Uncommon Carriers

by John A. McPhee

Hardcover, 248 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $24 | purchase

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Uncommon Carriers
Author
John A. McPhee

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Book Summary

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.The author recounts his experiences with freight transportation workers he has encountered during rides between Atlanta and Tacoma, from an eighteen-wheel hazmat tank operator to the skipper of a twenty-foot scale model of an ocean liner.

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Excerpt: Uncommon Carriers

Excerpted from Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. Copyright © 2006 by John McPhee. Published in June 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

A Fleet of One
 
The little four-wheelers live on risk. They endanger themselves. They endangered us. If you're in a big truck, they're around you like gnats. They're at their worst in the on-ramps of limited-access highways, not to mention what they do on horse-and-buggy highways. They do the kissing tailgate. They do passing moves over double yellow lines. They make last-second break-ins from stop signs on feeder roads. The way they are operated suggests insufficiency in, among other things, coördination, depth perception, and rhythm. When I went to bad-driver school, the opening lecturer did not imply any such flaws in his students. He was a real bear. He wore blue-and-yellow trousers and a badge. In a voice he fired like a .45, he began by asking us, "How many of you people think you're good drivers?"
 
We had all been singled out in four-wheelers. My own car had a tendency to ignore stop signs without previously sensing the presence of bears. It lapsed in other ways as well. After I reached twelve points, I was offered admission to the New Jersey Driver Improvement Program, on the following voluntary basis: enroll or lose your license. Among the twenty-five people in the class, two smart-asses stuck up their hands in positive response to the instructor's question. He looked them over, then swept the room. "Well, you must all be good drivers," he said. "If you weren't, you'd be dead."
 
Then he darkened the room and rolled a film showing cars hitting cars in on-ramps. A, looking left, accelerates. B, looking left, accelerates. B rear-ends A, because A hesitated, and B was still looking to the left. This primal accident, the figure eight of bad driving, was the base of a graphic montage that ended in high-speed collision and hideous death on the road.
 
These memories of bad-driver school ran through me in eastern Oregon after Don Ainsworth, at the wheel of his sixty-five-foot chemical tanker, gave some air horn to a step van that was coming fast up an on-ramp on a vector primed for a crash. A step van is a walk-in vehicle of the UPS variety, and, like all other four-wheelers, from Jettas to Jaguars, in Ainsworth's perspective is not a truck. FedEx, Wonder Bread, Soprano Sand-and-Gravel—they're not trucks, they're four-wheelers, even if they have six wheels. A true truck has eighteen wheels, or more. From Atlanta and Charlotte to North Powder, Oregon, this was the first time that Ainsworth had so much as tapped his air horn. In the three thousand one hundred and ninety miles I rode with him he used it four times. He gave it a light, muted blast to thank a woman in a four-wheeler who helped us make a turn in urban traffic close to our destination, and he used it twice in the Yakima Valley, flirting with a woman who was wearing a bikini. She passed us on I-82, and must have pulled over somewhere, because she passed us again on I-90. She waved both times the horn erupted. She was riding in a convertible and her top was down.
 
If the step van had hit us it would only have been inconvenient, the fact notwithstanding that we were hauling hazmats. The step van weighed about ten thousand pounds and we weighed eighty thousand pounds, minus a few ounces. Ainsworth said he could teach a course called On-Ramp 101. "We get many near-misses from folks who can't time their entry. They give you the finger. Women even give you the finger. Can you believe it?"
 
I could believe it.
 
"Four-wheelers will pass us and then pull in real fast and put on their brakes for no apparent reason," he said. "Four-wheelers are not aware of the danger of big trucks. They're not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you're likely to die. I'm not going to die. You are."
 
We happened to be approaching Deadman Pass. We were crossing the Blue Mountains—on I-84, the Oregon Trail. He said, "Before you know it, we'll be sitting on top of Cabbage. Then we're going to fall down." He had mentioned Cabbage Hill when we were still in the Great Divide Basin. He mentioned it again in Pocatello. After crossing into Oregon and drawing closer, he brought it up twice an hour. "It's the terrific hill we fall down before we come to Pendleton. Pretty treacherous. Switchbacks. Speed restricted by weight. You'll see guys all the time with smoke flying out the brakes or even a flameout at the bottom."
 
