Uncommon Carriers

ISBN: 0374280398
ISBN 13: 9780374280390
By: John McPhee

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About this book

What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation. Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers 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. McPhee 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 "tight-assed" 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.Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author's warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character.

Reader's Thoughts


I'd really give this 3.5 stars. There are 6 parts/chapters in which McPhee travels along with operators of a semi-truck, two parts on barges/tows, a coal train, inside the UPS hub, and one incongruent chapter on a trip up the Merrimack River in a canoe, retracing the steps of HD Thoreau. That part was uncharacteristically poorly written, and didn't fit in at all with the remainder of the book; one wonders if the loose pages of his journal accidentally got sent into the publisher... The parts on transportation involving semis, coal trains, and the UPS hub were very interesting and well written, however, were more choppy and left you wanting a more thorough reading. The parts on the tows/barges were not as clear to me as I would have liked, I felt a little lost in all the terminology, without ample explanation. Overall this could have been a much better book had the canoe trip been tossed out, and had much more depth been added to the whole thing. Not one of McPhee's finest, though it did have a lot of potential. This was my first McPhee book that was not directly or indirectly geology related, and while it didn't quite meet my expectations, I don't think I will give up on him. His ability to make anything and everything interesting is truly amazing.


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 (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.

Bob Cipriani

This overview is from the Book jacket. My admiration for John McPhee's books are expressed in my review of 'The Control of Nature'.Jacket overview: "Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers 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. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of theFrench 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 “tight-assed” 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.Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author’s warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character."This is one of my very favorites of his 29 books.


This author, John McPhee, has pretty cool articles in The New Yorker.Based on those articles he has expanded them into a book.McPhee travels with truck drivers, barge captains, Train Engineers and more, to write about everything involved in how products and resourses make their way to their destinations. Who new how much stuff you have to learn to be a truck driver or how complicated it is to navigate a barge down the Illinois or Mississippi rivers?It's a very interesting read and entertaing to boot.Some people find McPhee's writing a little to thick with insider jargon, but it's kinda fun to me to find out what those words mean and thusly better understand the inner workings of stuff.

Adam Carlson

a really interesting look at the lives of people we don't often interact with. there were real nuggets. like the section one about Dan Ainsworth, chemical tanker driver. after reading the omnivore's dillemna, i particularly liked reading about UPS and its globalized methods of shipping one box, before 9/11, from one floor on the world trade center to UPS's central shipping facility, in kentucky, back to a different floor in the world trade center. the people in this book are heroic people with amazing skills. but mcphee doesn't tie the whole story together. it ends rather abruptly. some sections were either too technical or just too slow. and the section on canoing up the merrimack river, just like thoreau, just shouldn't have been in the book.


Non-fiction descriptions of chemical tankers, coal trains, 747's filled with lobsters, and minature tanker liners. It was funny and indulged my curiosity without talking down to me.


I worked myself up to a three star state on this book. I have to say, it is not what I expected. At one point, I was trying to recall what venue recommended the book, and eschew further recommendations from that venue. Thirty or so page digression on Henry David Thoreau was not in my expectations. The author, in this book, was well honed in transitionless writing.On the other hand, there were so many interesting aspects in most of the sections (notwithstanding digressions from what I thought the topic was). For the time and effort invested in the research and preparation, it would have been nice if the the author invested some time in writing a narrative that flowed, rather than what seemed in so many places like free associations on a topic.


