Prairie Tayles: That Guy With The Stop Sign

Aug 11, 2017

Does anyone else wonder what highway workers charged with stopping one lane of traffic during road construction think about as they stand in the elements and flip their signs from stop to slow eight to twelve hours a day? Whenever possible, I visit with these souls who brave extreme temperatures and irate drivers to see how their jobs compare to my inside work.

On Togwotee Pass going into Yellowstone, I met a college student working her way through the university as a summer WDOT employee. Since this is right outside Yellowstone and it was a long wait of over thirty minutes, I asked her about the most interesting things she’d seen. Of course, she saw eagles and osprey snagging trout out of the Wind River that paralleled her job location. She’d seen plenty of deer, elk, moose and their young and learned to hustle out of their way when necessary. She’d stopped vehicles carrying celebrities as well, but her best story was the one about a mamma grizzly and her cubs. This trio wandered onto the highway, forcing the road crew not already inside a protective vehicle to race for cover inside pickups and an outhouse parked on edge of the road. That would be some excitement on the job!

Another time, I drove across Nebraska when the guy holding the stop sign caught my eye.  He was a young fellow with shoulder length brown hair who looked like he’d recently graduated from high school. The jaunty way he wore is yellow vest and bright hard-hat emphasized his zest for life, but what snagged my attention was the fact that once he had traffic halted, he flipped his sign into his hands like an electric guitar and began strumming and moving to a beat only in his head. I’m not sure his boss appreciated his free-lance rock concert, but it made my stop more fun than it should have been.

Last summer, my husband and I waited a good fifteen minutes for the signal truck to guide us through the Wind River Canyon south of Thermopolis.  We’d just missed our turn to go so we were stuck sitting in 90+ temperatures. We turned off the air conditioner and rolled down our windows and once again had the chance to chat with a crewman charged with halting traffic. 

It was late afternoon, and he’d had a long day. He and my husband talked hunting and fishing for most of the pause. Then I got the nerve to ask the question I’d always wanted answered. Which weather did road repair crews prefer: summer heat or winter ice? In Wyoming, that could involve major extremes.

The fellow didn’t answer right away. After some head scratching, he finally continued, “During the winter, you could always add layers of clothing.” He guessed that meant he preferred working outside in the cold. He told us there was never enough protection from the burning sun during those hot days. I could see that as tiny heat waves rose from the asphalt highway ahead of us.

There would be parts of that job that would be repetitive, but on the other hand, you’d see different people all the time, and who know what kinds of wildlife would shake things up every now and then. One thing for sure, you’d fully experience every season.