From the Carolina piedmont to Hot Lake, Oregon—across the Appalachians, across the Rockies—he had not put his foot on the brake pedal on any descending grade. In harmony with shrewd gear selection, this feat was made possible by Jake Brakes—a product of Jacobs Vehicle Systems, of Bloomfield, Connecticut. Ainsworth called the device "a retarder, generically—you're turning a diesel engine into an air compressor." On a grade we descended in Tennessee, he said, "If you choose your gear right, and your jake's on maxi, you can go down a hill with no brakes. It saves money. It also lengthens my life." Crossing the summit of the Laramie Range and addressing the western side, he geared down from twelfth to eighth and said, "I won't use one ounce of brake pressure. The jake is on maxi." As big trucks flew past us—dry boxes, reefers—he said, "These guys using brakes with improper gear selection don't own the tractor or the trailer. Using brakes costs money, but why would they care?" Ainsworth owns the tractor and the trailer. As he glided onto the Laramie Plains, he went back up to eighteenth gear: "the going- home gear, the smoke hole; when you got into this gear in the old days, your stacks would blow smoke." On a grade at Hot Lake, however, he tried fifteenth gear, and his foot had to graze the pedal. He seemed annoyed with himself, like a professional golfer who had chosen the wrong club.
 
And now we were about to "fall down Cabbage." In ten miles, we would drop two thousand feet, six of those miles on a six-per-cent grade. Through basaltic throughcuts we approached the brink. A sign listed speed limits by weight. If you weighed sixty thousand to sixty-five thousand pounds, your limit was thirty-seven miles an hour. In five-thousand-pound increments, speed limits went down to twenty-six and twenty-two. Any vehicle weighing seventy-five thousand pounds or more—e.g., this chemical tanker—was to go eighteen or under. A huge high view with Pendleton in it suddenly opened up. I had asked Ainsworth what makes a tractor-trailer jackknife. He had said, "You're going downhill. The trailer is going faster than the tractor. The trailer takes over. It's almost impossible to bring yourself out of it. Brakes won't do anything for you. It's a product of going too fast for the situation. It can happen on a flat highway, but nine times out of ten it's downhill." The escarpment was so steep that the median widened from a few feet to one and a half miles as the northbound and southbound lanes negotiated independent passage. Ainsworth had chosen eighth gear. He said, "Most truckers would consider this way too conservative. That doesn't mean they're bright." Oregon is the only American state in which trucks are speed-restricted by weight. Feet off both pedals, he started the fall down Cabbage praising the truck for "good jake" and himself for "nice gear selection." My ears thickened and popped.
 
"Six per cent is serious," he said. "I've seen some sevens or eights. British Columbia drivers talk about tens and twelves."
 
In two strategic places among the broad looping switchbacks were escape ramps, also known as arrester beds, where a brakeless runaway truck—its driver "mashing the brake pedal and it feels like a marshmallow"—could leave the road and plow up a very steep incline on soft sandy gravel. In winter, the gravel may not be soft. Ainsworth recalled a trucker in Idaho who hit a frozen ramp. His load, bursting through from behind, removed his head. On Cabbage Hill, deep fresh tracks went up an arrester bed several hundred feet. After trucks use a bed, it has to be re- groomed. The state charges grooming fees. Some drivers, brakeless and out of control, stay on the highway and keep on plunging because they don't want to pay the grooming fees. Ainsworth said, "Would you worry about your life or the God- damned grooming fee?"
 
He was asking the wrong person.
 
A little later, he said, "Bears will roost at the bottom here."
 
Fulfilling the prediction, two cars were in ambush in the median where the grade met the plain. Wheat fields filled the plain—endless leagues of wheat, big combines moving through the wheat, houses far out in the wheat concealed within capsules of trees. We passed a couple of dry boxes, both of them Freightliners. Among truckers, they are also known as Freightshakers. "What's the difference between a Jehovah's Witness and the door on a Freightliner?" Ainsworth said.
 