I wouldn't characterize this as a badly written book overall, but I will say that I lost interest at many points in the narrative. The book follows his journeys with various freight carriers, such as a chemical tanker, a tow boat on the Illinois River, coal trains in and around Wyoming, truckloads and then plane-loads of lobsters from Canada, and least interestingly (to me) a canoe in New England, tracing a route taken by Thoreau. I found the parts about trucking to be very enlightening (I will be sure to remember them on my next roadtrip), and the truck driver that McPhee rode along with was quite a character. Also, the daily function of the Union Pacific railroad was pretty fascinating. I had never really thought about what would happen if you were driving a 1.5 mile long train up and then down a peak. Even though the grades for trains that length are never steep, the idea of having to put the brakes on the front of the train, while accelerating the rear is pretty terrifying. Then there was a chapter about people learning how to maneuver large ships in a scale model of the ocean, on scaled down ships, even with scaled down people on the docks, in the middle of the French Alps, which SOUNDS like a fun read but for me was very boring. I also could have done without the chapter about tow-boating, although that also sounds like a very challenging trade, and the idea of constantly moving and having smaller boats deliver meals and things to you en route was pretty cool. By far the least interesting to me was the Thoreau chapter. Although it appears that the river being navigated in the canoe was (is?) used for freight, neither the author's trip nor Thoreau's were actually for this purpose. I see it as a very narcissistic essay that McPhee decided to throw into the book because he is a Thoreau fan and thought it was cool that he'd taken the same boat trip as his idol. Not surprisingly, to those of us reading the book to learn more about the way freight moves around the world and the people who move it, this was not as cool as he had thought it would be.My favorite section began by following thousands of lobsters on their journey from cold-water holding tanks in Nova Scotia to restaurants all over the world, via UPS headquarters in Kentucky. The descriptions of the UPS hub in Louisville are amazing. It sounds like some enormous hotwheels track, with packages whirling about and being directed by computers and sometimes college students. Even more interesting was the revelation that UPS has its own college program and helps students attend if they work at this hub. Although all the people McPhee interviewed seemed to think this was a great deal, to me it sounded exhausting. In order to attend class during the day, one would need to work at night, with sometimes only three hours of sleep, and all this for $8 per hour. I suppose to alot of people this is still a good deal, and particularly outside of California, where one could actually make use of such a salary, but I'm not sure I would be able to cope. Anyhow, as it turns out, in addition to shipping things and educating people, UPS also stores parts for all kinds of products, including Bentleys and Rolls Royces, manages the inventory and shipping for companies such as the one that makes baseball bats for the Major League, AND actually repairs and services many products, including Toshiba computers! That's right, if you own a Toshiba and it needs fixing, somebody at UPS will probably fix it for you, and then send it right back! Who knew?Ultimately, although I cannot call John McPhee a poor writer, this book is definitely all over the place, and not well organized. Essay by essay, each one has its merit, but I am not sure they belong in a collection like this. I can say for sure that by the end of this year, this book will be closer to the bottom of my list than the top.Addendum: I increased my rating of this book because it has actually stuck with me more than I expected after my initial reading. I find myself referring to it often, and I have recommended it to numerous friends over the years.

Janet Kincaid

Once again, John McPhee takes a subject--in this case, commerce transportation in the U.S.--and waxes both poetical/lyrical and erudite/dull. McPhee writes about traveling with a long-haul, hazardous materials trucker, cruising up the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers on barges, and sitting at a standstill on the wide open plains of the Midwest in Union Pacific train engines. As always, his writing is vivid and it's easy to picture the people (really, characters) and places he's describing. And, if you grew up in the intermountain west where trains are still a living, moving element of the landscape, he restores to your memory images of miles-long trains against desert backdrops that make you homesick for the vistas of Wyoming and Utah. While this wasn't a great book, for that alone, I give him four stars!


Uncommon Carriers invites readers to spend a day in the life of a truck drivers, ocean-going cargo ship and riverbound freight tugboat pilots, train engineers, UPS aviators, and -- just for good measure -- pleasure-canoers sailing the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Aside from the odd inclusion of his retracing Henry David Thoreau's oar-beats, the work is part human interest and part-inside look into the transportation service that keeps the world of goods going round. Some sections are more useful to the latter end than others; his chapter on cargo ship pilots takes place at a training school off the coast of France, and communicates the difficulty of moving across something that has a mind of its own, but nothing about the business of commercial freight. The chapters on river freight and UPS more conducive to understanding the ins and outs of the industry. What Uncommon Carriers offers besides that is the personal aspect of these jobs. McPhee's research is all first-hand: he shares the lives of the men who do these jobs, befriending some and enduring the teasing of others. He's especially fond of the truck driver who carries a chemistry book to help him wash his rig, judges truck stops on whether they carry his beloved Wall Street Journal, and who moonlights as a wordsmith. The account is peppered with many lively characters like him. On whole, this was quite an interesting peek into a world we depend on so much.Related:Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food On Your Plate. Rose George


