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The Deeper Dig: How to get a truck unstuck from Smugglers Notch

George McRae, seen here at his towing business in Milton, helped a truck driver get unstuck from Smugglers’ Notch earlier this summer. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation has an internal word for when a tractor-trailer wedges itself on the windy mountain road between Stowe and Jeffersonville: a “stuckage.” 

And while they’re working on a handful of ways to prevent stuck trucks, it remains a persistent, vaguely goofy, problem. Earlier this summer, not too long after the Notch road reopened from its annual winter hibernation, two trucks got stuck in the Notch in less than two weeks. 

From 2009 to 2021, an average of 8.6 trucks have gotten stuck in the Notch each year, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Transportation. That number has decreased in recent years, with only five stuckages in 2021. 

The agency isn’t exactly sure what’s behind the trend, said Todd Sears, the agency’s deputy bureau chief of operations and safety. They have increased the number of warning signs on surrounding roads and convinced some GPS services — specific to commercial truckers — to exclude the Notch on their programs. 

A stuckage can shut down the road for hours. It takes careful choreography to get a truck back down off the mountain. 

“There’s no way to turn it around unless you cut it up into small pieces,” said George McRae, who owns a trucking company in Milton. 

McRae has helped several truck drivers get unstuck from the Notch throughout his career. Every stuckage is different, but he often has to attach cables to the tractor-trailer and use a winch to drag the wheels sideways, back onto the road. Then McRae walks alongside the truck, coaching the driver down the twists and turns in reverse, all the way down to one of the large resort parking lots, where there’s enough space to turn around. 

In this episode, McRae recounts some of his wildest stuck truck tales. Todd Sears and Josh Schultz from the Vermont Agency of Transportation discuss potential solutions to stuckage and how they hope to work with other states to enlist the help of GPS companies. 

Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Riley Robinson: It was a rainy night in the first week of July, and a truck driver from Miami was heading north out of Stowe when he realized he couldn’t go any farther.

George McRae: So he had super singles on — 

Riley Robinson: — that’s a kind of tire —

George McRae: — and he couldn’t go. He had an empty trailer, so we didn’t have any weight on the tractor tires. So he got up as far as he could, and then he started to spin and he went sliding backwards. And he panicked, and he tried to hit the brakes, and he jackknifed it around and put the trailer right in the ditch.

Riley Robinson: This is George McRae. He owns a trucking company in Milton. And he’s one of the people who police call when they need to get a truck unstuck from Smugglers Notch. 

A tractor-trailer got stuck June 6, 2021, trying to get through the narrow, twisting road through Smugglers Notch in Stowe. File photo courtesy of Vermont State Police

George McRae: I never know, even on any job. I never know what I’m getting into. But going up on the Notch, there’s certain things that are given. I know that I have limited space to work. I know that I’m going to have some kind of a goofy situation because if he can’t go on his own then he’s got a problem. 

Riley Robinson: This driver, who got stuck in the Notch, joined something of a Vermont tradition. This was the second truck in just over a week that got stuck on this narrow, windy, hilly mountain pass that cuts from Stowe to Jeffersonville. It’s such a difficult road that it’s closed in winter. The state has put up a bunch of signs on surrounding roads telling trucks to go away. 

Even still, when the road reopens every spring, it’s only a matter of time before a tractor-trailer gets stuck.

Riley Robinson: The first time we spoke, George called me from the road on the way back from a job. 

George McRae: George here. 

Riley Robinson: Hey, George. It’s Riley. Sorry, I lost you there for a second.

George McRae: Oh, I went through a dead spot.

Riley Robinson: He said depending on whether a truck is loaded, it can weigh between 20 and 40 tons. Either way, it can take some heavy machinery to get a truck unstuck. 

George McRae: I had to run a line, a winch line to winch him out of the ditch. 

Riley Robinson: Sorry, I’m just gonna hit pause here because I don’t know — What is a winch? 

George McRae: It’s the powered device on the wrecker. A winch is like a powered drum, with cable wrapped around it, so when you engage the lever, the drum turns and the cable winds onto the drum, and that’s what gives us our power. 

Riley Robinson: George showed me a video of him winching a tractor-trailer out of a ditch, and it’s pretty amazing. In the video, he hooked onto the truck and dragged it sideways. 

George McRae: I winched him out of that ditch and got him squared away, and then he had to very carefully back it down the hill. 

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Like I said, it was raining. The roads were wet. We got some places that isn’t too bad. Other places, the grade is pretty steep.

But there’s a couple of places where I had to actually hook onto it with the wrecker again and winch it forward because he couldn’t start it. He would, he would put it in gear, and all it would do is spin the tractor tires. This is on wet blacktop. So he couldn’t, he couldn’t do anything. So I would winch it forward, get him straightened around and then let it roll back. And then we finally got to the point where the curves in the road were shallow enough that he could back up pretty good. And I just had him — because I had to walk along with him most of the way —

Riley Robinson: Down the mountain? 

George McRae: Down the mountain. 