I said I didn't happen to know.
 
He said, "You can close a door on a Jehovah's Witness."
 
We crossed the Columbia River and went over the Horse Heaven Hills into the Yakima Valley, apples and grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills, gators in the valley. To avoid a gator he swung far right, over rumble bars along the shoulder. A gator is a strip of tire, dead on the road, nearly always a piece of a recap. "A gator can rip off your fuel-crossover line, punch in your bumper, bomb out a fender."
 
The Yakima River was deeply incised and ran in white water past vineyards and fruit trees, among windbreaks of Lombardy poplars. Hops were growing on tall poles and dangling like leis. There was so much beauty in the wide valley it could have been in Italy. Now, through high haze, we first saw the Cascades. On our route so far, no mountain range had been nearly as impressive. We had slithered over the Rockies for the most part through broad spaces. Now we were looking at a big distant barrier, white over charcoal green, its highest visible point the stratovolcano Mt. Adams. We met three new Kenworths coming east—three connected tractors without trailers. One was hauling the other two, both of which had their front wheels up on the back of the tractor ahead of them. They looked like three dogs humping. It was here that we were first passed by the scant bikini in an open Porsche, here that Ainsworth touched his horn for the second time on the journey. I was marginally jealous that he could look down into that bikini while I, on the passenger side, was served rumble bars in the pavement. I had long since asked him what sorts of things he sees in his aerial view of four- wheelers. "People reading books," he answered. "Women putting on makeup. People committing illicit acts. Exhibitionist women like to show you their treasures. A boyfriend is driving. She drops her top."
 
We skirted Yakima city. " 'Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington,' " Ainsworth said. "That was written by a guy on laughing gas." He reached for his CB microphone. "Eastbounders, there's a pair of bears waiting for you. They're down there right before the flats." Now ahead of us was a long pull up North Umptanum Ridge. "We're going to give 'em hell," he said. In the left lane, he took the big tanker up to eighty-three, pressing for advantage on the climb. He was in the fast lane to overtake a flatbed hauling fifty thousand pounds of logs. The distance had almost closed; we were practically counting tree rings when the logging truck began to sway. It weaved right and then left and two feet into our lane. Ainsworth said, "Oh, my goodness!"
 
Ordinarily, I tend to be nervous if I am riding in a car driven by someone else. Like as not, the someone else is Yolanda Whitman, to whom I am married. On trips, we divide the driving time. I make her nervous and she makes me nervous. She was a student in bad-driver school in the same year that I was. While she is at the wheel, I sometimes write letters. I ask the recipients to "excuse my shaky penmanship," and explain that I am "riding in a badly driven car." Coast to coast with Don Ainsworth was as calm an experience as sitting in an armchair watching satellite pictures of the earth. In only three moments did anxiety in any form make a bid for the surface. None had to do with his driving. The first was over the Mississippi River on the bridge to St. Louis—the big arch in the foreground, the water far below—where we seemed to be driving on a high wire with no protection visible beside us, just a void of air and a deep fall to the river. The second was in St. Joseph, where we swung through town on I-229 for a look at the Missouri River, and the narrow roadway, on high stilts, was giddy, a flying causeway convex to the waterfront. Falling down Cabbage Hill, concern for safety hadn't crossed my mind. And now this big logger was bringing up a third and final shot of adrenaline. We got by tightly. The driver was smoking something.
 
The ridges were dry in that part of Washington—rainfall less than eight inches a year. At elevations under three thousand feet, the ridges were not notably high—certainly not with the Pacific Crest becoming ever more imminent at twelve, thirteen, fourteen thousand feet. We made another long pull, over Manastash Ridge, and drifted down from the brown country into another paradise of irrigation—instant Umbria, just add water. It was a dazzling scene, the green valley of hay, wheat, and poplars; and here the string bikini passed us again, goosed by the air horn and waving. By Cle Elum, we were pulling at the mountains themselves—less than a hundred miles from Seattle and approaching Snoqualmie Pass. Listening to his engine climb, Ainsworth called it "operatic."