Through black ice and whiteouts, plow driver minds South Pass
March 2, 2023
SOUTH PASS-Kevin Maynard doesn't bat an eye at these conditions. Highway 28 is visible, after all, and it's not snowing.
Still, as the Wyoming Department of Transportation plow driver navigates the winding highway toward the 7,500-foot-elevation pass, streaks of snow blowing across the road morph into sheets. Visibility deteriorates as the windblown snow and sky blend into a white mass, and drifts encroach onto the lanes. A sign warns the route is closed to high-profile light traffic, with the speed limit set temporarily at 55 miles per hour. Highway 287 to the east is closed today, as are swaths of Interstate 80 to the south.
"I would call this 'slick in spots,'" Maynard said.
In a winter of relentless storms and regular closures, this day is unremarkable. Maynard, who is in his 16th season plowing the notoriously treacherous South Pass stretch of Highway 28, seems a tad disappointed. He wants the public to understand just how hazardous conditions get. Blinding whiteouts, black ice that resembles dry pavement, and wind gusts that threaten to pluck vehicles from the roadway.
While accustomed to it, the heavy succession of storms in 2022/23 has created an especially busy season for Maynard's and other WYDOT crews.
Staffing shortages at the agency whose work impacts so much of daily public life in Wyoming only complicate the tricky equation of keeping highways open for commuters, delivery traffic and travelers.
Maynard, 55, was born and raised in nearby Lander, where he grew up hunting and fishing. Even though he lived in the shadow of South Pass, he didn't think much about it.
"Growing up in Lander I had no clue what went on on this mountain," he said.
That changed when he joined the maintenance crew. For the past 16 years, he has spent his working days clearing snow or repairing the highway that climbs over the southernmost tip of the Wind River Range. His house is among a collection of state-owned buildings set along the old South Pass highway - homes and maintenance garages that on this day are half-consumed by wind-sculpted snow. He raised his daughter up here.
Before working at WYDOT, Maynard drove a concrete-mixer truck, but the job often took him out of town. Joining the maintenance crew was an opportunity to stay closer to his daughter, and he stuck with it. Today he is the South Pass maintenance foreman, overseeing a crew of five that includes himself.
The crew's 45-mile section of road, which ascends scenic Red Canyon and passes remnants of mining operations and rocky outcroppings before crossing a vast sage sea, is known for its particularly foul and fickle weather. Even when the rest of the region is calm, it's not uncommon for drivers to encounter raging wind, a surprise storm or soupy fog over South Pass. The pass experiences inclement weather "nine months of the year," Maynard estimates. "We've plowed a lot of snow in September; We've plowed a lot in May."
Experience has made Maynard familiar with the nuances and moods of the highway - the problem spots where snow tends to drift or wind creates a dreaded ice-crust, the mileposts vehicles have crashed into, the way the weather turns on a dime.
"It can change in a hurry," he said. "We can have four different seasons all in one day."
He has also learned what he didn't know growing up - that there are accidents all the time on South Pass. Most are minor slide-offs the public doesn't hear about. But there are also tragedies, like the New Year's Day head-on collision that resulted in the state's first roadway fatality of 2023. And there are many close calls that involve motorists driving too fast or taking risks, he said. If not witnesses, plow drivers are often the first on the scene.
Parked in WYDOT's cavernous South Pass garage are three plows, a giant rotary snow-blower and a front-end loader. Today Maynard is taking out a plow.
It's an imposing machine, tall enough that getting into the cab requires a climb. Maynard estimates the plow weighs 50,000-60,000 pounds.
Operating it is much more involved than a typical vehicle. Driving down the highway, Maynard's left hand steers the wheel while his right hand manipulates the levers and buttons that control the plow blades and road-grit dispersal. He continuously assesses conditions, adjusting blades and broadcasting grit accordingly. The radio chirps with chatter from other plow drivers and law enforcement.
Today's stream of semi-trailers and out-of-state plates is indicative of what's happening to the south, he said. "We get extremely busy when I-80 is closed."
Maynard and his crew are on call 24 hours a day to mind the highway. The first shift starts at 5 a.m. After a lap, the driver determines whether to call in a second driver for help, and radios in conditions to WYDOT's transportation management center in Cheyenne. That information gets plugged into WYDOT's information system, which constantly updates the agency's online travel website and 511 mobile app. What the driver observes can also trigger a change of the speed limit on the digital signs - Highway 28 is the only two-lane highway with the variable sign technology, Maynard said, and it has greatly improved safety.
Wyoming residents rely heavily on the information crew drivers report; the WYDOT website tallied about 2 billion site visits in 2022, the agency recently reported, by far the most hits in a calendar year since the department started tracking them. (Most visits were to the "closures and advisories" page, followed by I-80 web cameras).
Checking the site can be crucial, especially in a winter like this when highway closures re-route travel, idle semi-trailers and cancel plans.
Even with a spate of closures, state road fatalities already tally 22 in 2023, according to Wyoming Highway Patrol - compared to 12 in the same period in 2022 and 15 in 2021.
The increased work related to the severe conditions is taxing on WYDOT crews. Members often get called away from family or weekend plans to work storms, Maynard said.
It also comes as the agency struggles to recruit and retain highway workers. As of Feb. 8, WYDOT had 60 maintenance worker openings and 44 Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper openings, according to Cody Beers, a WYDOT public relations specialist.
The agency shed 150 authorized positions between about 2010 to 2020, going from 2,201 to 2,051, according to a presentation to the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee in December.
Staffing that smaller pool has been a challenge. In 2022, WYDOT had a job vacancy rate of more than 14%, WYDOT Support Services Administrator Taylor Rossetti told the committee. That's up from 9.5% five years ago and 5% a decade ago, he said.
A summer 2022 state employee pay raise helped slow the exodus from WYDOT, agency Director Luke Reiner said, but retaining and recruiting remains a "primary focus." A budget bill the Legislature passed on Feb. 16 includes a roughly 8% pay increase for state workers.
When there are unfilled positions, WYDOT makes do. Fremont County-based drivers have been helping cover short-staffed crews near Muddy Gap and Shirley Basin, for example, Beers said.
Even with full crews, however, nature has the final say. Over the last two months, Beers said, "I think we've realized that sometimes winter wins."
That doesn't stop people from criticizing WYDOT. "We don't like closed roads. Some people think we do," Beers said. "But we understand the importance of transportation for intrastate and interstate commerce in Wyoming and so our guys get out there and do the best they can to get our roads open as soon as possible."
It's "a huge responsibility that WYDOT has to hopefully make the roadways as safe as possible," Beers said.
Maynard echoed the sentiment about closures, but said safety trumps inconvenience. When a semi has gone down and is blocking passage, when visibility is next to nothing or when drifts accumulate faster than plows can clear them, conditions become too dangerous for drivers.
"I've seen [drifts] over the top of this cab," he said. "We've had to chain up to even get out of the garage." There have been instances when it's taken two days to carve out a single passable lane, he said, and the worst nighttime storm conditions seem to be beyond his ability to describe - only comprehensible to those who have experienced them.
The general public, they "don't see what we see," Maynard said. "None of us like to close the road."