The Mercedes-Benz G-class - otherwise known as the Gelandewagen - celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year. There are plenty of contemporary models that are riding streaks longer than that, but none of them have done so in quite the same manner as the G-wagen. You see, this isn't just a thirty-year-old nameplate; it's a thirty-year-old vehicle. A heavily updated one, to be sure, but still the same box Mercedes rolled out when Jimmy Carter was president and Journey hit number sixteen on the Billboard charts with "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'." Not to belabor the point, but this rig hit the streets the same year that the Gairy dictatorship in Grenada was overthrown by the New Jewel Movement. Gosh, does that make me feel old.
For the G's thirtieth birthday, Mercedes gave it a 382-hp, 5.5-liter V-8, a new grille, and an upgraded Comand navigation system. I, too, wanted to celebrate the G's birthday, but in a way that would recall its rustic origins as a Spartan off-roader and military vehicle. And that's how I ended up with a $100,000 plow truck.
I've always wanted to try my hand as a plow driver, and the G-class, with its sturdy body-on-frame construction and cosseting interior, seems like it would make a fine plowagen. After assuring Mercedes personnel that I won't permanently deface their silver 2009 G550, I take it to plow manufacturer Curtis Industries in Worcester, Massachusetts, to see if the truck is capable of wielding a blade. Curtis conducts a front-end load test and determines that the G is stout enough for plow duty. Well, of course it is. Just look at it.
A week later, the Mercedes is wearing a seven-foot Curtis Home-Pro plow on its nose and the radar maps are showing a monster storm on the way. The epicenter will be in central Maine, so I put on my Sno-Pro logo hat, grab my yellow rooftop strobe light, and head north on I-95. I'm not sure where I'm going or what I'm going to plow, but with most New England towns over budget on snow removal, I'm sure someone will be happy to see me and my G. To reference Homer Simpson's "Mr. Plow" TV ad, "You're fully bonded and licensed by the city, aren't you, Mr. Plow?" Shut up, boy.
The snow was supposed to start by 1 p.m., but by 4 p.m., I've reached Waterville, Maine, and there's still no sign of the approaching blizzard. So I decide to exit the highway and head to my alma mater, Colby College, to see if there are any unplowed lots where I can practice my plowmanship before nightfall. I'm in luck, as the parking area near the soccer fields is covered in snow. But not for long. Thanks to me, if anyone needs to play snow soccer, there will now be ample parking. And I'm 85 percent sure that the area I scraped clean was in fact a parking lot - and not a flower bed or a breeding ground for an endangered species. You're welcome, Colby. Since I contributed this valuable service free of charge, I probably don't need to contribute to the alumni fund this year, right?
As night falls, I get back on the highway and head south, hoping to drive into the maw of the storm. By the time I reach the Gardiner tolls, about a half-hour away, it's starting to come down. The tollbooth cashier eyes my plow and says, "Heading south? It's just rain down there." I reply that that's too bad, because I want some snow. "Me, too!" she replies happily, as if snow would be a novel meteorological departure from Maine's typical February forecast. As I take my change, she adds, "I hope we get a foot!" Indeed. And I hope to meet the invisible leprechaun who lives in the Gardiner tollbooths and magically cures seasonal affective disorder.
With the snow falling hard now, I pull over at a rest area and open the sunroof to install my magnetic orange strobe light on the roof. It turns out that the sunroof is a plow itself - as it slides back into the roof, the wet snow is scraped off the surface, eventually reaching critical mass and avalanching down into my lap. Well, I guess there's a reason they don't call it a snowroof.
Wasting no time, I drop the blade and begin making passes across the parking lot. I take one swipe laterally, but when I reach the end of the parking lot, I see that this strategy will result in a snowbank blocking the door to Starbucks. So I take the perpendicular course and conclude my passes at the existing snowbanks that ring the lot. The snow is wet and heavy, but the G550 barely notices. The steering is a little heavier than usual, but when you goose the gas, the G-wagen feels like it would rip off a respectable 0-to-60-mph time even while spraying a wave of snow off the plow. I've never been behind the wheel of the AMG version, but I imagine it's something like driving a rocket-powered storage unit.
