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. On this particular morning, she was up at 4 a.m.”Plowing the snow,” McDade-Ward says, smiling big. “That’s the best part of the job. Most, 98 percent, of the guys will tell you that.”
McDade-Ward, a New Year’s baby who turned 37 on Jan. 1, pulls her petite, 5-foot-4-inch-tall frame upwards 3 and 1/2 feet into the driver’s seat of the big Mack truck.For a passenger in the front seat, the cab is cramped by a mag chloride control box that juts outwards. McDade-Ward speaks into the CB radio, asking a co-worker about road conditions.”What’s it like out there?” she asks. “Slush, snow pack?””Powder,” he answers.She starts up the truck’s engine and it grumbles like a bear waking from hibernation. The cab’s dashboard is a mix of gauges, buttons and controls that all mean something.McDade-Ward dons a fluorescent-orange work jacket and hat, blue jeans and a green turtleneck that contrasts with her vibrant red hair.”My name’s too long so everyone just calls me ‘Red,'” McDade-Ward says.A normal shift for McDade-Ward is eight hours.But not today.Mother Nature changed all that.”If we get a big storm in, we got to cover the roads 24 hours a day,” she says. “We’ll work 12 hours on and 12 hours off.”She maneuvers the powerful plow onto I-70, heading west through Glenwood Canyon toward her turnaround near the Dotsero exit. The plow scrapes loudly along the road as it clears a path for drivers. A round-trip snow patrol usually lasts about two hours before a mag chloride refill is needed.”We don’t shoot mag all the time. If it’s snowing we shut it off and we just plow. We can’t keep up,” she says. “I usually average about 50 gallons a lane per mile. That’s how fast she goes out.”
As a single mother of a 17-year-old son, McDade-Ward has seen her share of challenges by being on call 24-7.She’s made many personal sacrifices over the years in the name of work. On Thanksgiving Day 2003, she was about to slide the turkey in the oven for a holiday gathering with family when she got the call. A rock slide in Glenwood Canyon ripped a large hole through the I-70 asphalt, halting traffic for hours.She worked a 20-hour shift that day.Lucky for McDade-Ward, her son is far more patient than Mother Nature.”He’s used to it he’s a CDOT kid,” she says. “But it’s a whole lot easier to know he’s not little.”
McDade-Ward thinks of her own family when she’s plowing or helping state troopers redirect cars at accident scenes. And she’s not the only one.”Our guys are very dedicated they’re working very hard,” she says. “It’s their families out there on the roads, too. And they’re the hardest on us. We’re always out here for the people. That’s why we’re here, so they can have safe travels. We do everything we can.”Most often, people criticize McDade-Ward and her fellow plow drivers rather than offer praise. But that comes as no surprise.”Nobody likes being stuck in traffic or on bad roads. And everybody’s in a hurry,” she says. “They don’t want to be behind the slow truck. I just ask people don’t pass plow trucks, especially on the right.”McDade-Ward says the biggest misconception about snow plow trucks is that there are more than are seen out on the roads.”People think there are a bunch of snowplow drivers and a bunch of trucks, and there’s really not that many of us,” she says. “It’s not very far from Glenwood to Dotsero, but you have four lanes to cover and you can only do one at a time.”On days like these, patience and caffeine can be lifesavers.”I drink a lot of coffee, about a pot of coffee a day, at least. Too much coffee,” she says. “We can’t shut down for lunch or dinner, so coffee fills you up.”
McDade-Ward likes her cup of joe to be like the sky when she rises early in the morning for a long shift: dark.”Very dark,” she adds. “If the spoon stands up in it, it’s just right.”A perfect companion for plowing snow on a cold Colorado day.Contact April Clark: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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