Wonderful character sketches, insight into what makes some "simple" transfer of goods actually happen and some eye-opening looks at the worlds of UPS, lobster delivery, coal trains and barge traffic on the Illinois River. The section tracing Thoreau's path up some New England rivers was a little slow and not in character with the rest of the book. Always a lot of information in a John McPhee book, communicated in a conversational tone, but at the end you've learned something and you want to tell somebody. For instance, the largest cola-burning power plant in the country -- in Georgia -- consumes three trains of hundred-plus cars each day carrying coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. It's enough to make even the most ardent anti-climate change advocate question our resource use.


John McPhee specializes, like Tracy Kidder, in detailed and ruminative reportages about things and people we see everyday, but seldom think about. In this collection of articles, he primarily studies transportation, describing the workings of long-distance trucking, coal trains, cargo ships, barges and a memorable case study of the workings of "The Sort", UPS' humongous sorting facility in Loisville, Kentucky.Moving writing, quite literally. An example for any academic writer trying to explain what makes modern society tick.More at my blog.

Andrew Saul

This is a collection of articles McPhee wrote on the transportation industry in the US. As a result the book is up and down as regards how interesting each are. I skipped the bit with him in a kayak on the river as if I hadn't I would've read anymore of the book.The chapters I liked best were on trucking and the river barges. The coal train chapter was good (the original reason I had come to the book), but ponderous in parts too. The UPS section was better but suffered from the same affliction. When it's good, this book is great and a real insight into how exactly these industries work; warts and all. If you are prepared to skip chapters that interest you then there's a lot of good to be had from this book.

Clifton Bullard

How much do you know about the army of 18-wheelers thundering down every American highway at all hours of the day and night? How much thought do you give to your ability to select a live New Brunswick lobster at any seafood restaurant in Oklahoma?Great nonfiction illuminates the unseen, unnoticed world surrounding us. Uncommon Carriers begins and ends with a trip in an 18-wheeler, and in between travels by rail, tug and plane. In this collection of shortish essays, John McPhee takes us inside the strange everyday world of freight transportation. My favorite story is "In the Sort," about UPS's shipping hub in Kentucky, closely followed by one about a school for ship's captains located on a small pond in the Alps. Not only is the material fascinating but McPhee is also a stylist of the highest order -- his prose is so masterfully wrought as to become transparent.


Divided into six sections based on the mode of "carrier" McPhee is traveling with: HAZMAT truck drivers, Ocean-going cargo ships, Mississippi river barges, Canals of the northeast, UPS/FedEx and deliveries, Freight trains.Most scientifically fascinating was the cargo ship piece where McPhee attends training school for the captains and skippers of these massive vessels. On a lake in Switzerland, they train using life-size-yet-scaled models. One trainee is practicing a docking maneuver and parks an impressive 6 inches from the pier. The teacher reminds him that at full scale, he's something like 15 yards away. If the birds on the shore of the lake were at full scale, they would be 6 feet tall.The canal chapter is a total waste- McPhee and a friend follow Thoreau's canoe trip up the Hudson to some spot in Mass. Yawn.My favorite of course was the truck driving chapter. Not only is it charming and interesting, it spoke to a deep longing to be a truck driver myself. In his epilogue, McPhee revisits truckers saying that "the late-night hum at hundreds of truck stops across America is a quintessential piece of our sonic landscape." Indeed.Unfortunately this was a book-on-mp3, and McPhee is no voice actor. I was actually stunned to hear a director listed in the "credits," since I had sort of assumed McPhee just decided to settle in with a cup of tea one afternoon and read his whole book quietly to himself. Recommend to anyone interested in quirky engineering and/or is consumed by a burning desire to drive a big piece of machinery.

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