Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics
newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Truck drivers in the U.S. are in an odd position.
On the one hand, they are in high demand. There’s a shortage with tens of thousands of drivers needed to haul all the goods needed across the country.
On the other hand, many truckers fear self-driving vehicles could soon put them out of a job.
Companies “have got their eyes on the prize. Get rid of drivers,” trucker Finn Murphy recently told economics correspondent Paul Solman.
But with all the recent talk about truck drivers, few people really understand what it means to live on the road. Thursday on the PBS NewsHour, Solman catches up with Murphy again to talk about his book, “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road.”
The memoir provides a glimpse into the 20 years Murphy has spent as a trucker, with all the joys, struggles and laughs. You can read an excerpt below.
BY FINN MURPHY
Loveland Pass, Colorado, on US Route 6 summits at 11,991 feet. That’s where I’m headed, having decided to skip the congestion at the Eisenhower Tunnel. Going up a steep grade is never as bad as going down, though negotiating thirty-five tons of tractor-trailer around the hairpin turns is a bit of a challenge. I have to use both lanes to keep my 53-foot trailer clear of the ditches on the right side and hope nobody coming down is sending a text or sightseeing.
At the top of the pass, high up in my Freightliner Columbia tractor pulling a spanking-new, fully loaded custom moving van, I reckon I can say I’m at an even 12,000 feet. When I look down, the world disappears into a miasma of fog and wind and snow, even though it’s July. The road signs are clear enough, though—the first one says runaway truck ramp 1.5 miles. Next one: speed limit 35 mph for vehicles with gross weight over 26,000 lbs. Next one: are your brakes cool and adjusted? Next one: all commercial vehicles are required to carry chains September 1—May 31. I run through the checklist in my mind. Let’s see: 1.5 miles to the runaway ramp is too far to do me any good if the worst happens, and 35 miles per hour sounds really fast. My brakes are cool, but adjusted? I hope so, but no mechanic signs off on brake adjustments in these litigious days. Chains? I have chains in my equipment compartment, required or not, but they won’t save my life sitting where they are. Besides, I figure the bad weather will last for only the first thousand feet. The practical aspects of putting on chains in a snowstorm, with no pullover spot, in pitch dark, at 12,000 feet, in a gale, and wearing only a T-shirt, is a prospect Dante never considered in enumerating his circles of hell. The other option is to keep rolling—maybe I’ll be crushed by my truck at the bottom of a scree field, maybe I won’t. I roll.
I can feel the sweat running down my arms, can feel my hands shaking, can taste the bile rising in my throat from the greasy burger I ate at the Idaho Springs Carl’s Jr. (It was the only place with truck parking.) I’ve got 8.6 miles of 6.7 percent downhill grade ahead of me that has taken more trucks and lives than I care to think about. The road surface is a mix of rain, slush, and (probably) ice. I’m one blown air hose away from oblivion, but I’m not ready to peg out in a ball of flame or take out a family in a four-wheeler coming to the Rocky Mountains to see the sights.
I downshift my thirteen-speed transmission to fifth gear, slow to 23 mph, and set my Jake brake to all eight cylinders. A Jake brake is an air-compression inhibitor that turns my engine into the primary braking system. It sounds like a machine gun beneath my feet as it works to keep 70,000 pounds of steel and rubber under control. I watch the tachometer, which tells me my engine speed, and when it redlines at 2,200 rpm I’m at 28 mph. I brush the brakes to bring her back down to 23. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. My tender touch might cause the heavy trailer to slide away and I’ll be able to read the logo in reverse legend from my mirrors. It’s called a jackknife. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. In a jackknife the trailer comes all the way around, takes both lanes, and crushes against the cab until the whole thing comes to a crashing stop at the bottom of the abyss or against the granite side of the Rockies.
It doesn’t happen, this time, but the weather’s getting worse. I hit 28 again, caress the brake back down to 23, and start the sequence again. 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 it reads 80. At 60 an alarm will go off, and at 40 the brakes will automatically lock or just give up. Never mind that now, just don’t go past 28 and keep coaxing her back down to 23. I’ll do this twenty or thirty times over the next half an hour, never knowing if the trailer will hit a bit of ice, the air compressor will give up, the Jake will disengage, or someone will slam on the brakes in front of me. My CB radio is on (I usually turn it off on mountain passes), and I can hear the commentary from the big-truck drivers behind me.
“Yo, Joyce Van Lines, first time in the mountains? Get the f*** off the road! I can’t make any money at fifteen miles an hour!”
“Yo, Joyce, you from Connecticut? Is that in the Yewnited States? Pull into the f***** runaway ramp, asshole, and let some men drive.”
“Yo, Joyce, I can smell the mess in your pants from inside my cab.”
