Braving the snow: Adventures on Idaho 33
ON HIGHWAY 33 – It’s no Cadillac.
The snowplow, that is.
The roaring and vibration of the diesel-engine truck intimidate me.
The blade drops, and the scraping sound adds to the brutish symphony.
It’s man fighting back against the first “normal winter” in years. And it’s my first ride ever in this king of the road. Inside the cab, the interior is black and Spartan. We’re not talking touring comfort here.
My passage is compliments of Lyle Holden, foreman of Area 650, who bargains to drive me from Sugar City to Tetonia and back.
Unassuming and courteous, Lyle is easy to like.
The first stretch of Idaho 33 from U.S. 20 to the road closure sign in Newdale is snow- and ice-covered, but non-threatening, especially in the quiet of the morning.
But the highway east of Newdale is different. Plowed only two hours earlier, it is now streaked with snowdrifts two feet deep. This stretch of Idaho 33 is always a problem during winter storms.
Lyle surprises you when he reaches around his window post to clean his windshield wiper blade mid-motion.
Along the way, we stop to talk with Kent Holden, Lyle’s older brother, and Mike Van Wagner, who skipper a rotary (big truck with gigantic snow blower) and other snowplow, respectively.
Near the junction of Idaho 32 and 33, we meet Tracy Whitmore of the Driggs maintenance crew. She is patrolling Teton Valley.
We turn around and head back into the wind. After five miles, the breeze becomes a gale.
It is easy to see why they close roads.
We make it back.
Names of folks at the Rigby office appear on a list of “volunteers” for roadblock duty during storms.
After fueling the port-of-entry pickup that I will drive, Lyle wheels out of the yard in this snowplow with me tailgating him.
Our first stop is the roadblock in Newdale, where Project Manager Troy Williams sits guard in his pickup.
I’m surprised, but happy to see him. After all, he’s family.
“It’s been quiet,” Troy says.
We venture into the open country of potato and grain fields fast asleep under a heavy blanket of snow.
Until now, the weather has been still and the road free of drifts. But here the wind is blowing and snow cover is building.
Your anticipation that the road will reopen by daybreak fades.
Halt. Before us lies hundreds of yards of highway – or what used to be highway – buried in snow up to five feet deep. You will never doubt the decision to close a road again.
Rick Davis of the Sugar City crew presently rolls past and dives into an ocean of white.
The V has what it takes, although even it bogs down after 25 or 30 feet. Again and again, Rick backs up and lunges into the mountains of snow, finally breaking through to a shallower snow floor.
Our destination is the roadblock at the Idaho 32-33 intersection, which I am to host till 3 p.m.
Halfway between Newdale and Tetonia, you realize you are in a wilderness.
“The roads are closed and unfortunately will be until at least midnight,” I say.
“But U.S. 26 south of Victor is scheduled to reopen by mid-afternoon,” I add.
The driver takes hope.
The morning becomes day and more motorists arrive.
You feel increasingly important.
You get good at stating the road looks fine as far as you can see it, but “on the other side of those foothills, snowdrifts up to four feet deep stretch over the road for hundreds of yards.”
For travelers who inquire after Idaho 32, you delight in explaining that the first 15 miles toward Ashton is passable, but then you smack a snowdrift six feet deep.
A well-to-do couple from California heads back to Targhee for “more skiing.” The novelty of the situation intrigues them.
One man and woman from Washington, D.C., “need to get to Spokane.” I show them the route to U.S. 26 via Idaho 31 on their map and they speed back to Driggs.
A man in his early-twenties, sporting a beard, low-hanging hair and ski rack atop his Audi, arrives from Swan Valley, where someone said Idaho 33 was open. He accepts my edict, and motors back.
At 4:30 p.m., Lyle arrives with your replacement – Region 1 Staff Engineer Tracy Bono, who is also new to the Idaho Transportation Department.
Before returning to Sugar City, I drive to Victor to tie up the road closure sign on Idaho 31 for Lyle, who wants to let his crew there keep sleeping.
By the time I return and start west in Lyle’s tracks, I am worried, because it has been two hours since he “reopened” the 24-mile sled trail (Idaho 33) with his blade.
Surely, the drifts would not have built up yet?
The relentless wind deposits new snow by the inch.
I thank my maker for the long chassis and heavy construction of the port-of-entry truck, which provides weight for crashing through the snow banks.
I am relieved to reach Newdale, where the wind subsides.
You become a believer.