Mud warriors make surgical strikes with crushed stone
SAVOY — The call from a household on New State Road was desperate: Could you just shut our road down?
That was one resident's prescription for deepening mud. Bill Drosehn and his crew at the Savoy Highway Department had another.
Through the afternoon Tuesday, red dump trucks loaded with 1-inch stone were set to haul more than 300 tons of rock from their Route 116 garage up into Savoy's high country, jouncing along Center Road, gears grinding, engine fans moaning.
They left the land of pavement and entered the heart of mudness, on a mission shared on long March days by highway crews around the Berkshires.
The worst mud season in recent memory uncorked itself Friday, when temperatures that hit the high 60s hastened thawing. Cooler weather over the weekend firmed up roads a bit, highway crews say, and many crews were hurrying to make repairs this week before it warms again.
But they did so cautiously, finding that even some paved roads are fragile this year, given the amount of moisture in the ground.
"We've seen a lot of heaving and cracking," Drosehn said of paved roads. That includes a portion of Loop Road retopped only two years ago.
Justin Russell, Peru's highway superintendent, said some areas of blacktop in his town were at risk of breaking under the weight of highway vehicles. That had to be kept in mind last week, when crews were responding to reports of mud bogs. Russell suggested that the amount of water in the ground was a factor, along with shortcomings in road construction.
For a time Friday, Russell found himself battling areas of mud that ran to 2 feet deep.
"I was scraping mushy gravel out of the road and putting it on the side, then putting new gravel in," he said.
To complicate things, the town's gravel pile had frozen up. Russell said he tried to break stone loose Saturday, with help from a warming sun.
In Hinsdale, the arrival of mud only added to what troubles that town's roads, said Town Administrator Robert Graves. Highway workers have been out filling potholes on paved roads, which see the bulk of traffic.
A community like Hinsdale doesn't have the financial wherewithal to keep its roads in good shape, he said. "It's a challenge to keep up with it."
Like other highway chiefs, Drosehn saw an opportunity after last week's thaw.
"We're trying to get the stone on there before it's mud," Drosehn said. "As soon as it starts mudding up again, we'll get off it."
"Everybody knows when you add water to dirt you make mud," said Keith Bohonowicz, the assistant highway superintendent. "We're not trying to make more."
Make no mud. It's the highway version of the Hippocratic oath, the one doctors take to "do no harm."
But by Tuesday, things had gone too far on New State Road, a name that was probably true once. As the day warmed, sections of the road not far from the Florida town line were fissured with mud. Over the weekend, a car had to be pulled from mud on Horton Road in the southeast corner of town.
Drosehn, who is 31 and took command of the department last summer, believes that regardless of where people live in Savoy, they deserve a decent road. That becomes an issue this time of year for those who live on Savoy's roughly 20 miles of dirt road.
And so a little before noon, he used a backhoe to fill the department's 2007 International Work Star 7600 with stone, as much as 20 tons of the stuff. He climbed up into the rig, easily 8 feet off the ground, and headed for New State Road.
Bohonowicz was already there, having motored up in the department's yellow John Deere loader, which they'd left stationed by Town Hall the day before.
When Drosehn got to within a mile, he hit up Bohonowicz on the radio.
Can you hear me? Where you at?
Waiting for you.
Bohonowicz was parked a few hundred feet up New State from where it meets Burnett Road, the business end of the loader facing back into town — and staring down the worst of the mud. Snow lay heavy in woods on both sides of the road.
After first considering a "reverse spread," in which the load is gradually released as the truck backs up, Drosehn opted for a standard application. He first kept the load seated and inched backward along the worst section of road, as Bohonowicz guided him over the radio.
"Straighten it out," came his voice into the International's cab.
"Keep comin', keep comin', keep comin', keep comin' ... You're good," Bohonowicz said.
After a quick roadside huddle, Drosehn was back at the controls in the International.
Bohonowicz watched as the big truck then pulled forward and began to dump. The tons of stone seemed to defy gravity for a few seconds, then began to slide out an opening as Drosehn drove forward.
The truck emptied in seconds. Boggy, rutted areas on New State wore a new carpet of stone.
Then it was Bohonowicz's turn. He pulled the loader forward and tilted its bucket to act like a scraper, "feathering" the stone into place.
But he first had to tip his hat to Drosehn for spreading the stone so evenly. He brought the loader across the new layer of stone three times, smoothing it like a baker icing a cake.
"Trying to get the road as level as you can," he said, when asked to describe the technique of feathering. "So the road can take the weight of the cars."
Due up next was Bruce Kupiec, a part-time highway worker, with a smaller load of stone in a smaller truck. Also on the case, in his own truck, was Glenn Pratt.
Drosehn tried to raise Kupiec on the radio, not wanting their trucks to meet on a narrow stretch of road.
Kupiec pulled up at the corner and turned up the volume on his radio. He said later he can't recall a worse mud season.
"It was that two-day melt," he said of last week's thaw. "The water just goes crazy."
Kupiec began backing in toward Bohonowicz.
"Keep comin', keep comin', keep comin' you're good," Bohonowicz could be heard telling Kupiec over the radio.
Drosehn turned south, back toward the garage. The trip down felt lighter without a load. He drove down a dirt section of New State Road that his crew fixed last year. Though winter weather had opened a few holes, the road's center crown seemed to hold and new ditches were keeping water where crews want it — anywhere but on the road.
"This road is our baby. It was our first flag stuck in the ground," Drosehn said from behind the wheel. "I'm proud of this road. Right now, it's one of our best."
"The best part is, everybody takes pride in their work," he said of his crew. "That's huge with me."
A bit further on, the International was back on pavement, atop Center Road, but not good pavement.
Drosehn recently calculated that a full-depth reconstruction of the 3-mile road — it's a priority for him — will cost around $550,000. He hopes to pay for it by banking enough Chapter 90 money from the state, which comes to about $197,000 a year.
"We can apply for grants, but our roads are broken, now," Drosehn said.
When conditions allow, he plans to bring some healing to Savoy's spongiest roads. Through internet research, he found a discussion thread that recommended using 4 inches of stone topped with 2 inches of gravel. He thinks a farmer came up with the technique. He calls it the "carpet" approach and plans to give it a try.
"It's going to distribute the weight more. That's what I'm hoping," he said. "When there's something I don't know, I research the hell out of it."
On Tuesday morning, he ordered three tractor-trailers full of stone from a company in New Hampshire, to replenish the town's supply.
Back at the garage, it was time to load up again and head back to New State Road. Fixing the bad patch there will cost as much as $10,000 in stone, Drosehn estimates.
That's the cost of travel this time of year in the rural Berkshires, he reckons.
"As long as people can safely get out," he said.
Drosehn is aware of sharp comments on social media from some about the state of town roads. He's thankful that other residents post responses urging patience.
Though Drosehn still gets teased around Savoy about being road boss at age 31, he's old school when it comes to communication.
"I tell anybody, if you have an issue, call me first," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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