As a long-time admirer of John McPhee's work, I write about his new book, Uncommon Carriers, with just a touch of regret. While many journalists fantasize about retiring to run their local weekly newspaper or penning the great American novel, I had a different ambition. I planned to write the John McPheelike book about logistics. Now, alas, McPhee has done it himself, and he has done his usual remarkable job.
For those who don't know his work, McPhee, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is a master of blending personalities with the topic at hand. And his topics are wide ranging—Bill Bradley as a Princeton basketball player, nuclear energy, Alaska, North American geology, birch bark canoes. He has even made growing oranges into a compelling story.
In Uncommon Carriers, he turns his attention to the way goods and commodities move in this country. He bookends the text with an account of his travels cross country with Don Ainsworth, an owner/operator of a chemical tank truck who takes meticulous care of his vehicle, wears custom made boots, and is a dedicated reader of The Wall Street Journal (which he calls "the Walleye").
McPhee rides along with the driver as he negotiates 6 percent grades and calculates where to buy the cheapest fuel while keeping his truck's total weight within legal limits. At the same time, readers learn what many subscribers to this magazine already know about the difficulties of long-distance truck driving. What especially caught my attention were vivid descriptions of the skill employed in piloting multi-ton vehicles up and down mountain roads. Almost as an aside, McPhee touches on the rising cost of fuel, air quality, and the vast quantities of diesel fuel burned while trucks idle at the nation's truck stops. The average reader may be astonished at just how tough the job can be; logistics professionals will get a fresh reminder of just why drivers remain in perennially short supply.
But McPhee does not stop with the truck driver. In the pages of Uncommon Carriers, we meet merchant vessel captains piloting costly small-scale versions of ocean vessels on a lake at France's Port Revel in order to improve their skills. We travel on a tug on the Illinois River pushing barges that create a vessel longer than the Queen Mary 2 up and down stream, maneuvering through difficult currents, under bridges and into locks. We travel across the country on a 7,500-foot-long train that carries coal from the Powder River Basin to electric utilities, and learn something about what it takes to manage up to 23,000 tons of locomotive, cars and coal. And we get a close-up look at the highly automated sort at the UPS hub in Louisville, Ky. In an interlude, McPhee takes some time off to travel by canoe up the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, tracing the path taken by Henry Thoreau and his brother John.
McPhee comes at his stories from oblique and unexpected angles. The chapter on UPS, for instance, begins in a lobster pound in Nova Scotia. And he is not averse to acknowledging his own foibles, or the disdain he sometimes suffers from those who are doing the physical labor he's observing.
Uncommon Carriers is not a business book. It's not one you'll read to enhance your career. But I recommend it for the sheer pleasure of seeing what a keen observer learns about this fascinating business of moving things.