Hood River, OR 97031
Winner, 1984 Best Writing Award (all papers), Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association Better Newspaper Contest
Judges comments: All three of Stu Watson's pieces were first rate. He is a writer, not just somebody who had one hot day.
SISKIYOU SUMMIT -- Oh, Lordy, don't he scoop a tubular plume? Lookit that boy drive it, get down low, dig in, sink his mighty jaw into it and ... BLOW that snow right on outta here, right on into the atmosphere.
Round of applause, please, for he who lays that blade to the grade and sails that rooster tail into the trees and the breeze and night gone cold and day gone gray.
One more round for the guy behind the snow plow. Sure enough, Will Keller doesn't want to talk about Will Keller, but why not toast this frost tosser? When the blizzard's in, he's the guy who digs you out.
After 20 years, it may be just a job to him, but you've got to admit, it's pretty nice to see him up ahead, trudging through the slush so you can make a go of it.
Keller's a team player. That's his first thought. Not "me," but "we." He says the drivers who dive into the thick of it, the pushers, the power behind a stuck semi-truck, they're the ones who deserve the biggest pat on the back.
"Plowing snow is fun for awhile," Keller says, "but it can be boring, going around in circles. You ever spent eight hours driving back and forth?"
Keller has. When the winter white sets itself down onto the Siskiyou Summit, it's a good bet Keller will get into some of that circular stuff. Turn at Milepost 12, the Siskiyou Boulevard off-ramp from Interstate 5. Head on back. Turn again at Hilt, the first exit in northern California. Head on back. Turn ... well, you get the idea.
"Driving 20 to 22 miles an hour, you get sleepy," Keller says. "It gets monotonous. It's not a glamorous job."
Some chores show more obvious rewards, says Keller. Working as assistant foreman on the graveyard shift out of the state Highway Division's Ashland Maintenance Station, Keller has seen them all -- and will, no doubt, again.
"Driving sander, you can see you're helping people," he says. "Or driving grader, peeling pack off the road."
All for one and one for all. Doing what has to be done, that's what this job is all about. In the summer, it's patching potholes and striping. In the winter, it's keeping the road open for the motoring public.
Even plowing breaks down into a tandem task. The basic snow plow -- sizes vary, depending on the snow load -- moves the stuff to the side of the road. Then the rotary plow comes along, chews up the sidelines and spits it far out.
But after 20 years, Keller's got to see it as a bit routine, right? Even though he likes working outdoors and meeting interesting people, it only figures that he'd be looking for some better way to spend his winters, right? Given a choice, his favorite winter job would be anything but ... . Wrong. He loves nothing better than ...
"Plowing snow," he says. "I like to watch the berm go over the rail."
Far out. Out into the wild green yonder.
Out beyond the directional signs he started making at the Salem sign shop in 1962. YIELD. GO BACK. WATCH FOR DISAPPEARING ROAD.
Out beyond the stripes he painted from 1963 to 1966.
Out beyond the snow far deeper at 4,310 feet of Siskiyou Summit than he ever imagined when he first drove plow while working out of Forest Grove in 1965.
Out beyond the distant memories of his first winter in Ashland, circa 1967.
Out into the territory grown familiar during the past 10 years, a decade of going in showy circles and homing in on some strange phenomena.
Not meteorological, either. Weather, it seems, is the least of his worries. With all due respect to John Q. Public, Keller says, a good percentage of a snowplower's problems come from drivers.
"You have to watch out for the traveling public as you operate your machine," he says.
Nothing frosts him more than to watch a mob of motorists panic.
"They've got a hundred cars ahead of them and they all decide to put on chains," he says.
Meanwhile, the snow is building up and the plow can't get through and some people don't have chains and others have them but don't know how to put them on and all hell is breaking loose.
"It's a little frustrating," he says. "People are not prepared when they come upon this situation."
If he could give them one piece of advice -- and he has, more than once -- it would be to "learn how to put tire chains on."
"No way," he says, when people often ask him to help them with their chains.
"You've got a job to do," he says, "but everybody thinks they're paying your check."
No chains, only a new brain, would have helped the couple he encountered one night in the Mount Ashland parking lot. It was about 2 a.m. and he was plowing along, and just as slick as you please, he pushed a neat little berm up against the white tent in the white night.
"I never seen it," Keller says. "I woke 'em up 'cause I covered 'em up with snow."
Someone coming along behind him spotted the campers when they crawled out.
"But it kind of spooks you a little bit," Keller says. "If I'd've hit 'em with that plow, it wouldn't've done 'em any good."
(This profile appeared originally in the Medford Mail Tribune, January, 1983.)