ELIZABETHTON — When the temperatures plummet and the mountainous roads of Carter County become snow- and ice-covered, Shannon Burchett will be on the job.
Burchett is one of the hardy and brave men who work for the Carter County Highway Department. They face some of the worst weather Tennessee has to offer and dare to negotiate some of the narrowest and steepest roads when they are their most dangerous.
Burchett has been with the Highway Department for 22 years and he has seen some of the worst conditions imaginable, including the 1998 Doe River Flood and the blizzard of the same year.
For every winter of those years, he has concentrated on getting the roads free of ice and debris and making sure people can get to and leave their homes without difficulty.
“It’s a good job,” Burchett said. “We all just pitch in.”
Burchett is assigned a snow route that starts in Hampton and goes to the far side of Watauga Lake above Butler. The route includes Dennis Cove. He said he is not too concerned about getting stuck or sliding off the road.
“We have radios and cell phones -— when we are in range,” Burchett said. When the men are out of reach, Burchett said there is always somebody out on the snowy and icy roads enjoying their four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Burchett said one of the worst incidents he experienced was when his dump truck overturned. Fortunately, neither he nor his passenger were injured.
“The truck was on its side. I was standing up in the cab with my feet on the door. I asked my passenger if he was OK, and he said he would be as soon as I quit standing on his arm,” Burchett said.
Burchett’s most recent ordeal was last week’s subzero weather. While most of the region did not get much snow, sections of the mountains of Carter County got five inches.
“We worked all day, every day since Saturday,” Burchett said Tuesday. He was looking forward to the warm spell and the magic the sun always produces.
“The Good Lord and sunshine help the most,” Burchett said. Even when the temperatures are below freezing, Burchett said the sun will break up and melt the ice if the roads are salted and chatted.
The road crews’ work changes dramatically in the warm months.
“That is when we do the paving and the bridge work. We trim the right of way,” Burchett said. They also get back to a regular schedule of 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
After 22 years, Burchett’s job is changing. His experience and his steady demeanor led Superintendent Jack Perkins to name him the new assistant superintendent. Even with the added responsibility, Burchett continues to run the Hampton route when it gets snowy and icy because there is no one to replace him.
He said he must take more calls from residents in his new job, but he only promises them a truck is heading their way.
“You can’t clear one road and then go several miles to clear another, and then more miles,” Burchett said. That would be a waste of time. The best way is to simply run the route from beginning to end and get every road along the way.
“About 95 percent of the people who live in the mountains understand this, and they are prepared,” Burchett said. Some residents of the lower elevations are not always as patient, Burchett said.
It is an important job, making sure all the residents can get into and out of their homes, and after 22 years Burchett continues to get it done with a lot of help from the sun and the good Lord.