Up the hill, close to the fence line, an Oklahoma Transportation Department tractor with a 15-foot mowing deck comes to a stop in the spacious right of way.
The deep grass begins to part.
Grasshoppers spray this way and that like freshly popped kernels of corn from a pot with no lid.
Richard Vaughn, a smiling 5-foot-6 interstate crew superintendent with a neon green and orange and white striped safety cap, and a more salt than pepper beard, emerges from vegetation nearly as tall in some spots as he is.
“It's a little thick out here,” Vaughn says as he walks into the 30-foot “clear zone,” an area bordering the shoulder where grass is routinely kept shorter. “The last couple of years you'd only have to make one pass, maybe two.
“We're going over it at least three times in the thicker stuff to get it knocked down.”
It's been a grow-as-they-mow spring and summer for many Transportation Department crews.
Need and response
Rainfall in central Oklahoma averaged 26.9 inches from April 1 through Friday morning, the second-wettest such period since 1921, said Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
Vaughn was mowing about 10 miles north of Guthrie on this particular day. The Oklahoma Mesonet weather site in that area recorded 25 inches from just March to July. That equaled what fell from March to July in 2011 and 2012 combined.
The Transportation Department is responsible for mowing or having 409,000 acres mowed in the 77 counties. Safety is the foremost reason for mowing, while other factors include fire suppression for periods when it is drier, aesthetics and preventive measures such as keeping grass in cracks from leading to further roadway deterioration, said Terri Angier, agency spokeswoman.
Safety includes sight distance at intersections or visibility allowing a motorist to see wildlife or livestock crossing the road.
“This is a little bit different for us. It's the first time in several years we've had things growing like this,” said Roy Counts, the department's Division 4 maintenance engineer. “We've had a tremendous amount of rain. The grass comes back just like it does on your lawn, about as soon as you mow.”
The department's crews mow everything in their area and then start again. And this continues generally from spring into the early fall.
However, “a safety mowing” is conducted ahead of the scheduled mowing if workers report the grass is too tall, thus presenting a sight or other hazard, Counts said.
The fourth of as many tractors in Vaughn's crew on this day makes the last pass, kicking up a little red dust. In the previous two summers that might have been possible with the first group through on the first pass.
Vaughn's been working on this crew since 2002 and only once has he seen grass any thicker.
In some areas where the vegetation was 16 inches tall a year ago by the time his crew returned each time, it's now a few feet tall, he said.
“You just have to take it slower, because you don't know what has washed out or what's in there,” he said.
“What's in there” may include items off trucks or cars. Or it could be a small deer that was lying down and suddenly jumped up out of the grass in front of him.
With that slower pace, and working from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., four tractors can mow about two miles a day in this area, Vaughn estimated.
“Last summer we could mow about four miles, just because it was much thinner,” Vaughn said.
The Transportation Department's vegetation management program includes herbicides and mowing, Counts said.
“The window for herbicide application starts around May 20 and that is when the tornado hit Moore,” Counts said. “Our forces mobilized and went to Moore to help with that tornado for about an eight-day period and missed that application. I'm certainly not complaining about that.
“It just explains another reason why the guys have had to try to play catch-up mowing grass that is a lot heavier, and I think they're doing great.”
Vaughn said to adapt, they went through and mowed a clear zone, that 30-foot safety mowing area in the right-of-ways, and then started back.
Counts said they attempt to have areas cleaned up as much as possible going into the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays. Then crews try to have everything mowed again from “fence to fence” before the first freeze, which can vary.
“It all comes back to safety being the most important issue,” Counts said, “whether that's fire suppression or that's sight distance.”