I’ve heard this patter many times on big-mountain roads. I’m not entirely impervious to the contempt of the freighthauling cowboys.
Toward the bottom, on the straightaway, they all pass me. There’s a Groendyke pulling gasoline, a tandem FedEx Ground, and a single Walmart. They’re all doing about 50 and sound their air horns as they pass, no doubt flipping me the bird. I’m guessing at that because I’m looking at the road. 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 sonofab**** who’s got brains enough to respect the mountains.
My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact. My cargo consists of a dozen or so crated modern art canvases, eight 600-pound granite gravestones of Qing Dynasty emperors, half a dozen king-size pillow-top beds I’ll never figure out how to assemble, and an assortment of Edwardian antiques. The man I’m moving, known in the trade as the shipper, has purchased a $25 million starter castle in a hypersecure Aspen subdivision. He figures, no doubt accurately, he’ll be safe behind the security booth from the impecunious widows and mendacious foreign creditors he ripped off, but I digress.
I’m looking downhill for brake lights. I can probably slow down, but there’s no chance of coming to a quick stop. If I slam on the brakes I’ll either crash through the vehicle in front of me or go over the side. I want to smoke a cigarette, but I’m so wound up I could never light it, so I bite off what’s left of my fingernails. I’m fifty-eight years old, and I’ve been doing this off and on since the late 1970s. I’ve seen too many trucks mashed on the side of the road, too many accidents, and too many spaced out-drivers. On Interstate 80 in Wyoming I watched a truck in front of me get blown over onto its side in a windstorm. He must have been empty. On I-10 in Arizona I saw a state trooper open the driver door of a car and witnessed a river of blood pour out onto the road.
The blood soaking into the pavement could be mine at any moment. All it takes is an instant of bad luck, inattention, a poor decision, equipment failure—or, most likely, someone else’s mistake.
If any of those things happen, I’m a dead man.
Those loud but lowly freighthaulers up on Loveland Pass would have mocked any big-truck driver going downhill as slowly as I was, but I’ve no doubt they were particularly offended because I was driving a moving van. To the casual observer all trucks probably look similar, and I suppose people figure all truckers do pretty much the same job. Neither is true. There’s a strict hierarchy of drivers, depending on what they haul and how they’re paid. The most common are the freighthaulers. They’re the guys who pull box trailers with any kind of commodity inside. We movers are called bedbuggers, and our trucks are called roach coaches. Other specialties are the car haulers (parking lot attendants), flatbedders (skateboarders), animal transporters (chicken chokers), refrigerated food haulers (reefers), chemical haulers (thermos bottle holders), and hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys). Bedbuggers are shunned by other truckers. We will generally not be included in conversations around the truckstop coffee counter or in the driver’s lounge. In fact, I pointedly avoid coffee counters, when there is one, mainly because I don’t have time to waste, but also because I don’t buy into the trucker myth that most drivers espouse. I don’t wear a cowboy hat, Tony Lama snakeskin boots, or a belt buckle doing free advertising for Peterbilt or Harley-Davidson. My driving uniform is a three-button company polo shirt, lightweight black cotton pants, black sneakers, black socks, and a cloth belt. My moving uniform is a black cotton jumpsuit.
I’m not from the South and don’t talk as if I were. Most telling, and the other guys can sense this somehow, I do not for a moment think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom or any other half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense.
Putting myth and hierarchy aside, I will admit to being immensely proud of my truck-driving skills, the real freedom I do have, and the certain knowledge that I make more money in a month than many of the guys around the coffee counter make in a year. The freighthaulers all know this, of course, and that’s one reason bedbuggers aren’t part of the brotherhood. It even trickles down to waitresses and cashiers. A mover waits longer for coffee, longer in the service bays, longer for showers, longer at the fuel desk, longer everywhere in the world of trucks than the freighthauler. It’s because we’re unknown. We don’t have standard routes, so we can’t be relied on for the pie slice and the big tip every Tuesday at ten thirty. We’re OK with being outside the fellowship because we know we’re at the apex of the pyramid. In or out of the trucking world, there are very few people who have what it takes to be a long-haul mover.
A typical day may have me in a leafy suburban cul-de-sac where landscapers have trouble operating a riding lawn mower, much less a 70-foot tractor-trailer. Another day may put me in the West Village of Manhattan navigating one-way streets laid out in the eighteenth century. Long-haul movers don’t live in the rarified world of broad interstate highways with sixty-acre terminals purpose-built for large vehicles. We’ve got to know how to back up just as well blind-side as driver-side; we’ve got to know to the millimeter how close we can U-turn the rig; and we’ve really got to know that when we go in somewhere we can get out again. A mundane morning’s backup into a residence for a mover will often require more skill, finesse, and balls than most freight-haulers might call upon in a year.
