“Many young male neurotics find out early that hard labor is salve for an overactive mind,” Finn Murphy writes in his memoir about his career in long-haul truck driving. That may explain why as a young man he dropped out of college and left his comfortable suburban Connecticut life to become a hard-laboring trucker. That decision was made in 1980, and to this day he keeps on truckin’.
The mind: still overactive. He channeled that energy into The Long Haul, the story of his fuel-injected journey. We meet drivers, movers (and shakers) of all backgrounds, customers and properties of all classes and roads, and weather of all forecasts. If you’ve ever wondered who those people are behind those big rigs on the highway, get into this ride.
Finn lets us in on the secrets of a successful move and the rabbit hole that brings on a disasterous haul. We learn some trucker lingo that goes beyond “Convoy,” as well as how to maneuver a backroad, a parking space, and an irate customer. We also learn what’s actually inside those truck cabins.
In his decades-long career, Finn has covered more than a million miles driving, moving, packing, loading, and hauling. Here, he shares with us a small portion of that adventure, and shows us how a book about moving could be so moving.
Let’s start with the wheels. What was your first truck?
I started with a GMC Astro 95. It was a single screw, which means it didn’t have tandem drive wheels. It had a crawl-in sleeper in the back and a 290 Cummins diesel engine, which is small and it’s pulling a big, fat moving van. Moving vans are not really that heavy because household items are not really that heavy. We never really hit our [weight] limit. The windsheild and the steering wheel was right over the front left tire, so every time you run over a toothpick, you would get jarred. And if you had to start running over some really bad roads, you had to strap your seatbelt on or you would hit your head on the roof.
Then I moved to an International Transtar cabover, which also had a crawl-in sleeper in the back. I had a Kenworth cabover with a bunk in the back. It had a walk-in sleeper, and that just changed my life. And then I moved to a Freightliner Columbia, which was also a sleeper with a double-bed.
What are you driving now?
I’m driving a Freightliner Cascadia: walk-in sleeper, double-bunks, refrigerator, microwave, closet, and a desk for my paperwork. I picked it up in Indianapolis last November, brand new. The Freightliner is like the Buick of the trucking world. It’s very workman-like but not too fancy. The Cascadia I had cost $147,000. If you want to get one with an RV-type thing welded on, then you’re talking about $300,000. Telsa just came out with an electric Class-A truck, and that’s $380,000. But at least you don’t have to buy fuel anymore.
How important is the type of truck you drive to your reputation as a long hauler?
As movers, we don’t care so much about what we’re driving around. That’s not where our ego tickling comes from. That comes from our revenue.
What are some of the biggest long-haul driving challenges?
Weather is number one. And then you have congestion. And then you have topography. When we encounter these things, we encounter them often in combination. So you can have a bad road in bad weather with a bunch of people in front of you and a bunch of people behind you. Any kind of distracted behavior affects me, and that’s where the fear comes in. I am the most defensive driver you will ever see, mostly because I’m scared all the time.
You started driving in 1980. Was it easier back then to get your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL, Class A)?
Back then, if you could fog a mirror, you can get your commercial drivers’ license. I remember I had a 35-foot trailer, and an old Ford day tractor. In Stamford, Connecticut [where I took my test], there was an orange cone down at the end of the street. That’s how it was back in the day.
Today, almost all the drivers have to go to truck driving school, and that takes a month, and it costs about seven grand. And it’s probably a whole lot better than the training and the exam that I got, but it is certainly more expensive. It’s expensive and time-consuming now to get one, where it didn’t used to be.
When most people think of truck drivers, they usually don’t necessarily think of someone like you: educated, articulate and from the upper-middle-class. Did you have to deal with the truck-driver stereotype?
There is something like three million truck drivers in the United States. It’s not a homogeneous total of white rednecks from the South. And I don’t think it ever really was, except for maybe a very long time ago.
It’s getting more homogeneous as time goes on, partially because there are social implications. So many people have been pushed out of what used to be middle-class jobs in the United States. The average age of a long-haul driver right now is about 55.
What I see now are a lot of husband-and-wife teams. A lot of people choose that life because whatever middle-class job they had, say in Indiana or Kansas, it’s gone. And they have to make a living. So we’re seeing this huge influx of over-50s coming into the industry who have been downsized in one form or another.
In your book, you did a good job of describing long-haul trucking in cultural, historical and even philosophical terms.
There is a tribal aspect to this. Human beings for hundreds of thousands of years have been working together in small bands, whether it’s hunting or gathering or whatever that is. And it’s a wonderful/social cultural kind of experience with all different kinds of people.
Moving people across the country — and loading a truck properly — seems easier said than done. Is it?
It really comes down to how interested you are. If you are interested in loading a truck properly, if you bring some intellectual power to it, then you are going to be better than somebody who is just punching the clock. In the moving industry, there are some people who are just doing the job for the money, and there are some people who do the job for the beauty — and the money. And those are your better movers.
Would you say that no matter how many technological advances evolve, there is always going to be a need for human movers?
In a way, until they perfect the matter energy transporters that Mr. Spock had.
I really like to navigate families from beginning to end during their moves. I like to be there at the beginning and I would like to be there at the end. I like to make sure the house looks like a home when I leave. And that’s what’s disappearing. There is less and less of a need for long-haul movers [as opposed to local movers].
What’s happening now is you still have a group of movers moving trucks, but they’re not trailers that are picked up by a freight hauler and then taken [to its final destination]. He’s not a mover; he’s a freight hauler. He’s going to drop the trailer at a local moving company and then the local moving crew will take the trailer to the final-mile delivery and take care of [the customer]. The idea of having somebody in charge of a move from soup to nuts is rapidly disappearing.
Manual labor like this doesn’t seem easy, but yet it seems somehow satisfying. Is that true for you?
There is a clarity to manual labor because there is a definite beginning, middle and end to it. It goes back to the tribal thing, really.
Click here to devour The Long Haul by Finn Murphy.
Find out more about Finn here.
Still can’t get enough of all things auto? Check out some of Chassy’s uh-mazing documentary selections:
Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story: Willy T. Ribbs was the Jackie Robinson of auto racing. Despite being a Formula Ford champion in England, Willy T. had another race to win when he returned to America—the race against bigotry. Many owners, mechanics, sponsors, and drivers in the racing world derisively referred to Willy as “Uppity” behind his back; death-threats, unwarranted suspensions, and engine sabotage followed him throughout his journey in racing. Despite the setbacks, he was an amazing driver and he became one of the winningest drivers in the history of the Trans Am series. The establishment did everything in their power to keep this great driver down, based on his defiant attitude and antics. Through sheer determination, Willy shattered the color barrier in professional racing, becoming the first Black man to race in the Indy 500.
We Live Machinery: This frenzied documentary is an on-the-go account of the 2015 running of the Targa Baja California. The event is a classic car rally, run annually through the deserts, mountains, and cities of Baja California, Mexico. High speeds, mechanical breakdowns, hard partying, and tense drama are all part of the journey.
Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman: The world knows Paul Newman as an Academy Award winning actor with a fifty-plus year career as one of the most prolific and revered actors in American Cinema. He was also well known for his philanthropy; ‘Newman’s Own’ has given more than 350 million dollars to charities around the world. Yet few know the gasoline-fueled passion that became so important in this complex, multifaceted man’s makeup. He loved racing so much it nearly sidelined his acting career. Newman’s racing career spanned thirty-five years with him winning four national championships as a driver and eight championships as an owner — Not bad for guy who didn’t even start racing until he was forty-seven years old.
Click here to see all Chassy auto docs!