We've all done it: The exit's up ahead, but there's a tractor-trailer in the way, lumbering along, blocking the turn. Zoom ahead, pass quickly, make it just in time — but what we've unknowingly executed is a "suicide squeeze." The tractor-trailer (fully loaded at 80,000 pounds) can struggle to stop, and if a front tire blows, the tractor might veer violently, sucking the big rig and every car nearby into a mayhem we don't really want to comprehend.
With his hand on the wheel, our guide to this largely unexplored subculture is Finn Murphy: college dropout, long-haul trucker and the "Great White Mover," cruising on what he estimates is his 3,000th job since acquiring a commercial driver's license in July of 1980.
"I've got a hard-muscled body, a big, comfortable, new tractor hauling a 53-foot moving trailer," he writes in his first book, the memoir "Long Haul." "There's the whistle of the supercharger as I shift into the thirteenth gear, the whoosh of the air dryer, my mouth slightly sour, arms shaking from the pounding of the wheel, making money, setting my own schedule, the Manhattan skyline on my right, flying fast and furious...."
As a young man in Connecticut, Murphy first encounters road warriors while pumping gas for an angry station owner: "Dan," he observes, "had ended up on the wrong treadmill, and he hated that." Across the lot, meanwhile, there was a shipping agent who employed a bevy of strong and proud men who didn't seem nearly as dissatisfied.
After a brief apprenticeship, Murphy tells his parents he's dropping out of Colby College for the open road — and in response his dad promptly hands over a bill for three years tuition and rent for three previous summers.
What hooks Murphy so thoroughly, despite society's apparent disapproval, is that in addition to the money and freedom, the rough-and-tumble underworld of big trucks and long drives actually feels like a meaningful lesson in the pride and purity of hard work. "When you hired movers," he writes, "they moved it. Execution was the imperative. This unequivocation was very attractive to me then, as it is now."
There are all kinds of truckers. Murphy's a mover (or a bedbugger), not to be confused with car haulers (parking lot attendants), animal transporters (chicken chokers), refrigerated food haulers (reefers) or hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys.) What unites most of them, Murphy explains with some distaste, is how happily they communicate with each other over CB radios, in a kind of private social network Murphy doesn't seem to relish like he does all that time alone.
The way Murphy thinks of it, most of the other long-haul drivers are all too happy to gather around the gas station and guffaw. What they're probably missing out on, Murphy suggests, are lonelier and more poetic thoughts, such as the way the engines themselves, "want to work hard. What they like is a full load and twenty-hour run at 65." When you maintain one properly, he writes, the thing can run a million miles.
But it's his rich perspective as a mover that makes this story of trucking life so insightful, given how many times life choices are tested with each family he helps relocate. "When you move people and pack their stuff," he writes, "you see how people really live, not how they want the neighbors to think they live."
The lessons Murphy offers are not without some sharpness. Most of us, Murphy explains, should simply throw everything away when we relocate. Moreover, in everywhere but the richest homes, there's simply nothing worth stealing; only cheap electronics and disposable furniture. While in the wealthiest homes, Murphy says, a move is especially poignant: it's that brief and chilling moment of vulnerability, when an echelon of America that can usually ignore anyone else suddenly needs strangers "carrying your sacred marriage bed into the master bedroom suite."
The one time Murphy tells us about his own vulnerability is when he sleeps with the wife of a military commander, furious because her cold husband no longer loves her. We root for Murphy to make it work, but he admits his real crush: National Public Radio's Terry Gross, "because I've spent more time with her than anyone else in my life." More truckers than you'd think, he says, listen to NPR.
What does the future hold? Truckers, Murphy writes, are just wagon trains for a modern world, and when robots replace all the human labor, which they will, all that will hark back to the original movers is likely the way engines will still be measured in horsepower.
For what seems like forever, John McPhee and professional nonfiction writers like him have been the ones to explain things like trucking to us. For now, in a well-written story that rarely slows down, the driver can go it alone.
Deuel is the author of "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East."