Since I now work for a boutique van line doing high-end executive moves, all of my work is what we call pack and load. That means I’m responsible for the job from beginning to end. My crew and I will pack every carton and load every piece. On a full-service pack and load, the shipper will do nothing. I had one last summer that was more or less typical: The shipper was a mining executive moving from Connecticut to Vancouver. I showed up in the morning with my crew of five veteran movers; the shipper said hello, finished his coffee, loaded his family into a limousine, and left for the airport. My crew then washed the breakfast dishes and spent the next seventeen hours packing everything in the house into cartons and loading the truck. At destination, another crew unpacked all the cartons and placed everything where the shipper wanted it, including dishes and stemware back into the breakfront. We even made the beds. We’re paid to do all this, of course, and this guy’s move cost his company $60,000. That move filled up my entire trailer and included his car. It was all I could do to fit the whole load on without leaving anything behind, but I managed it. I do remember having to put a stack of pads and a couple of dollies in my sleeper, though.
How well a truck is loaded is the acid test of a mover. I can look at any driver’s load and tell at a glance if he’s any good at all. Drivers are always comparing themselves to other drivers and always learning new tricks from each other. Often when sitting around over coffee or beers, preferably not at a truckstop, we’ll talk loading technique into the wee hours.
The basic unit of loading a moving van is called a tier. A tier is a wall of household goods assembled inside the van. My 53-foot moving van contains 4,200 cubic feet of space. Household goods average 7 pounds a cubic foot, so my truck can hold over 30,000 pounds. A standard tier is about 2 feet deep and goes across the truck 9 feet and up to the ceiling 10 ten feet, so a tier takes up 160 cubic feet. In a fully loaded van there will be twenty-five tiers each weighing 1,100 pounds, more or less.
When I arrive at a residence to begin a move, assuming I’ve gotten into the driveway and close to the house, the first thing I’ll do is prep the residence. My crew and I will lay pads and then Masonite on any wood floors, carpets will be covered with a sticky durable film that gets rolled out, and we’ll lay out neoprene runners throughout the house. Banisters and doorways will be padded with special gripping pads. Anything in the house that might get rubbed, scratched, banged, dented, or soiled is covered. Next, we’ll go around with the shipper to see exactly what is going and what is staying. Then we’ll pack everything in the house into cartons. I don’t love packing; it’s inside work and mostly tedious. I do enjoy packing stemware, china, sculpture, and fine art, but that stuff is getting rarer in American households. Books are completely disappearing. (Remember in Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman’s wife was addicted to interactive television and they sent fireman crews out to burn books? That mission has been largely accomplished in middle-class America, and they didn’t need the firemen. The interactive electronics took care of it without the violence.)
After packing, which usually takes at least a full day on a full load, I’ll write up an inventory where I put numbered stickers on everything that’s moving and jot a short description on printed sheets. The numbers all get checked off at destination so we know everything we loaded has been delivered. The inventory includes not only a description of the item but also its condition and any marks or damage. It’s essential for me to catalog the origin condition of an item in the event a shipper files a damage claim. A lot of criticism about movers has to do with how claims are handled. Moving companies require considerable documentation before paying a claim. Do you know why? It’s because so many people file bogus claims. Lots of folks want to get the moving company to pay for a refinishing job on Aunt Tillie’s antique vanity. Guess what? The moving company doesn’t pay these types of claims, nor does some nameless insurance company. The driver pays them. Me, personally, out of pocket. My deductible is $1,600 per move. That’s one reason why I’m going to be careful with your stuff, and it’s also why I’m going to write up an accurate inventory.
After prep and packing, the crew will break down beds, unbolt legs from tabletops, and basically take anything apart that comes apart. Next we’ll bring in stacks of moving pads and large rubber bands, and cover all the furniture. Padding furniture with rubber bands is a working-class art form. The bands are made by cutting up truck tire tubes into circles. Down south I’ll often see an old black man sitting on a bench at a truckstop cutting up tubes with his knife and putting them into piles. Fifty bands go for five dollars.
Upholstered pieces like sofas will be padded and then shrink-wrapped. Nothing on any of my jobs will ever leave the residence unpadded. The whole point is to minimize the potential for damage, thereby minimizing the potential for a claim. Movers don’t like claims. We don’t like to get them, we don’t like to deal with them, and we certainly don’t like to pay them.
After all this preparation, I’ll have a very clear idea how I’m going to load my truck. Smart drivers will always load problem pieces, called chowder, first. Chowder slows you down, takes up too much room, and is usually lightweight for the amount of space it takes up. Chowder also has a greater potential to damage goods loaded around it. Obviously I wouldn’t load a leather sofa next to a barbecue grill. All drivers hate chowder, but it’s a fact of life, and how you handle it is one of the things that separate good drivers from bad. The general loading rule is chowder first, cartons last.
