McPhee's books are about real people in real places. Over the past eight years, McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. This is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. He attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the Illinois River on a "towboat" pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being "a good deal longer than the Titanic." And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.--From publisher description.
What are the odds? I was reading how UPS perfected a sorting technology known only to them, right before he rang the doorbell. I quote, “The technology is not new, but nowhere else in the world is it used on this scale, including Memphis.” Could he see the guilt in my eyes as he handed me a package from relatives?
FedEx experienced their biggest day of the year December 18, 2006, a Monday before Christmas, when 9.8 million packages shipped to satisfy our gift giving needs. That is an alarming amount of L.L. Bean robes, Pottery Barn initialed towels, and Harry & David fruit baskets.
According to author McPhee, the busiest day to ship lobsters by UPS is Christmas Eve. Apparently, the traditional Christmas dinner in France is not turkey, but fresh lobster. In the chapter titled “Out in the Sort,” there are more crustaceans flying in 757s to Paris than humans.
Uncommon Carriers is the story of our nation’s freight transportation system. Short articles include how 18-wheelers transport hazardous material from coast to coast, how tow boats maneuver barges on the Mississippi River, how fuel tankers handle the open sea, how trains with miles of coal cars ascend a grade, and how lobsters fly.
Each article, first written for The New Yorker, provides fascinating information about men and women who navigate uncommon carriers. McPhee shadows major players like Don Ainsworth, a true “road” scholar, who’s shiny, chemical-tanker truck carries “hazmats.”
Unfortunately, the chapter, “Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” isn’t about movement of freight, but about the passage of time as McPhee and his brother recreate Henry David Thoreau and his brother’s canoe trip in 1839. Even a fanatic Thoreau fan will find this article a little slow.
This book is an enjoyable read filled with unique phraseology, slang and manly banter. Now, if I could just swap my FedEx box from Crate & Barrel with a Clearwater Seafoods' lobster.
Uncommon Carriers has McPhee's signature wry humor, lucid explanations of complex systems, and jargon that manages to give a great feel for how professionals - truck drivers, barge pilots, train conductors - actually speak and think about their work and lives. I found this book less interesting than others he has written - especially the Control of Nature, Annals of the Former World, and Encounters with the Archdruid - but it was well worth the read.
"Out in the Sort" & "A Fleet of One" are excellent. Not so the "Ships of Port Revel", too much technical information that can make the readers eyes glaze over, much like I find McPhee's books on geology. "Tight Assed River" doesn't give the reader a good sense of what is happening or why. "Five Days" is a personal canoe trip that maybe touches historical commercial transportation in New England.
All in all, a fun read, recommended for all looking for information on the vital area of freight transportation.
He travels with a long-haul trucker delivering dangerous chemicals, hitches a ride on a mile-long coal train, lives aboard a river towboat that's longer than the Titanic, and spends time writing about other transportation oddities.
Though his stream of consciousness style sometimes tires the eye, McPhee's essays are engrossing, and his ability to quickly capture the essence of the real-life characters who inhabit them is exceptional.
What ages would I recommend it too? – Ten and up.
Length? – Several days.
Characters? – Memorable, several characters.
Setting? – Real World across the U.S.
Written approximately? – 2006.
Does the story leave questions in the readers mind? – Ready to read more.
Any issues the author (or a more recent publisher) should cover? No.
Short storyline: A descriptive trek around the world by truck, train, and boat, with a visit to the UPS hub to discuss plane travel as well.
However the material if very interesting. So many things I didn't realize about UPS, Trains and Tug Boats.
I love going to locks on the Mississippi and watching the towboats shepherd their charges down the river and through the locks. Another good site to watch is Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois river. Here's my review on the towboat going down the Illinois section of McPhee's book:
The Illinois River is third in freight carried, following the Mississippi and the Ohio. It's a relatively straight river except for some "corkscrew" bends near Pekin. The barges that navigate the Illinois can be huge. The Billy Joe Boling that McPhee is riding (some people get all the fun) is pushing a toe longer than the new Queen Mary 2, the longest ocean liner ever built. Maneuvering such a "vessel" takes skill and sang-froid. At its widest point, this collection of barges and towboat is four times longer than the river's 300 foot width. The Illinois is an autocthonous river (a word I learned from Founding Fish but will probably forget) beginning not far from Chicago.
