Finn Murphy is a storyteller, and after 20-plus years as a long-haul mover, does he have stories to tell.
There’s the one about the super-rich couple moving into a mansion outside Aspen, Colo., who owned a collection of antique Chinese granite gravestones that Murphy instructed his crew to install with the writing upside down as payback for poor treatment.
Or the one about the couple who used a video camera to capture his crew’s entire move in of their belongings, and then submitted a damage claim for more than $20,000 for what Murphy alleges was one small dent.
Or about the time his crew tried moving a grand piano up the rickety outdoor stairs of a young family’s new home that resulted in disaster.
Murphy, 59, packs these and other yarns into a new memoir, “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road,” published last month by W. W. Norton.
It’s one of few books with behind-the-scenes accounts of what it’s like to drive a truck. In 229 pages, Murphy describes everything from the meticulous packing methods movers use to load thousands of pounds of furniture and kitchen wares into their rigs, to the trucking caste system that positions movers on the low end of the driver totem pole.
To keep things rolling without getting overloaded in insider details, Murphy includes personal anecdotes, more general observations about truckers’ life on the road and the patchwork of loads movers piece together to ensure their trailers are never empty. Along the way he also touches on the history of the moving industry and the U.S. interstate highway system.
The book is also a timely glimpse into the reality of holding down a blue-collar job when discussion of the evaporation of the working class has become a popular talking point, from Donald Trump’s populist campaign and presidency, to other books published on the topic, including “Hillbilly Elegy,” “White Trash” and “Janesville.”
“All of that is about working-class angst,” Murphy told Trucks.com. “But who hasn’t driven on a highway and passed a truck, and seen that guy or woman, and wondered what doing that was like.”
College Drop Out Turned Mover
Murphy is the self-described black sheep of a large Irish Catholic family that’s produced several other writers. He dropped out after three years at Colby College in Maine where he was an unenthusiastic student. He was hired on as a contract driver for a mover from his home town of Cos Cob, Conn., that he’d worked for during summer vacations since high school.
At 21, he learned how to use a walk board, hump strap and other tools of the moving trade; navigate a fully loaded semi-tractor trailer into and out of narrow, tree-lined driveways; and pack as much as possible into a trailer without being overweight at roadside scales. He picked up a nickname – U-Turn – and learned that in moving industry lingo he was a “bedbugger” driving a “roach coach.”
Before long, Murphy also learned that clients – or “shippers” in moving industry lingo – widely view movers as bad guys who knowingly manhandle property and try to squeeze as much money out of the job as they can. In reality, he writes, movers aim to be as professional as possible and are motivated to finish a job with a minimum of breakage or wasted time so their liability insurance isn’t dinged and they aren’t late for their next gig.
But when they aren’t treated with respect, they have ways of getting back. “Movers notice things,” he writes, “especially things folks want to keep hidden…. ‘Excuse me, sir, should I pack this empty vodka bottle I found behind the laundry soap?’”
The discrimination, long days spent loading, moving and unloading people’s bric-a-brac and other hardships didn’t dampen his affection for driving. As he describes in the book, one of his favorite destinations is driving through metropolitan New York City:
“Me and the monster truck are hurtling through sixteen lanes of the most intense, dangerous, and exhilarating piece of roadway ever devised by man, and I’m the king of it all with my truck, my tunes, and my big independence. All the stories, the longings, the dreams, the books, the movies, the songs, the great American Dream of chucking it all and hitting the road? Well, right at this moment, I am the song.”
Murphy isn’t shy about calling out what he perceives as a faux cowboy culture that many self-employed long-haul truckers – including movers – cultivate with their Western boots and belt buckles, fake drawls and radios perpetually tuned to country music stations. That culture is a remnant of “the anti-urban, anti-statist, anti-union origins of the wildcat drivers of the 1930s and 40s,” he writes in the book.
Though they treasure their freedom, independent drivers could benefit from organizing to help boost their income from the agricultural companies and other big businesses they pick up work for. “As it stands now, most of them are over-the-road sharecroppers feeding their labor into the insatiable maw of Big Ag, which is happy enough to let them keep their cowboy myth in return for keeping all the money,” he writes
He’s just as opinionated about changes that electronic log devices, or ELDs, cab-mounted cameras, autonomous technology and on-demand load matching services are having on the industry and trucker jobs.
The effect of mandatory ELDs will be “huge” because they represent two conflicting pressures drivers face: staying on the road as much as possible to make money while also obeying traffic safety laws.
Autonomous trucks are inevitable, but robot drivers won’t take away all trucking jobs. “The local UPS driver will be around. Movers will be around because we have to load and unload trucks and they don’t have a machine for that,” he said.
A 20-Year Gap
The book glosses over a 20-year gap in Murphy’s driving career.
After a decade on the road, he became increasingly exasperated with the business, including the level of control dispatchers have over movers’ loads and schedules. Those frustrations came to a head when a dispatcher gave a lucrative military move to someone else at the last minute. He quit on the spot.
With money he’d stashed away over the years, Murphy started a business buying Irish linens and reselling them to U.S. retailers, he told Trucks.com. When a customer on Nantucket, Mass., went bankrupt, he took over the business, moved to the island and settled down. At one point he served on the county board of selectmen and as mayor.
It was only after his marriage ended that he relocated to Colorado, and as part of a “mid-life crisis” at 51 he climbed back into a big rig.
Today, Murphy works as a contract driver for Joyce Van Lines, a high-end mover owned by a long-time friend that specializes in corporate relocations. The job pays well enough – into six figures – that Murphy only works April to October.
“I’m terrified of mountain driving,” he said. “I don’t drive in the winter.” During snowy months, he is the program director of a Colorado organization that teaches people with disabilities how to ski.
Through his earlier and current driving stints, Murphy would unwind at the end of the day by recording what he’d seen and heard onto old-school microcassette tapes. It wasn’t until about five years ago that he started thinking about weaving the material into a book.
He had a leg up on other new authors. His father John Cullen Murphy was the long-time producer and illustrator of the Prince Valiant comic strip. His brother Cullen Murphy is an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and former managing editor of The Atlantic, and his sister Cait Murphy is an author, editor and former writer for Fortune. Both siblings have written multiple books.
“When it came to getting an agent, I called my brother,” he said. He went through 12 drafts to get the book in shape to publish.
In mid-June, Murphy was in New York as part of a multi-city book tour. But as summer is high season for movers, he was anxious to get to Indianapolis where a 2018 Freightliner Cascadia with a 435 Detroit Diesel engine was waiting for him to get back on the road.
A follow-up tour is in the works covering cities that aren’t too far apart. If it happens, he’ll drive. The new rig has a custom air-ride seat, DirecTV, microwave, refrigerator and double bed with Sealy Posturepedic mattress he’ll cover with 600-thread count sheets and a duvet.
“I can’t wait,” he said.