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Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee
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Uncommon Carriers (2006)

by John McPhee

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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. ( )
  nx74defiant | Jan 23, 2016 |
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 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.
( )
  AprilBrown | Feb 25, 2015 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this series of essays on various forms of transport in the US and other places. It's a very unlikely subject to be so fascinating but it was both a window into a different world and also into the people who are behind it. Even though it is chock full of numbers and stats, it's the people; truck drivers, air pilots, barge pilots, etc. who end up being the story. A few words here and there bring them to life. There is also a completely enjoyable diversion when he tries to recreate the trip on the Merrimack river of Thoreau and his brother. Just a relly nice read.
  amyem58 | Jul 15, 2014 |
RABCK from hostile17; the book is about a writer who travels on all kinds of things that move other things. The least favorite chapter was a long, drawn out recreation of Thoreau's canoe trip. Favorites were traveling with a hazmat truck and the shipping of lobsters. Who knew? ( )
  nancynova | Mar 29, 2014 |
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.

( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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To Sam Candler, of the Boarskin Shirt, of Cemocheckobee Creek, of the Shad Alley and the Coal Train, all aboard.
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Contents:
A fleet of one -- The ships of Port Revel -- Tight-assed river -- Five days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers -- Out in the sort - Coal train -- A fleet of one--II.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0865477396, Paperback)

This is a book about people who drive trucks, captain ships, pilot towboats, drive coal trains, and carry lobsters through the air: people who work in freight transportation. John McPhee rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, five-axle, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats--in Ainsworth's opinion "the world's most beautiful truck," so highly polished you could part your hair while looking at it. He goes "out in the sort" among the machines that process a million packages a day at UPS Air's distribution hub at Louisville International Airport. And (among other trips) he travels 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," longer even than the Queen Mary 2.

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:54 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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)

» see all 2 descriptions

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