(Or is that only a boy thing? A quick web search suggests only 5 or 6 percent of truck drivers are women. Does that mean only boys–and, er, men–wonder what it’s like to get behind the wheel of a big rig?)
The Long Haul will put you inside the rig, Jake brakes and all. You will get a taste of what it’s like to drive and maneuver one of these beasts. You will get a hint of what it’s like to navigate tight spaces, stare down miles of highway, or creep down a slushy-icy mountain pass.
“Fondle the brake, watch the mirrors, feel the machine, check the tach, listen to the Jake, and watch the air pressure. The air gauge read 120 psi at the summit; now reads 80,” writes Finn Murphy about coming down Colorado’s Loveland pass in winter. He’s driving too slow for other truckers on the road and he’s getting harassed over the CB. “I’ll see them all later, when they’ll be completely blind to the irony that we’re all here at the same time drinking the same coffee. Somehow, I’ve cost them time and money going down the hill. It’s a macho thing. Drive the hills as fast as you can and be damn sure to humiliate any sonofatich who’s got brains enough to respect the mountains.”
That’s a sample of the truck-level specifics and the odd fraternity out there on the road. But this book is not about any old truck driver. Finn Murphy is a Colby College dropout. He’s a reader and a thinker. (How many truck drivers out there, do you think, grab an audio book of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to pass the miles?) And he’s a helluva storyteller.
Most importantly, and what separates him from any ordinary trucker, is that Finn Murphy is a mover. Or, in truck driver lingo, a “bed-bugger.” He’s the lowest of the low among the truck-driving castes, where freight haulers, for some strange reason, reign supreme.
Having read The Long Haul, it seems to me that movers should be at the top of the heap. They handle your stuff. They don’t only drive; they pack. For Finn Murphy, who works for a boutique van line and gets hired for high-end executive moves, the job entails packing every carton. Complete, full service moving may involve washing the breakfast dishes, packing them up, and making the beds upon arrival. Yes, on the level that Murphy works he doesn’t just pile the boxes in the living room. If needed, he unpacks everything too—right down to all the silverware organized and ready to use in the new kitchen drawers.
The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road is, in fact, poorly titled. The title suggests something generic when the book, in fact, is quite specifically about movers. It’s about this specific corner of the truck-driving business and all that goes with it—managing customers, dealing with damage claims, and the whole science and art of packing.
In fact, what gives The Long Haul its narrative fuel, are the people—Murphy’s customers and the others he encounters on the road. From years and years of driving, Murphy has plucked a few stunning stories as centerpieces for this memoir—a woman who really doesn’t know what possessions she wants to bring with her, a man who berates Murphy for his truck-driving skills for failing to navigate a tight, steep and curvy driveway that leads to his house, and an obese woman and her peculiar cross-country trek with special cargo, among others.
Murphy takes charge. He suffers no fools. He’s a hard worker who seems to ride a high from physical labor. He tells shippers how things are going to run. He explains in detail how to move a piano. He tells his dispatcher off when he needs to. He cleans trucks the way they need to be cleaned. He knows how to calculate profits before the first box has been packed. He knows “lumpers” (temporary help that load and unload) in cities across the country. He frequently observes how he is being or overlooked or belittled and he is not afraid to call out those who take him for granted, often in spiteful or snarky fashion. But he sees his customers—and the occasional fellow traveler—as real people and that gives The Long Haul plenty of heart. If your work requires any level of human interaction, I dare say you will pick up a customer service tip or two from Finn Murphy.
The only thing Murphy doesn’t explain is a long gap in his truck-driving career; at one point he quits and we get no explanation for what he does in the intervening years. (I don’t think a few paragraphs there would have hurt.)
Murphy is also an observer of the American economic landscape—and sees the devastation to small-town American thanks to cheap imported goods and construction of big-box stores that sell them. “Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass. Yay. Take US 50 west from Kansas City to Sacramento or US 6 from Chicago to California and you’ll see a couple thousand miles of corn, soybeans, and terminally ill small towns. It looks like an episode from The Walking Dead.”
You’ll learn a lot about what it’s like to be a truck driver in The Long Haul. But like many good slice-of-life memoirs, it’s about so much more.