A five-hour drive in Brooke Howe's snowplow truck
Vermont has seen some large late winter storms, and road crews and private plow contractors have been out in force. Brooke Howe is a farrier, and he does concrete and masonry work, and for over 20 years he’s had a snowplow business in East Calais. He drives a 2018 GMC Sierra 3500 with a diesel engine. Producer Erica Heilman asked him if she could ride along with him on his route. He picked her up in her driveway.
Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.
Erica: Are people always really, really happy to see you?
Brooke: Yeah, for the most part, I think people are happy to see me. There has been a point… I did just think of a situation, when I was quite a bit younger. It was between me and a client that I had been warned of. I called this guy that had been doing it before. And I said, "Hey, what's up with this customer?" And he said, "Well, they never want to pay me."
And I think I was a little bit paranoid because of what the other guy had told me. And I hadn't actually received any payment. I received a call from them wondering why I hadn't been there yet. And so I went. And I asked if I could get paid before I provided the service, and the guy said, "Well, I'm in a really big hurry. I got a meeting I gotta get to." And I don't think I was very diplomatic. But I said, "Oh, really." And I backed up and I plowed up a huge pile of snow. And I just said, "Hey, can you please go get your checkbook? I really need to get paid." And he did. He ran up, and as soon as I realized he was actually going, I started plowing out the huge pile of snow.
Erica: And now he’s your best friend.
Brooke: Yeah, we're really close now. And I've been his plow guy for 20 years.
Erica: OK, what do we have here?
Brooke: We got a car on either side. There's two turnarounds here and one car parked at either one. And no place for me to turn around. But yeah, I think, I think I should try to turn around, which is just gonna be a bummer. So it just — I’m just going to do like a 100-point turn around.
Erica: You’re really good at backing up. You’re like a master backer upper.
Brooke: Yeah. But I'm really not. I've creamed so many things. I mean, I hit one last week. I took somebody's mirror off.
I can say one thing that's pretty funny is that that guy that I used to work for? On his plow sheet, most of his customers — 90% of them, their real names weren't on the list. He had nicknames for all of them. If you have a nickname for each customer, then it's easy to remember. It would have to have like a visual thing. Like…
Erica: Would I be Blue Ranch?
Brooke: Yeah, no, I think you’d be like, Deserted Horse Barn Place or something? I don't know. I think maybe that that one where I busted the girl's mirror? I think she'd be like, Broken Mirror driveway? Or like maybe I Quit or something? Or… Driveway I Don’t Do Next Year?
Erica: What are you afraid of now? In your life?
Brooke: What am I afraid of? Not as much as I was. Since I had my older son, I've been racing around like a maniac, just, you know, like, like a squirrel trying to collect nuts.
Erica: It's about money?
Brooke: Yeah, I think it is. I think it has been about money. I think it's a kind of a fight or flight instinct.
Erica: What do you think you're afraid of?
Brooke: It’s fear of not having enough. And I think it's pretty common for people that live in a rural area like this to have that. That mentality, you know, that homestead, live off nothing mentality. And I think I basically trained myself to think that I was poor. And now you know, I'm in my mid-40s and I'm doing fine. I’ve gotten all the things that I wanted, but there is no safety net. There's no unemployment insurance that I carry. There's nothing like that.
Erica: What is this the oddest thing that you've been given during plowing?
Brooke: They've definitely brought me beer.
Brooke: Yes, I've had people give me weed before. People want to trade. Weed for their snow plowing. That wasn't gonna work.
Erica: Are you kidding me?
Brooke: Thread the needle. Don't worry, we could still hit something. We'll hit the Volvo. Because that's the new one. Just hit that Volvo, no big deal.
Erica: They’re VPR listeners. Or at least there's a VPR sticker.
Brooke: I think most of my customers are VPR listeners. They're gonna be like, "Hey, he's talking smack about me!"
It was getting dark now. The sky and the snow were shades of blue, and the plow lights were hot white and the snow was still coming down hard.
Erica: Wait a minute. This is a driveway?
Brooke: Yeah, this is. This is one of the worst. This thing sucks.
Erica: Okay, this is kind of… I do feel like we're in a… like we're on Mars. So we are out in the middle of a huge field in about 20 inches of snow. And there's no house in sight.
Brooke: This isn't even a road. This is just a field that I plow. But it works. The girl’s got a little Toyota pickup and she lives out here with her dog in this tiny house.
Erica: We're really driving on a path. I wouldn't say this is a driveway. It's a field. We're driving in a field of snow. And so now we're pushing snow… I mean, I don't know what to say. I just don't know what to say about this.
Brooke: It’s kind of fun in the dark.
Erica: It kind of feels like an emergency, suddenly.
Brooke: Yes! You get the adrenaline!
Brooke: I don't charge enough for this drive. I do raise the price every year. Some places it's a pain in the ass but I just I think I get overly attached to some of the people. I'm like, "I really like them!" But maybe I just don't have good boundaries or whatever. Because I'm like, "Oh, they’re like my best friends! I can't quit there!"
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