Riley Robinson: You’re on foot? 

George McRae: On foot. Yeah. We go about 1,000 feet maybe, and then I tell them to stop. And I’d have to run back up and get my wrecker and bring it down.

Riley Robinson: Do you also drive the wrecker in reverse? 

George McRae: Yeah. 

Riley Robinson: So George is there, on this twisty mountain road, in the dark, in the rain, walking alongside the truck, coaching the driver on how to wind around boulders and tight curves.

Every so often, he runs back up the road, gets in his long wrecker truck, and also drives that in reverse down the mountain in the dark, to catch up to the driver. The police follow after George.

George McRae: And then finally, we got to a point I told him I said, I think that turns. The curves in the road are shallow enough that if you watch your rearview mirror and keep those rear tires about a foot away from the fog line, that you will be alright, and you can back out. 

Riley Robinson: So they keep doing this, backing down in spurts. 

All the way down to one of the nearby ski resort parking lots, where it’s big enough to turn the truck around. 

George McRae: So he actually did a good job from that point on backing up the rest of the way. And I backed right up behind him and followed them and then we got down to where we could settle up. 

Riley Robinson: The drivers pay a large fine. The driver George helped earlier this summer had to pay more than $3,500. But then they also have to pay George for his work. Recently, he’s been charging between $3,000 and $3,500. So all in all, we’re talking maybe $7,000. It’s an expensive mistake. 

From 2009 through last fall, an average of about eight trucks got stuck in the Notch each year. It’s pretty common, especially considering the road is only open in summer and fall. It’s this weird, perennial problem that’s exasperated state and local officials. 

When a truck gets stuck on the side of the mountain, it can shut down the road for hours

I asked George about the wildest truck situation he’s ever seen in the notch. And he told me about a time where the driver had disconnected the front part, the tractor, from the cargo in the trailer. 

George McRae, seen here at his towing business in Milton, helped a truck driver get unstuck from Smugglers’ Notch earlier this summer. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

George McRae: This is a fully loaded trailer. Heavy. 

Riley Robinson: Do you know what was in it? 

George McRae: Yeah, if I remember correctly, I think it was Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Riley Robinson: That is possibly the most Vermont thing I have ever heard. 

Officials at the Vermont Agency of Transportation have a term for when a truck gets stuck in the Notch. They call it a “stuckage.”

Todd Sears: I started using it when I was briefing the secretary because it was just simple, two syllables. Everybody knows what it means, and now everybody’s using it.

Riley Robinson: This is Todd Sears. He’s the agency’s deputy bureau chief of operations and safety.

Riley Robinson: What is your best explanation for why trucks keep getting stuck? 

Todd Sears: Well, there are two, there are two, kind of, buckets, right, that we can put these in. 

Generally, when we talk to the drivers — well not we — but when law enforcement talks to the drivers when they get stuck, there are two answers that seem to come out most of the time. 

One of them is, we didn’t see the signs. And so that’s one of the answers. And the other is, and it’s a tough issue, is, ‘We were following GPS.’ That’s the explanation: We were following GPS.

Riley Robinson: If you plug in directions in a common mapping app, like Google Maps, the Notch is often the shortest way through, but not by much. 

Todd Sears: So if you program in a trip from Stowe to Cambridge/Jeffersonville, on 108 through the Notch, it’s going to be about a 17-mile trip, 17.7 miles in fact, and estimated to be about a 30 minute trip. The detour that we call for, that we have signposted — which is to hey, skip 108 and travel north on 100 and take a left on 15 to get you there — is 24 miles, closer to 25 miles, and expected to be 36 minutes. So it’s a six-minute delay only. 

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Riley Robinson: Todd said that the Agency of Transportation said they’ve reached out to mapping companies with mixed results. Companies that make GPS programs specifically for commercial truckers were apparently really receptive. 

Todd Sears: And we have actually had success with those packages, with those companies, to black out the Notch. However, that’s not what the majority of drivers use. The majority of drivers use, just, Apple Maps, Google Maps. 

Riley Robinson: There’s not really much incentive for everyday GPS systems to route around the Notch. The app doesn’t know what kind of vehicle you’re driving. And out of the thousands of vehicles that drive through there daily, most of them are just fine. 

Josh Schultz: We’ve made the recommendation of hey, what if what if when somebody punches in a destination, and it takes them through Route 108, through the Notch, what about having a pop-up come up that says: No trucks 40 foot or over just come up and display on the screen, and give people the ability to kind of cancel it out or swipe it away. We just haven’t had traction with that.

Riley Robinson: That’s Josh Schultz. He’s Todd’s boss, and he leads operations and safety at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. 

He said Vermont is trying to collaborate with other states, with their own tricky roads, to basically get tech companies’ attention, to say hey, this is a problem. 

Josh Schultz: You know, our hope is that maybe something like that might get traction at some point in the future. It just has not yet. So we’ll see.

