Heading out from the Albany County Road and Bridge Department shop in Rock River, plow drivers always use the buddy system.
That’s because a solo venture into northern Albany County — a region the crew calls “Little Siberia” — would be absolutely foolhardy.
“You don’t go out there by yourself, because if you have a breakdown or you get stuck there would be no getting back,” crew supervisor Ronnie Newkirk told Cowboy State Daily.
Instead, they go out in groups of three full-sized road graders. They’re tailed by a pickup carrying ranchers’ mail, as well as groceries and other supplies that people living in one of Wyoming’s most remote areas might need. And sometimes, another pickup carries spare fuel for the graders.
“There have been times when we’d have three of those big, yellow machines (graders) going 40 yards apart, and we couldn’t see each other,” he said.
Newkirk leads a crew of three that’s responsible for clearing and maintaining 266 miles of gravel road, including the routes in to and out of Little Siberia.
Forget About Fetterman Road
Rock River itself is remote enough as it is. Roughly 40 miles north of Laramie, the tiny town of about 250 is the only other incorporated municipality in Albany County.
Fetterman Road, which is improved gravel, takes off from the highway a little way out of town. During the temperate months, it’s the main route in and out of the county’s northern reaches, a vast region dotted here and there with isolated homesteads.
But during winter, the winds in Little Siberia get so vicious, there’s really no point in even trying to plow Fetterman Road, Albany County Road and Bridge Department Superintendent Rob Fisher recently told Cowboy State Daily.
So, to keep residents from being completely cut off from the world, the Rock River crew plows an alternative route along Palmer Canyon Road and Garrett Road.
‘Fight It Out And Fight It Back’
Round trip, it doesn’t add up to even 100 miles, but it frequently takes all day to plow that route, Newkirk said.
That’s because the crew usually has to work the road both ways. The wind is so strong and so steady, it blows snow right back over the road almost as quickly as they plow it, Newkirk said.
And that’s why the mail and fuel supply pickups must stay on the plows’ tail. Otherwise, they would surely get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
“Many times last winter we would leave the shop at 6 a.m. — fight it out and fight it back — and put in a 13-hour say,” he said.
During a normal winter, or at least “normal” by Little Siberia standards, the crew makes the trek a few times each week.
The winter of 2022-2023 was especially bad, and Newkirk hopes that Mother Nature doesn’t put on a repeat performance this winter.
“Last winter, we had to go out every day,” he said.
‘It Can Get Fun’
Not surprisingly, it’s difficult to keep a full crew ready to go at the Rock River Shop, Newkirk said.
“Last winter, we had only three of us. We usually have four, but a couple of guys retired,” he said. “It’s hard to find people who want to go out there and fight it.”
As challenging as the job can be, Newkirk said the crew is well-backed by the Road and Bridge Department.
“It can get fun out there. But we do have good equipment, and that helps,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.