Ithaca, N.Y. — Preparing for a major snowstorm, plowman Caleb Scott says, is like preparing to go to war.
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There are the ground troops — “plow-jockeys,” Scott calls them — who will do the work in the trenches. There are the the lines of attack — drivers’ routes planned out on spreadsheets and Excel charts for months. And there are the reserves — stand-by plowmen ready to be sent into the storm at a moment’s notice, if needed.
“It’s like fighting this epic beast. I imagine it’s very similar to trudging on to the battlefield,” said Scott, owner of Scott Land & Yard Services, as a major snowstorm barreled toward Ithaca Tuesday night. “You go to war with the snow. You try to conquer it.”
Scott Land & Yard Services, which primarily provides landscape services, is also one of the biggest snow removal companies in the Ithaca area. It’s responsible for clearing more than 300 driveways and more than 80 business lots in Tompkins County, including the massive Wegmans parking lot, and those of Panera, Chipotle and more.
Scott, a second-generation plowman who grew up riding in his dad’s truck, said he’s ready for the challenge. There is no choice, he said.
“It’s like going into battle: You know that if you lose there is no escape. There’s no turning around, and running back, and saying, ‘Sorry, it didn’t work out,’” he says.
“We have to stick through this until the end. If it’s six hours — or three days.”
Preparing for battle
On Tuesday, Scott says, he personally answered 83 phone calls in a 366 minute span — or about one every four minutes. They mostly came from those who expected to get their driveways cleared but had forgotten to renew their contacts.
Scott scrambled to revise the routes. Coordinating two dozen trucks across hundreds of roads amid a winter storm watch, he said, poses its difficulties. But it’s key to know, he says, who is going where and when.
“These are the areas we’re going to strike. These are the neighborhoods we’re going to hit,” he said of the “strategic planning” phase.
That planning — which begins as early as September — proves crucial during the next phase, according to Scott. About half of his 27 plow-jockeys — including 15 company employees and 12 independent contractors — will be on the roads at 2 a.m. Scott, 30, and the plowmen are prepared to go 20 hours or more without sleep.
The work, they know, will frequently be miserable. “People get behind, things are breaking down, it’s cold, it’s miserable, the shoveling crew is begging to come into the truck and warm up for 15 minutes,” Scott said of the worst moments of being out clearing the roads in the storm.
But in the hours and even moments before the snowstorm really gets going, Scott said, a sudden “sense of camaraderie” develops.
“Everybody’s getting a cup of coffee — joking, laughing,” he says. “It’s this amazing bonding experience, because we know we’re all about to do something together.”
Changing on the fly
Like in a battle, Scott says, the risks for the plowmen are real. They multiply with every extra inch of snow that comes down. Scott has seen the way the elements can make hulking trucks look like mother’s nature clay toys — windows are smashed, trucks are flipped, drivers lose traction on the hills.
“You’re backing into trees, you’re breaking off mirrors — it’s brutal on the trucks,” Scott says.
If a truck goes into a ditch, Scott said, sometimes he’ll have to buy a new one right in the middle of the storm. Scott said he simply can’t have two truck drivers wasting their time pulling one plow truck out of the ditch.
“You just expect to get your trucks beat on ruthlessly,” he said.
Some plowmen, he said, don’t handle the anticipation well.
“I know some people get really anxious. I have crew members who can’t sleep: They’re up at night; they’re over analyzing what’s going to happen, and they just want to make sure to do everything right,” Scott says.
That’s forgotten by the time the real work begins. “You put your game faces on and do what you have to do,” Scott says. “It’s training your adrenaline. My speech is sped up; your heart rate is accelerated; and I’m on hyper-focused mode.”
Scott said he feels ready. After all, in some ways, he’s been preparing his whole life.
“It’s my family’s reputation”
When Caleb Scott was in middle school, his father Duane Scott picked him up from a skiing trip. The father and son were going to plow.
Duane Scott gave his son his route sheet. “He turned to me and said, ‘Where do I go next?,’” Caleb Scott recalled. Caleb Scott would study the sheet very carefully, precisely marking down when each job had been completed, and that “obviously made me feel like I was helping.”
It wasn’t until years later, Caleb Scott said, that he realized his dad didn’t actually need his son’s directions. “He had his route memorized,” Caleb Scott said. His dad was training the son.
“Those are times I think of very fondly,” he says. “It was one-on-one-time with my dad.”
When Caleb Scott grew up, he and his father became partners in the business. Duane Scott retired about two years ago, and now Caleb Scott is the only owner. Still, a handful of cousins and other relatives are heavily involved.
Caleb Scott’s wife Nicole Scott, who has a Master’s degree from Cornell in landscape architecture, creates the designs for the landscaping side of the business.
“It’s not just a business — it’s my livelihood; it’s my family’s reputation,” Caleb Scott says, adding that he thinks maybe his younger brother or son will one day want to run the business. “There’s more at stake than getting the job done.”
Before he goes out into the elements, Caleb Scott says, his wife packs him two grocery bags. They’re filled with granola bars, coffee, homemade cookies, and “whatever else will keep my energy levels up,” Caleb Scott says.
As daunting as the task sometimes seems, Caleb Scott said he’s heartened by the fact that he’s not going it alone.
“I have guys who have been plowing the same 30 driveways for 20 years,” he said, “they know the ins and outs (of the roads).”
They split up Ithaca into four quadrants. Plowmen get routes for South Hill, the Northeast residential area, East Hill and Brooktondale. Then there are those who are prepared to jump in for $50 in an hour in a pinch when a truck runs aground. “With the size of the business, it’s inevitable,” Scott says.
“If you’re stuck, I’ll get someone to pick you up — maybe a cousin or an uncle … someone who is not scared to get covered in snow and salt and fumes in the middle of the night,” Scott says.
None of the plowmen, he says, do this work primarily. They have other jobs — as electricians, plumbers, or in other trade-work — and are looking for “Christmas money … for those pennies from heaven.”
“Plowing is kind of a given and it’s something that everybody kinds of participates in on different levels, but it’s not their trade.”
Scott paused. Then he backtracked.
“Or maybe it is” their trade, he said. “I kind of take that back — because, realistically, the life of a plow guy, of a plow jockey, is that. In some respects, I guess it is a skilled trade.”
“It’s something that all different backgrounds can come behind and say: ‘There’s a commonality there. We’re in the thick of it. The thick of the struggle.’”