Riley Robinson: But the state has also tried other ways to prevent stuckages. Last summer, they went up in the Notch with laser equipment, called LIDAR. They measured the terrain and angles in the road to determine exactly what length vehicle is too long to fit around the curves. 

They’ve also added more warning signs — you know the ones that say “your GPS is wrong!” — yeah, those signs now start farther away from the Notch on surrounding highways. 

Of course, some drivers still ignore these and still get stuck, but the state is seeing some progress. 

Todd Sears: Last year, for example, we saw a 54% drop in the number of total stuck trucks from the previous year. That’s a lot. That’s significant. That also reflected about a 41% drop of the average over the past 12 years. There were only five trucks stuck last year. 

And so as we move into this year — we’re in the third month of the season — even this year, we are behind the curve. I mean, I should say we’re above the curve. We’re on the same track as we were last year, which are, a total of fewer trucks stuck so far, up to this point. So are we going to have another four or five stuckage season? That would be surely nice. And it would cause us to kind of raise our eyebrows and say, ‘Maybe we’re doing something. Something’s working — maybe.’

And it’s very, very difficult to prove, cause, like, what is causing the numbers to go down? It could be just a statistical anomaly. 

And many people look at this think it probably is, you know, but ‘21 was a good year. ‘22, three months in, is shaping up to look OK. But then, for example, in 2020, October had six stuckages in one month. Six. So that could happen again. And we know that. 

Riley Robinson: There’s a bunch of creative ideas bouncing around out there about ways to redesign the area to fix this problem. A working group made of people from the local community alongside state engineers are currently looking into a few different options, like building large roundabouts on each side of the mountain, so trucks would have a last-ditch place to turn around. 

Others have suggested the state build a sort of windy obstacle course, or slalom, just before the mountain pass, so if a truck gets stuck, it happens on flat ground, where it’s easier to bypass other traffic. 

But of course there’s challenges to all of these. The land around the Notch is park, or resorts, so the state would have to find the real estate to build any of these options. 

Josh Schultz: If the solution was a really easy one, we would have done it 20 years ago.

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Riley Robinson: But there’s other ideas in the works right now. The state is in discussions with the ski resorts at the base of the road, Smugglers’ Notch and Stowe, to use their big parking lots as turnaround points — which is basically what George does. 

The day after I talked to George on the phone, he had a job in Stowe that was taking him through the Notch. He offered to give me a ride and point out the diciest spots in the road. 

Riley Robinson: It says no tractor-trailer trucks. 

George McRae: See, that’s the serious sign that I said you’d see pretty soon. 

Riley Robinson: George was driving a pretty big flatbed. It’s not as big as the wrecker he uses for stuck trucks, but it’s still pretty hefty.  When we stopped at a gas station in Stowe, a woman looked at it, raised her eyebrows, looked back at me and said, “That? I don’t think you’re gonna fit through the Notch in that.” 

I said I wasn’t worried. He’s a pro. 

George McRae: This is sketchy on a wet road. And then like right there, you see you got guardrails, got this twist and twist. We gotta make, gotta make this corner. We had to stop right here. 

Riley Robinson: George weaves us up and up into the mountains. Sometimes, when the boulders jut out and make a blind curve, it feels like we’re playing a game of chicken with whoever might be driving around the other side. 

George McRae: There’s one point up here that’s unmistakable. 

Riley Robinson: We stop at a couple curves, and he points out different spots where trucks have gotten stuck in a ditch or on a rock. 

George McRae: This is the bad boy right here.

Riley Robinson: After a few turns, George points out the spot from a few weeks ago, where the truck was stuck in the rain. 

George McRae: That last curve was the one that I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way. I had to walk all the way down, helping this guy make these corners, and I had to get him around this corner.

Riley Robinson: The twisty drive up isn’t really all that long, a mile and a half or so.

Riley Robinson: Do you remember the first time you came to get a truck out of here? 

George McRae: Oh my god, it was years and years ago. I can’t remember hardly a thing about it. I know I had a smaller wrecker because I didn’t have great big ones at that time. I do remember having to drag it sideways. 

Riley Robinson: When I talked to Josh and Todd about the Notch, I had to ask — have they thought about changing the road itself? Would they ever consider just blasting out more of those rocks and widening the road to normal road width? 

And they said no. Actually, they were pretty emphatic that that is not on the table. 

I’m not the only one who’s asked them this. Apparently some Vermonters have called into the agency to say — half joking — hey, if you let me up there with a jackhammer, I could have this fixed in a couple hours. 

But for all the frustration with this wacky stuckages problem, this road is also beloved exactly how it is. And it’s become such a landmark in the state that the agency doesn’t want to touch it. 

After my ridealong with George, I stopped in the Notch, got out of my car and started up one of the trails that peels off from the road. I got up high enough to hear the birds get really chatty, and I watched big SUVs negotiate around a rock in front of me. There’s something kind of magical about this spot, where nature meets human engineering. 

As I returned to my car and headed back toward flatter ground, it started to pour. 

And I suddenly felt pretty grateful that I didn’t have to drive this in reverse.