As Kirk Humphrey made his way down Mount Pleasant Road in northern Vanderburgh County, an arsenal of snowballs pummexled the snowplow he was driving. Humphrey traced the attack to a group of children atop a hill, and he and his coworker jumped out of the truck and launched their own lighthearted assault. But the youngsters outsmarted the drivers: They circled around the hill, and when Humphrey returned to his truck, he found the cab packed full of snow.
Childhood mischief is just one of the elements that make Humphrey’s job unpredictable. The Evansville native and Reitz High School graduate is a 34-year employee of the Vanderburgh County Highway Department, which maintains public spaces by paving roads, patching potholes, fixing guardrails, and other tasks.
Highway Department employees typically work eight to 10-hour shifts, but all bets are off when a winter storm hits. “It seems like everybody gets excited about it,” Humphrey says. As for driving the snowplow, “I tell people it’s like getting a $120 to $130,000 sled to play in — and getting paid to do it,” he says.
When a winter storm is imminent, crews pre-treat the roads with salt brine or beet juice, and when the snow begins to fall, the foremen head to the garage and call in the drivers. Humphrey’s regular route around the county’s northeastern confines takes him eight to 10 hours to cover. After main roads are clear, he tackles the subdivisions, and “that takes forever,” he says.
Highway Department workers pair up in the snowplow trucks. One person drives while the other watches for hazards — ditches, slippery intersections, and approaching vehicles. Early in his career, Humphrey once lost sight of the road and flipped his snowplow into a ditch. He walked away uninjured, but “to see the ground coming in the mirror … to see the gas tank dripping back toward the cab is kind of spooky,” he recalls. Also, before the county acquired more modern equipment, “the trucks broke down regularly,” he says, and a stalled vehicle once left him stranded for eight hours as he waited for help to come. Drivers who attempt to pass a moving snowplow pose yet another danger.
Despite the potential hazards, Humphrey says he finds his winter work relaxing. “When you get called in at 2 a.m. and no one’s out,” he says, “it’s kind of tranquil and peaceful.”