ROCHESTER — When the snow starts to fall, that's when Joseph Callan gets to work.
A transportation generalist with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Callan can be your best friend on a snowy day. He drives a snowplow for the state agency, clearing the roads during and after a storm. Specifically, he plows the stretch of U.S. Highway 63 between Stewartville and U.S. Highway 52, including Minnesota Highway 30.
This winter will mark his sixth year with MnDOT.
Having driven commercial vehicles since he was 21, Callan considers himself lucky to have the job at MnDOT, and takes pride in the work he does maintaining and calibrating the trucks, and clearing a road for those who need to travel.
Q: How many miles do you drive at night when there’s a big snowfall?
A: "Usually our shift is 12 hours, and during that time you can see anywhere between 150 and 300 miles depending on how heavy the snow is or how severe the storm is. But generally you’ll see us right around 225 miles in that time. When we have iron down, we’re not going to go over 30 mph."
Faster, Callan explained, and the sand gets thrown off the road, which wastes taxpayer dollars.
What is the biggest part of the job, aside from driving the plow?
"Before the storm, everyone’s given a chance to go through their truck. You’re making sure your cutting edges are going to last through the storm."
"I’m in charge of calibrating each truck every year here in Rochester. So I’m going through and making sure when we’re telling it to put out 400 pounds (of sand and salt) a lane mile, that it’s not going to put out less or more than that."
What was the worst storm you remember?
"A couple of years ago we had that blizzard, I think it was about two years ago. I remember within 30 minutes hearing about five of my fellow plow drivers getting stuck. They went off the road. At that point I was on I-90, and the only way I made it back, because I was plowing in Stewartville, is I looked for those 1/10th-mile markers. I knew to stay between them and look for the ones on my right-hand side, and I stayed just to the left of them, and I did that for about 7 miles to make it back into town."
Despite the height of the trucks, Callan said visibility, especially with the truck's flashing lights reflecting off the falling snow, is "not so great."
“And that’s why we go slow," he said.
What do motorists do on the road that you wish they wouldn’t?
"It’s something I call 'crowd the plow.’ Especially when we get on an intersection. When we hit 5 mph, our sander automatically shuts off because we don’t want to pile a bunch of sand there. So when I start going and hit 5 mph, I will start throwing sand automatically right on their car."
Callan said drivers are safer behind a plow, and he worries when someone tries to pass him on the road or drives in a blind spot.
"If I hit a snow drift, even at 20 mph, I can be moved into the next lane without any notice," he said. "You get into a snow drift at least 3 feet tall, which you can out on some of the highways, if there’s ice underneath, it can push some of our smaller trucks out into the next lane."
Have you ever hit anything like a parked car if it was buried under the snow that you couldn’t see?
"Luckily no. I’m sure I’ve hit a mailbox or two."
Drivers usually take the same route from one year to the next, so even in a blizzard, wherever he's plowing, it's a road he knows well, Callan said.
After a storm, he and his colleagues will go back to widen turn lanes, clean snow from spots where they're no storage space and haul the snow in dump trucks to make more room for the next storm.
What is the best part about driving a plow?
"When the storm stops and you see this just beautiful white blanket of snow on the ground, and you go through and you clear it, you see your job is done," Callan said. "The next person coming down the road, it could be my wife, it could be my grandfather, and I’ve just made it that much safer for them to get where they’re going."