Now I’m ready to start loading. I’ll start my tier with base pieces like a dresser and file cabinets. On top of the base I’ll load nightstands, small desks, and maybe an air conditioner. Now the tier is about eye level, with two rows of furniture going all the way across. The next level I’ll load end tables, small bookcases, and maybe a few cartons to keep it all tight. The next level I’ll lay some dining room chairs on their backs, starting with the armchairs and then interlocking the other chairs. Any open space in the tier gets filled with chowder like wastebaskets and small, light cartons. Now the tier is about eight feet high, and I’ll be up on a ladder. The next level will be light, bulky things such as laundry hampers, cushions, and plant racks. At this point there will be a few inches open to the roof, and I’ll finish the tier with maybe an ironing board and any other flat and light stuff I can find, like bed rails. When I’m finished I should have a uniform and neat tier from floor to ceiling with no gaps or open spaces anywhere.
A well-built tier is a beautiful thing to see and lots of fun to make. It’s basically a real-life, giant Tetris game with profound physical exertion incorporated into the mix. When I’m loading I go into a sort of trance because I’m totally focused on visualizing
everything in the house and mentally building tiers. This is one of the sweet spots where—as anyone who has done repetitive manual labor understands—the single-minded focus, concentration, and hard physical work combine to form a sort of temporary nirvana. Helpers who regularly work with the same driver will anticipate what piece the driver wants next before he even asks for it, and furniture will disappear into a tier the instant it’s brought out. This makes loading go very quickly, and it resembles nothing so much as an elegant, intimate dance between crew and driver. Because I have a picture of everything in the house in my head, I’ll often leave the truck to fetch a particular piece for a particular spot.
It’s hard work. On a standard loading day I’ll spend ten to fourteen hours either carrying something heavy, running laps up and down stairs to grab items, carrying furniture and cartons between the house and the trailer, and hopping up and down a double-sided stepladder building my tiers.
In addition to the mental and physical strain of packing, loading, and keeping my crew motivated, there is also the presence of the shipper. Shippers are frequently not at their best on moving day. They are, after all, leaving their home and consigning all their possessions over to strangers. Shippers can be testy, upset, suspicious, downright hostile, and occasionally pleasant and relaxed. It’s the driver’s job, in addition to loading and carrying, to make sure everything and everybody runs smoothly.
To put it all in a nutshell, the long-haul driver is responsible for legal documents, inventory, packing cartons, loading, claim prevention, unpacking, unloading, diplomacy, human resources, and customer service. The job requires an enormous amount of physical stamina, specialized knowledge, and tact. I am, as John McPhee called it, the undisputed admiral of my fleet of one.
My share of that Vancouver job came to around $30,000 for ten days’ work. I had to pay the labor, of course, and my fuel and food. Still, I netted more than $20,000. A first-year freighthauler for an outfit like Swift or Werner won’t make that in a year.
I guess that’s worth being insulted in the mountains by my brethren.
The long-haul driver portrayed above is the kind of guy you want moving you. That’s me, nowadays. There are lots of guys like me out there and lots of a different kind. I’ve been both. My own baptism into life as a driver for a major van line was not smooth. I was nervous and cocky when I first got on the road. Those might appear to be contradictory characteristics, but they are not for a twenty-one-year-old white American male from the suburbs who’s operating way out of his element. Before I was taken on at North American Van Lines, I’d worked several summers as a local mover. I was known as a hard worker, which made me cocky, but was out on the road all alone, which made me nervous. I was consumed with getting the day’s work done, getting the next load, and making the monthly revenue goals I’d set for myself. I was careless loading and unloading and extremely touchy with both shippers and helpers. I was in over my head. At the ripe old age of twenty-one I shouldn’t have been doing that job, given my emotional maturity. The fact that I was there says a lot about the moving business. The industry will pretty much take anyone willing to do the work. I was willing enough, but lacking the other qualities that make for a good mover or a good truck driver. Almost forty years later, I am a calm, meticulous, and imperturbable driver. I am highly sought after and exorbitantly paid. That didn’t happen overnight.
You’re about to go out on the road with me, a long-haul mover. It’s a road uncongested by myth. You’ll see the work, meet the families I move, and visit with the people who populate this subculture. You’ll smell the sweat, drink in the crummy bars, eat the disgusting food, manage an unruly labor pool, and meet some strange people. But I hope you’ll also experience the exhilaration and the attraction, of the life…out there.
You’ll also see what really happens behind the scenes when a family calls in the van line to pursue that all-powerful American imperative: The Next Big Thing. More than forty million Americans move every year. Careful people, who lock their doors, carry umbrellas, and install alarm systems, casually and routinely consign everything they own over to “the movers” without a second thought.
I find that a bit odd, don’t you?
Come on, let’s take a little ride.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.