Joe Huss loves it when the forecast calls for snow. That's when he gets to pilot 37 tons of sand, salt and steel along Minnesota highways.
"It's fun. It's a riot. It's the funnest part of the job," Huss says.
There are at least 200 snowplows working across the metro area to clear this storm's snow.
Huss and his Department of Transportation coworkers are working split shifts--12 hours on, 12 hours off. Huss has worked the last 11 days straight. He says he probably won't have a day off until the second week of March.
"Long hours, to be honest with you, get old after a while. It's basically your life when you're 12 hours on, 12 hours off," Huss says. But it's a rush driving these big rigs.
Huss has been with MNDoT for 17 years and driving a plow for 12.
His shift started at noon Thursday at the Maryland Avenue Truck Station in Saint Paul.
He inspects the engine and the plow to make sure there's no damage from the early shift, and gets it ready to go.
Fully loaded with sand, salt and a liquid solution that makes the salt more effective, his truck weighs almost 75,000 pounds.
The trucks line up outside the shop. In turn, they pull up and a dump truck dumps a few loads of salt and sand into the truck's cargo bins.
"I got a half tank of liquid but I want to fill it up. I like using the liquid. It works pretty good with the salt, especially at this time of year," Huss says.
The colder it is and the harder it's snowing, the more salt and liquid plow drivers use. Huss says he can use anywhere from 100 to 800 pounds per lane- mile.
Today, with temperatures just a few degrees below freezing Huss figures he'll put down 200 pounds per lane mile.
The trucks will ride in formation, four plows across, with traffic bunching up behind them. Huss's truck is number two in the formation.
As he eases the plow out onto I-35E heading south, a driver tries to pull out in front of him. It's a typical close call.
Huss says drivers seem to think they're indestructible, especially when they're in four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs.
"They won't yield to us. They want to get around us because they're in a hurry. They've got places to go," Huss says.
Half an hour into the job, there's a mattress and box spring in the middle of the left lane on I-94. The front plow of the truck is up and Huss drives over the mattress without touching it. It's just part of the routine. He's even seen big machinery in the roadway.
"A lot of tables, chairs, you name it. Trash, paper, you name it. Anything you can think of," Huss says. "Right now, we just plow over it and we'll just pick it up later."
After one of the plows sends it to the side, the mattress does provoke some chatter on the radio, even though the conversation lacks any sense of astonishment. Somebody says if the mattress is in the median and it's not hurting anything, they can leave it.
Huss covers between 250 and 300 miles each shift. As he drives, his left hand stays on the wheel and his right hand flies around the cab. Besides constantly shifting between 8-gears, he's working controls for sand, salt and liquid, the radio and two plow blades. Huss frequently tries to rub the ache out of his shoulders and neck. Huss says the most frustrating part of plowing is the increasing traffic. He has seen traffic grow exponentially over the last few years.
"It's made it a lot more hazardous. I mean traffic is a hundred-fold compared to what it used to be. And speeds are way up," Huss says.
When the snow finally stops, the MNDoT goes into cleanup mode. Crews repair potholes and guardrails for a few days. But Huss knows exactly what he'll do when he finally gets a full day off. "Sleep." He chuckles wearily, and says it again. "Sleep."
But for now, the future holds plowing. And more plowing.