When you love plowing snow, it’s easy to get in over your head.
By Ben Hewitt
Dec 27 2019
Snow ManPhoto Credit : Ileana Soon
When it snowed in early November, we were not surprised. There is often sticking snow in early November, or even in October, when the stubborn remnants of foliage cling to the trees, and you’d swear you never saw anything more beautiful in your life: all those red and orange leaves against the backdrop of pure white, the land like a slate wiped clean. A new beginning. Or at least the promise of one. But inevitably, invariably, that early snow will melt, and sooner rather than later, that promise will go unfulfilled.
Which is exactly what I expected of that early November snow. Still, if I’ve learned anything over the nearly 50 Vermont winters I’ve seen come and go, it’s to take nothing for granted. So I vowed to make the most of it. I retrieved my cross-country skis from the loft over the cows’ run-in shed, where the chickens had enjoyed roosting for much of the summer, leaving my skis coated in a crusted rime of excrement. Nothing says the joys of rural living like scraping dried chicken poop off your cross-country skis. Soon after, I smashed out the driver’s-side window in the plow truck when I slid off the driveway and directly into the gnarled branch of what had previously been one of my favorite apple trees, but which, when viewed though the ragged shards of remaining window glass, suddenly looked like as fine a piece of firewood as ever existed. Nothing says the joys of rural living like a lap full of window glass and a very stuck truck.
Yet the early snow was memorable for all the right reasons, too, particularly because it was accompanied by consistently cold temperatures, which made for excellent skiing and, once I got the window replaced, trouble-free plowing. I love plowing snow; it’s one of those tasks that require a fine balance of finesse and force. You need to know when to gun it, and when to lay off the gas. You need to know how far to push back the banks early in the season to ensure there will be room to pile the later storms. And you need to understand the vagaries of snow—how even a degree or two in temperature can make the difference between effortless plowing and the sort of heavy, snot-slick accumulation that lends itself to four-letter words and extraction by tractor.
My affection for plowing explains in part why I was so delighted when, from out of the blue, I received an email offering me an unusual snow-removal job. The email was from a man named Robert who, with his partner, Emily, was moving to town from Alaska. “There is a small cabin at the end of a half-mile driveway, where we’ll be living until we build a small house,” he wrote. “I can imagine the driveway is covered with a mix of snow and ice, and plowing will take quite a bit of effort.” Naturally, it was this last part that really captured my attention.
The email arrived on January 23, and already the snow lay as deep on the ground as in any winter in recent memory. We’d had only a brief holiday thaw; otherwise, the weather had been relentlessly cold and stormy. But our new neighbors-to-be weren’t due in town for another month. There was plenty of time for a warm spell and maybe even some rain to reduce the snowpack. Indeed, I would have put money on it, and probably a significant amount. Maybe even five or ten dollars. “I’ll get it clear for ya one way or another … hopefully, we’ll have a thaw and it’ll be a bit easier than it would now!” is how I jauntily replied to Robert.
Of course, a thaw never came. In fact, the weeks between that email exchange and Robert and Emily’s expected arrival day were as thawless as any I’ve known. And the snow! One storm after another, none of them massive, but not inconsequential dustings, either: four inches one day, six the next. Three inches, then eight. And so on. Every week, we walked a bit closer to the sky.
And every week or so, I trudged up to the base of Robert and Emily’s driveway to appraise the situation. It’s maybe worth noting that our family’s land is approximately 1,800 feet in elevation, and that their driveway started a mile up the road from ours. And climbed from there.
On February 10, I emailed Robert. “I took a walk up the road yesterday to scope out your drive…. Wanted to alert you that I may have grossly underestimated the time necessary to clear it [in my zeal, I’d previously told him it could take “a couple of hours”] … there’s a LOT of snow….” Robert was understanding, and we decided to move forward based on my assurances that I’d do my best to get the drive cleared as quickly as possible. And also maybe based on the fact that he and Emily didn’t have a heck of a lot of options, as they’d soon be arriving in Vermont with their vehicles packed with all their worldly possessions. They were obviously rugged folk—who else moves to Vermont in the middle of winter, into a cabin with no utilities at the end of a half-mile driveway that starts above 2,000 feet in elevation and then climbs? I hadn’t even met them in person, and I was already a bit in awe.
Frankly, I was also (maybe just the littlest, tiniest, teensiest) in over my head. By now, the snow at our place was at least four feet on the ground. There was simply no way our plow truck was up to the task; this was a tractor job all the way. But clearing snow with a tractor is significantly slower than plowing, and even with the extra-deep bucket on our Kubota, I knew it was going to be like bailing a bathtub with a teaspoon. Fortunately, I also knew that our neighbor Scott had just taken delivery of a brand-new tractor and that, like any right-minded fellow who’s just taken delivery of a brand-new tractor, he’d be eager to put it to the test. “I’ve got an amazing opportunity for you” is what I said when I stopped by Scott’s place. He laughed. But he didn’t say no.
And that’s how it got done. Between the two of us, Scott and I put nearly 20 hours into the job. In places, the snow on Robert and Emily’s driveway was an honest six feet deep, and there were portions of driveway that were so steep I could barely make it up even after I’d moved the snow. I cleared snow two or three hours at a time, until I was too cold to carry on; then I’d return home to warm myself by the fire and drink another cup of coffee before heading out again. I kept my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t get a big storm the week before their arrival, and miraculously, we didn’t.
I finished moving snow the evening before Robert and Emily arrived, working by the tractor’s dim headlights, stopping every 15 minutes or so to warm my hands against the engine block. I hoped they’d be able to make it all the way to the cabin in their truck, although frankly, I wasn’t sure (turns out, they did—barely). But I’d done all I could do. At the height of the driveway, in the dooryard of their little cabin, I shut the tractor down and sat for a minute. The silence, particularly in the aftermath of the tractor’s diesel clatter, was complete. The sky above was startlingly clear and cold; the stars improbably bright. I could just make out the slender dark outlines of the surrounding trees against the starlit sky.
I knew there’d be nothing easy about living up here: no electricity, hauling water, the road sure to close in again soon—and even that’d be better traveling than the spring thaw, when it’d turn to mush. But in that moment, cold and tired as I was, I felt just the smallest twinge of envy, and I could understand why they’d fallen for the place. And maybe for the first time in my life, I was really, really glad to be done plowing snow.