The blizzard whited out everything west of Hwy. 15.
Somewhere — behind the drifts pushed up and over the asphalt by 70 mph winds, behind the snowflakes that blurred everything beyond the wiper blades — there were jackknifed semis and cars stuck in snowbanks.
It was two days before Christmas, and calls for help were pouring in to New Ulm, Mankato, Windom. Factory workers who tried to beat the storm home. Families trying to travel for the holidays. Neighbors who forgot to fuel up, forgot to toss the cold-weather emergency kit in the trunk, forgot to check the forecast.
It was getting darker. It was getting colder. The blizzard had closed highways across the state. The only things moving were the wind and the snow — and the plows.
"Winds started picking up, snow started moving in. It went from maybe a hundred yards' visibility to barely being able to see in front of your snowplow," said Chase Fester, assistant maintenance manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 7, whose crews clear state routes across 13 southwest counties.
He had 83 plow trucks, 165 drivers, and 1,400 lane miles of Minnesota highway disappearing under a ferocious blizzard. And at least six to eight motorists no one could help but his crews.
Again and again, plows headed out into the storm. Drivers rolled down the windows of their 66,000-pound vehicles and leaned into the subzero gale to try to spot lane markers that would keep them on the road.
It took one of Fester's crews three hours to reach one vehicle, stranded 20 miles out of Windom, and bring the occupants safely back to town, squeezed into the plow cab with the driver.
MnDOT plow crews pulled 16-hour, 20-hour shifts to clear the roads by Christmas Eve. Most made it home for the holiday and were back at work, tidying the roads, just in time for the last storm of 2020 to hit early the next week.
With plow appreciation at a seasonal high, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is launching an effort to help Minnesotans form an even deeper bond with their friendly neighborhood plow.
The next time a plow pulls you out of a snowbank — or keeps the roads clear enough to keep you out of a snowbank in the first place — maybe you can greet it by name.
MnDOT has more than 800 plows in its fleet, and it needs the public's help to name at least eight of them.
A blizzard of suggestions poured in: Plow Bunyan! Kent Brrbek! Ope Gonna Scooch By Ya! Lake SnowBeGone! The Zipper Merge!
And of course, Plowy McPlowFace. So many Plowy McPlowFaces.
If you think you can do better than my entry — "Ker-PLOW!" — MnDOT's plow-naming contest runs until Jan. 22. Name that plow at: dot.state.mn.us/nameasnowplow
Meanwhile, the nameless plows of Minnesota keep plowing.
Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the northwest region of the Minnesota State Patrol has followed his share of plows through the storms that tear across the prairie near Moorhead and Fergus Falls.
A few years ago, he said, there was a storm so ferocious, even patrol cars were stranded. Grabow was on a stretch of highway so treacherous, a semi carrying hogs had overturned on one side of the road and a truck loaded with cattle was jackknifed on the other.
Then came a call for help — a family had skidded off a remote road, their car stuck at a crazy tilt in a ditch while the storm piled snow around them.
"When conditions are at the worst, that's when we have to be out there," Grabow said. "Thank goodness for our Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplows."
It took nearly 10 hours, he said, to rescue the stranded family, who fortunately had enough fuel in the tank to keep the heater going through the long, cold night in the ditch.
"The plow driver busted the road open and I just followed," he said.
It's a new year, but the same Minnesota weather.
The forecast looks clear for the next few days, giving plow crews time to clear December off the roads and get ready for whatever January might throw at us.
"They're still out there," Fester said, "chasing snowflakes."
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