Uncommon carriers

by John McPhee, 1931-

Hardcover, 2006




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2006.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member maggiereads
It was 4:45 p.m. on a sunny, 70-degree, Friday afternoon, when I emerged from Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee to find a FedEx deliveryman at my door. Did he know I was just reading about his competitor, UPS? Was he here in my driveway to chastise me for being unfaithful?

What are the odds? I was
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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.
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LibraryThing member jbushnell
Take a topic which is inherently fascinating (the inner workings of America's transportation industry), and then hand it over to "writer's writer" John McPhee, with his unerring eye for illuminating detail, and his unerring ear for unusual turns of phrase, and the result is absolute delight.
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Steering a barge, braking a locomotive, getting a package through UPS: McPhee handles them all with great elan, rendering them accessible to the mind of the reader without sacrificing an iota of their boggling complexity. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member thorold
McPhee spends time with people whose job it is to move freight around the United States: the owner-driver of an eighteen-wheeler truck, towboat captains on the Illinois River, and coal-train-drivers on the Union Pacific. He also investigates how UPS sends parcels across the whole country from a
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huge distribution centre in Kentucky (including live lobsters from Nova Scotia).

For a change in pace, there's a description of a canoe trip he took to retrace the 1839 journey of the Thoreau brothers on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And a visit to the Port-Revel ship-handling training centre in the French Alps, famous (although McPhee doesn't mention this) as the place where Depardieu's character worked in the late Truffaut film La femme d'à côté.

McPhee has been doing this sort of thing for a very long time, and of course he's also trained several generations of younger writers to do it, so it's all very smooth and professional, he has asked the right questions of everyone he meets on his journeys, and he mostly seems to have understood the technical aspect of what they do very well and explains it clearly. But somehow he doesn't seem very involved. He gives us the facts about the way the Powder River Basin is being dug up and shipped east in thousands of trainloads every year to be burnt to power people's TVs and air conditioners, for example, or the way UPS bribes young people to come and work for it with college courses they will probably never finish, and he allows us to suspect that these might not be altogether good things, but he never actually says so. We've got used to a more engaged style of travel-writing, perhaps.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This is a great book for geeks who like to know all the useless details of how the world operates, in this case American trucking, coal trains, river barges and UPS/FedEx. It's like having a Rube Goldberg machine described by a witty and folksy uncle. I'm not sure McPhee entirely succeeds in
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describing complex machinery, sometimes it works and sometimes not, there are one or two sentences and on to the next thing, many times I could not visualize what he was talking about. Overall though a delightful book, the first chapter about trucking is best, probably followed by the coal train in the last.
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LibraryThing member jcvogan1
The chapter about Thoreau's canal trip was well written and interesting from a local heritage perspective but it was out of place and definitely not why I picked up the book in the first place.
LibraryThing member kd9
Being a long distance trucker or training to captain ocean going vessels or seeing the insides of the UPS hub in Louisville is quite exciting. Unfortunately the narrator has to give you a sense of place and time, much like Bill Bryson does. McPhee is no Bryson. In fact he is one of the worst
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writers I have read in some time. Is this the New Yorker effect? Throw the readers into the middle of a situation, ramble about for a bit, then stop; stop without any conclusion or wrap up. If these essays were submitted to an SAT test, they would not even pass. Yes, you will meet some fascinating characters with some very fascinating jobs, but in the end it is all most forgettable. That is unfortunate because these people deserve a better scribe.
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LibraryThing member jtlauderdale
I read a borrowed copy of this about a year ago. It's surprising how often information from this book enlightens what I hear and read about in the news. I have mentioned it to my husband more than once as an authority for explaining situations we see while driving along the interstate system,
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viewing barge traffic along a major river, seeing a coal train go past, etc. I'll never look at a tanker truck in the same way again. It's a short book, well worth the time to read it.
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Uneven, for McPhee. Uncommon Carriers shows the faults in publishing collected New Yorker pieces.

"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
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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.
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LibraryThing member SnoopingBunny
A interesting look at how goods are moved from place to place in America. The reader ends up educated on the topic, but also entertained with meeting different characters along the way, as McPhee travels through the country on his investigation.
LibraryThing member ecw0647
I loved this book. I actually read the sections when they appeared in The New Yorker. I assume few changes were made. McPhee must have the best job in the world getting to ride with an over-the-road trucker across the United States; traveling down the Illinois River on a towboat and linked barges
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(something I've always really wanted to do down the Mississippi with a friend of mine]; and following freight trains from the cab. Talk about your Walter Mitty! His articles and books are filled with juicy little tidbits of detail that I just love reading about.

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.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
This is a highly personalized account that explores for-hire transportation in the U.S. We have pieces on barge traffic, railroads, and in the longest and most interesting part, Mr. McPhee rides shotgun with an owner-operator pulling a chemical trailer around America. Operational and economic
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details abound here, and after 25 years in the trucking industry, I learned some new stuff in Mr. McPhee's engaging treatment. We also get entertaining travels on a barge, and a curious segment covering a canoe trip in Massachusetts, which I'm not sure belongs.

All in all, a fun read, recommended for all looking for information on the vital area of freight transportation.
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LibraryThing member AprilBrown
Notes for the reader: From the title, I was expecting something a bit different. This book does not fit the definition of fiction, and yet was almost more satisfying in many ways than much of fiction today. My biggest issue was when the author would become lost and use a string of incomprehensible
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and unrecognizable words gleaned from a thesaurus, and not everyday talk. And yet, he made most of the different modes of transportation as readable as possible to a person who had no background in planes, trains, ships, or canoes.

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.
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LibraryThing member nx74defiant
As a narrator the author has a flat, dry narration.

However the material if very interesting. So many things I didn't realize about UPS, Trains and Tug Boats.
LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
Meh. An assortment of essays, all vaguely (some very vaguely) linked to transportation and cargo. Each one is at least mildly interesting (it is John McPhee, after all), but despite attempts to connect them (the chemical trucker delivered stuff to the coal mine!), overall there's no real theme or
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direction or...anything to make this a book and not a random collection of essays. One of my favorites is a trip replicating (as well as possible) one taken by a young Thoreau, and written up in his (Thoreau's) first published book. McPhee mentions frequently Thoreau's habit of digressing from the line of events to cover some interesting, but not really related subject - and that's pretty much what this book feels like, a collection of digressions. Mildly enjoyable, but I doubt I'll bother to reread.
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LibraryThing member TCWriter
McPhee joins unusual cargo carriers as they transport huge quantities of goods from one point to another.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bobfitz
I'm admittedly a sucker for this kind of book, but I found it fascinating and very readable. For instance, did you know that at any point in time there are 35 coal trains, each a mile and a half long, between Wyoming and a power plant in Georgia. Or that an estimated 6 BILLION gallons of diesel
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fuel is required each year to keep the nation's long haul trucks warm or cool while the drivers get in their daily 10 hour rest period. Where else would you get such information!
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LibraryThing member caedocyon
Totally fascinating. I bring it up in conversation frequently.



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