The plow controls are simple, with a joystick for up, down, left, and right. There's something adolescently awesome about driving a truck with a plow on it, shoving snow into a pile, lifting the blade with a whine of hydraulics, and going back for another pass. As a kid, I loved playing in the sandbox with Tonka bulldozers, and a plow truck is a Tonka bulldozer extrapolated to adult scale. I've always thought that plowing looks like fun, and it is.
Unfortunately, I'm not very good at it. Every time I make a pass through the lot, twin streaks of clumpy snow spray off the edges of the plow. So I back up to eradicate these misshapen picket fences with two more passes, but I succeed only in multiplying the mess. There's just one thing to do: get out of here and start over with a parking lot that isn't already screwed up.
I set the navigation system to the nearest Benz dealership, on the premise that a bunch of Mercedes vehicles should get plowed free by a Mercedes. En route, I encounter an empty logging truck that is fishtailing up a hill. I swoop in front of it, drop my plow, and the truck driver is so grateful that he begins driving six inches from my rear bumper, lest a flake of snow get betwixt my plow and his tires. Perhaps this is why you see so many plow trucks driving around in blizzards with their blades raised.
At the Mercedes lot, I work on refining my technique. While two GMC pickups are hidden behind the service department, plows dormant, I'm busy clearing out the row of C-classes, the smattering of GLKs, and the forlorn snowy SLs. It's a Sunday night and the place is deserted, but a look at the security tapes the next morning will reveal a mysterious man in a G-wagen doing well-intentioned, if haphazard, plow work.
I'm getting better at making debris-free passes - it's all about angling the blade - but the last few feet are what confound me. The professionals smoothly lift the plow as they reach the terminus of their run, building perfect little mountains with remarkably steep gradients. I, on the other hand, tend to leave the plow down too long. So at the verge of the snowbank, I raise the plow a bit, then inch forward a little more and raise the plow again, until the plow can go no higher and the G-wagen is crabbing futilely against my Machu Picchu terrace of snow. Real plow guys make snowbanks. I make snow ziggurats.
Neither have I mastered the rhythm of the routine, the dance of the Curtis. Plow down, transmission in drive; plow up, shift into reverse. Several times, I shift into reverse and hear a grating sound to alert me that I've forgotten to lift the blade and I'm now dragging the plow backward. When backing up, I've also got to remember that I have a seven-foot battering ram hanging off my front bumper, which is an important consideration when you're reversing around a dealership full of brand-new Benzes. At night. In a blizzard.
This isn't just any blizzard, either. The tollbooth lady got her wish - and then some. Not too far from here, snowfall reaches twenty-five inches. The governor declares a state of emergency. And I'm out plowing I-95.
But only briefly. The line of cars inching along behind me might appreciate my goodwill, but the snow is so deep that if I go faster than 20 mph, it curls up over the top of the plow and begins spraying across the windshield. I raise the blade, and, fortunately, traffic catches up to a real plow crew.
The snowplow convoy meanders along in a tight flying-V formation, foiling the attempts of civilians to get past. I hate when plow guys do this. There's something nanny-ish about it, like the trucks should have signs on the back reading, "You're annoyed now, but you'll thank us later." Hey, if I want to bust ahead into the powder to do 55 mph on my all-season tires and spin off the road, then that's my right as an American driver. I find myself cursing the plow guys aloud before realizing that I am one myself. Sort of.
As I keep heading south, the snow turns to sleet, and I see queues of plow trucks waiting on the overpasses, their yellow lights counting down the minutes until the order to deploy. According to the trip computer, I've spent nearly twelve hours in the driver's seat, much of it staring into the hypnotic swirl of snow in the headlights. Plowing is fun for a little while, but after the fourth hour or so, it gets lonely and monotonous, even in a G-wagen. The G550 has proven that under the posh leather and the lighted kick plates that define its modern role as a status symbol, it's still a rugged, solid-axle old beast, a truck to put the fear in the Soviets and remind everyone that Germany is a country not to be trifled with. The G-class outlasted the Buggles, the Berlin Wall, and Lehman Brothers, and tonight it has outlasted me. My colleagues will be patrolling the roads until dawn, but right now it's time for Mr. Plow to hang up his jacket.