Growing up, Dave Johnson had one dream profession — work for the Wyoming Highway Department at Burgess Junction in the middle of the Bighorn National Forest. He realized that dream and has spent the last 37 years helping to make U.S. Highway 14 and 14A passable and as safe as possible for outdoor enthusiasts.
“When I hired on, my dad had spent 15 years with the department, and I thought, ‘Man, for someone to work for the same outfit for 15 years, you’ve got to be crazy,’” Johnson recalled. “Who’s crazy now?”
Johnson moved atop the mountain in 1984. Before that, living on the mountain stood as one of the more sought-after jobs within the maintenance department, and, as a result, individuals were only hired for five-year stints.
When Johnson and his wife moved to the maintenance camp, the area featured modular homes where the crew stayed. Permanent homes have since replaced the mobile homes, housing the crew and families year round.
Johnson’s kids attended Camp Bethel for elementary school before getting bussed to Ranchester and Dayton for middle and high school. While living in isolation on a mountain can prove difficult, frustrating and unsettling at times, Johnson wholeheartedly believes his two children benefited from the lifestyle in which cellphone service wasn’t a priority.
“I don’t think any kid growing up on the mountain was negatively affected,” Johnson said. “… It’s a wonderful place to raise kids, but you’ve also got to know and be aware that they have to have some social activity. Both my kids participated in band and a lot of early, before-school activities. They benefited from being in town for school and things like that, but yet they had the culture of being able to live up here and enjoy the mountains.”
Johnson has certainly enjoyed his years in the Bighorns. He’s seen and worked firsthand with U.S. Highway 14 improvements on nearly every portion of the mountain. From 1999 to 2012, the highway underwent reconstruction in three separate sections, and Johnson helped in all three.
In 1999, Burgess Junction received a redesign, the road east to Camp Bethel was widened and many of the turns were sunlight. The section of road around and east of Sibley Lake was rerouted out of the wetland area. Finally, the section of road in the Steamboat Rock area underwent a complete redesign.
Johnson had many assignments during the aforementioned improvements. He helped pave, direct traffic and build fences, among other tasks.
In the summer months, when the mountain passes don’t need much work, Johnson and his coworkers travel down to Sheridan County towns to aid in typical roadwork. But they don’t stay off the mountain long.
“We have a long snow season and a shorter fix-it season,” said Tom Anderson, another crew member at Burgess Junction. Sheridan has summer months from, let’s call it May 1 to November. Our snow can start in August and run until May, so we only have maybe three or four months where we might not have to plow snow.”
Much of the maintenance crew’s job revolves around snow removal. In a typical winter schedule, Johnson or another crew member wakes at 4 a.m. to begin a snow-plowing route. The route starts at Burgess Junction, goes east all the way to the city of Dayton, south to Antelope Butte and west to the Medicine Wheel turnout.
One run for a snowplow driver can take anywhere from a couple of hours to half the work day, depending on how much snow needs removing. The crew has four trucks at its disposal and will work 16-18 hour days if necessary, very rarely closing the road.
“We will post, ‘no unnecessary travel,’ because A, there’s just too much snow and we can’t move it to make the roadway safe or B, conditions are so bad no one has any business being out there,” Johnson said. “However, posting no unnecessary travel doesn’t make any difference. When you say unnecessary travel, people think, ‘Well let’s go see how bad it really is.’ So now you’ve just compounded your problem.”
The Wyoming Department of Transportation employs a crew on U.S. Highway 16 outside of Buffalo that lives in a similar realm as Johnson and his crew. Teton Pass has a crew that attempts to keep the road open year round, as well. But other than that — aside from Interstate 80 connecting Cheyenne to Laramie — mountain passes in rural and rugged Wyoming are left to the elements during the cold winter months.
Johnson sometimes wonders why he’s continued to plow snow atop a remote mountain pass. He sometimes asks himself why he’s endured long winters of little human contact and very little outdoor time to drive a truck in hazardous conditions.
But he’s done it, and three of his current coworkers go through the same trials.
“All these guys have hearts of gold,” said Laura Dalles, senior public relations specialist for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
The Bighorn Mountains rise majestically to the west of Sheridan. The outdoor paradise features hiking, hunting, fishing, climbing, kayaking, skiing and many more activities that enthusiasts can enjoy year round.
And thanks to U.S. Highway 14 and 14A, most of the mountain is accessible with any type of reliable transportation. The mountain passes that ascend just west of Dayton and descend east of Shell and Lovell have gone through many transformations from their inception to their modern-day look, and keeping it in tip- top shape is a 12-month job.
Highway 14 has played a prominent role in Johnson’s life. He’s worked, plowed and maintained the mountain pass for nearly his entire professional career with a few years left to go until it’s time to hang up the keys.
And he’s fully ready to embrace the next winter like he has the last 37.