Ron Cook motions a Chevy Astro a few feet forward on the shoulder of Interstate 80, grips the tire chain with slushy gloves and pulls.
After a few quick tugs on his knees in the pelting snow, Cook collects his $30 and waves the westbound travelers off. The Astro pulls away from the Donner Lake Interchange offramp with its tire chains clinking on the icy asphalt.
It’s about 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the snow storm is intensifying and Cook is about five cars into a long evening of installing chains.
“It’s a bit of a chess game,” Cook says of the jockeying that occurs between the approximately 20 state-licensed regulars who stake their claims next to the interstate to install chains every time a cold storm blows in.
For Cook, a local painting contractor, it has been 16 years of coaxing winter chains onto passing travelers’ vehicles. Not that that makes him a veteran or anything.
“I’ve been doing it 16 years,” Cook says, “and I’m still the new guy.”
Suddenly the cars start to thin. Then, as if on cue, all the chain installers begin to pack up. A new chess match begins.
“They’ve moved the checkpoint down to Truckee,” says Cook. “We’re just catching the stragglers.”
Cook is one of 124 chain installers permitted by the state to work Interstate 80, Highway 20 and Highway 267 each year. Permits costs $164, and each chainer is required to have a county business license.
The Caltrans permit allows the chain installers to use the state’s right-of-way, but the installers name their own price, which is currently $30 for putting on chains and $10 for taking them off.
Despite the heavy interstate traffic that can bring a chain installer hundreds of dollars in a few short hours, Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger says the group is a waning breed.
“I would say it is a declining number of chain installers because of the popularity of the SUV,” Dinger says. “We have seen a real drop in the number of people [applying for permits].”
But the group that persists each winter loves the cold, hard work, he says.
“Those people look forward to it every winter,” Dinger says. “That’s what they do.”
Large, fluffy flakes are floating to the ground early Thursday morning. Chain controls are up. Keith Kerrigan and his Queensland heeler, Star Dog, are sitting in the warmth of their Ford pickup.
Kerrigan and Star Dog have been waiting since midnight. They positioned themselves overnight at the front of the line of chain installers forming slowly near the I-80 agricultural inspection station at the base of Donner Pass.
But the cold storm has foiled the group, sending the snow levels plummeting down the eastern side of the Sierra. Most passing vehicles already have chains.
“It’s all being done down the road,” Kerrigan says. “Hopefully it will warm up a little bit and the snow level will rise and we’ll get to work.”
During the hours of waiting, Kerrigan ” who also works as a fishing guide and carpenter in the warmer months ” crafts fishing lures, plays video poker on a hand-held machine and sleeps.
It’s a routine that 13-year-old Star Dog has grown used to.
“She was damn near born and raised on the chain line,” says Kerrigan, who has been a chainer for about 22 years.
The chain installers are often referred to as “chain monkeys.” It’s a term that really doesn’t bother Kerrigan that much. In fact, it’s better than its precursor ” “chain apes” ” a reference Kerrigan credits Caltrans with inventing.
A couple of the longtime chainers even have fun with it, selling stickers that read
“Donner Summit Chain Monkeys ” The Missing Link.” The sticker shows a huge, prehistoric ape carrying chains and a wooden club.
“I truly think that the chain installers are the only mountain men left,” Kerrigan says.
The rugged work has its hazards: out-of-control vehicles and road closures that can strand the workers in deep snow. But despite the competition for business, the crew looks out for one another.
And despite the SUVs and all-wheel-drive cars that whiz by, heralding the slow death of the trade, the dogged group heads out to the highways each winter determined to fight extinction.
“It’s something we’ve been doing for so long it’s hard to get it out of our blood,” Kerrigan says.
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