This particular barge string has fifteen barges wired together carrying pig iron, steel and fertilizer. The ones with pig iron appear empty, but the iron is so heavy and the river channel only nine feet deep at its minimum, that the barges can only be loaded to about 10 per cent of capacity. The steel cable holding the barges together is about an inch thick and the deck hands need to constantly monitor the tension of the wire.. The barges and tug at the stern become almost a rigid unit. The pilot has to steer this mass carefully between railroad bridge pilings and other obstructions. The pilot "is steering the Queen Mary up an undersized river and he is luxuriating in six feet of clearnace." Meanwhile at the stern, behind the stern rail of the towboat, only ten feet away, is the riverbank. This assumes no unusual current changes.
On the Mississippi, a tow can consists of as many as forty-nine barges and be two hundred and fifty feet wide. When they arrive at the Illinois, the consist needs to be broken up into smaller groups. Just by way of comparison, a fifteen barge tow can carry as much as 870 eighteen wheelers on the highway.
All captains have to start as deckhands, and it's not unstressful. One physician who had been asked to study how pilots and captains handled stress, had to leave the boat because he couldn't handle the stress. The river is rarely empty and you can count on being approached by another thousand-foot tow coming at you down the river. Downstream tows always have the right of way. Hold spots, where a tow can be headed into the bank to wait for a downstream tow to pass, are plotted ahead of time and serve like railroad sidings. There is no dispatcher and the captains call traffic themselves announcing their location.
A large tow will burn about one gallon each two hundred feet or twenty-four hundred gallons of diesel fuel per day. Measured by fuel consumed per ton-mile, barges are "two and a half times more efficient than a freight train, nearly nine times more efficient than a truck."
There aren't too many locks on the Illinois as the river drops only about ninety feet, but watching a tow go through one can provide hours of entertainment. I remember sitting at the lock across from Starved Rock State Park as a long tow broke into two sections to get through the lock.
Unfortunately, pleasure boat operators being "ignorant, ignorant, ignorant," accidents happen. Much like train engineers, towboat captains fear boaters who won't get out of the way. It's impossible to steer around a small boat and the prop wash and propeller suction can be lethal to the unwary.
and the section on trains: Driving a train would seem simple enough: you push the lever forward and off you go. Not so. Coal trains, of which just one power plant in Georgia requires 3 fully loaded trains per day to keep running, are usually more than one and one-half miles long and weigh 34,000 tons. They are by far the heaviest trains on the rails. The train is so long that the engine in front (these trains must have engines in front and back and often in the middle as well to adjust the strain on the couplers) will often be applying the brakes going down hill while the engines in back are pushing the cars still going up the other side of the rise. They can't go up hills, per se. A slop of even 1.5% makes the engines work hard.
Twenty-three thousand coal trains leave the Powder River basin every year; that's thirty-four thousand miles of rolling coal in a never ending stream of coal for power plants. The Powder River basin coal generates less heat, i.e. fewer BTU's than eastern coal, but it has a much lower sulfur content so following stricter environmental regulations eastern mines have been dying while western ones are thriving. That's where the railroads come in.
Plant Scherer in Georgia, a large power plant, usually has a one-million-ton pile of coal in reserve. To understand the revived interest in nuclear power, that pile generates the equivalent of one truckload of mined uranium. "To get a million BTUs, fuel oil costs nine dollars (before recent price increases,) natural gas six dollars, coal one-dollar-eighty-five, and nuclear fifty cents."
"Plant Scherer burns the contents of thirteen hundred coal trains per year -- two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming." The plant requires twelve thousand acres to store, process and burn the coal. Think about that the next time you turn the lights on.