James H. Thomas’s 1979 book The Long Haul: Truckers, Truck Stops & Trucking, published by Memphis State University Press, is mostly a snapshot in time. It’s a picture of the state of American truck drivers and their place in the culture at a precarious moment. Following the Arab oil embargo and ensuing oil shocks of 1973, diesel fuel prices increased dramatically and Washington first instituted its federal 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on highways in an effort to slow fuel consumption. Truckers are, of course—and were then—paid by the mile driven, and the independent ones pay for fuel themselves. At the time of his writing, Thomas predicted that the combination of these two circumstances would have devastating effects on the profitability of independent, long-haul truck drivers and would render them extinct. The Long Haul documents the American truck driver’s way of life leading up to and during that exact moment. He chronicles their stories ruefully, as if to describe young men going off to a war that he fears they will not survive.
Thomas points out that other forces of 1970s America conspired against the Golden Age of the Trucker, too. He worries about the effect of television’s metastasizing takeover of American home life and what that will mean for the future of working-class heroes of every profession. He argues, presciently, that nothing will ever again meaningfully compete for American attention with the availability of Hollywood stories and stars now beamed into our homes. He laments that culturally useful myths—like Paul Bunyan’s axe, or George Washington and the cherry tree—need time and breathing room to grow into permanency. And he worries that hurried corporate and partisan media leaves little room for such stories to grow. He writes:
However, during the last 50 years, most of these heroes have vanished, machines have taken their jobs, and the electronic mass media has replaced folktales. Where fifty years ago the family was entertained during the evening hours by folktales, anecdotes and yarns spun by the older generation, television now dominates the living room. […] Occupational heroes were replaced with media heroes, and with the changing mood of the nation’s youth, heroes rose and fell. […] Thus, in such a complex society, folk heroes have little time to develop, for mass media dispels any mythos before they can become part of the folk tradition.
The pages of The Long Haul are full of pictures. In early chapters, the photographs are historical: black-and-white photos of old trucks showing how design and technology have evolved through the years. But in the later chapters, the images come from Thomas’s personal collection. The contemporaneous images and stories feel candid, stolen—collected and published at a time before every documented person needed to sign a media release. There are photographs of unnamed drivers animated in mid-conversation at truck stops; sleeping on the ground outside their trucks; and of truck stop waitresses, weathered and pensive, wearing just enough dour sternness on their faces to keep their high-top counters full of leering and lonely truckers at arm’s length. It’s an empathetic portrayal of an American species that the author feared then—just as industry observers have seemed to fear every year since—might not be long for our changing world.
There are other lessons for modern readers of The Long Haul, too. For example, the rise of commercial trucking in the United States stemmed the adoption of trucks for wartime purposes. The United States first experimented with trucks in World War I. Before that, Thomas points out, our army had in total only 1,000 trucks, comprising 128 different makes and models, spread out unevenly across the country. The US entered World War I with a larger fleet of 2,400 trucks, which proved nevertheless to be far too few. Thomas documents US Brigadier General “Black Jack” Pershing lamenting the lack of trucks available to him in the European theater, writing to the Army Chief of Staff, “our ability to supply and maneuver our forces depends largely on motor transportation” (p. 23).
The problem Pershing identified was soon rectified by changing the US Army forever. After WWI, the Army created its Motor Transport Corps, under which military-issue trucks were standardized to streamline parts and servicing. Back at home, the soldiers who returned began paving the roads in their communities. And how we move and haul things around the country has never been the same since.
In the context of 2022, I was reminded of the new tools employed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine: namely, social media to recruit sympathy, the SWIFT financial network to apply severe new financial pressures, and civilian drone technology for long-range battlefield surveillance. How the international community responds to aggression seems to be changing too. I don’t think that we know yet how these changes will impact our civilian lives. But I think we all know that they will. Maybe all the swords do turn into plowshares, eventually. The useful ones anyway. Just not always with the trajectory that scripture intended.
The reader of this review might be yearning for a happy ending, or for Thomas to offer his reader a reason to believe that independent trucking will survive despite its challenges. But such a reader has perhaps never developed a taste for the country songs of Tom T. Hall or Johnny Cash or Red Simpson. There is a genre of song in the American Western tradition that does not have a happy ending—on purpose. The lyrics just tell the story, and the catchy tunes underneath those rueful words keep the story humming along for future generations. James H. Thomas’s The Long Haul is one of those songs. He doesn’t write about what he wants. He doesn’t make policy recommendations based on the research that he did for his book. As a reader, you don’t get the sense that Thomas is applying for your consideration for any other position than that of chronicler of the fading American west. He writes to document a moment in time, to describe a set of people in our larger American community before that moment and those people are gone forever. At his very best (to my mind), Thomas writes:
The trucker will never regain the freedom or the folk image he had before the oil embargo. With increasing overhead costs, regulations, and energy shortages, the owner-operator will pass by the wayside much like general stores, soda fountains and shoeshine parlors. Possibly, historians and folklorists during the next century will single out the 1970s as the “Golden Age of the Trucker,” and hundreds of pulp accounts will relate the exciting stories of independent truckers evading speed traps, taking back roads with hot loads and riding off into the sunset behind the wheel of their Peterbilt in the company of an attractive female hitchhiker dressed only in a raincoat.
That’s not a modern sentence. That’s not a sentence that feels right to us today. That’s a sentence with a mustache on it. That’s a hairy-chested sentence wearing a shirt that doesn’t button up, it snaps. It’s a little much, I know. But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think being “a little much” is part of being an American, too. At least it once was. As a modern reader of The Long Haul, I was glad to be reminded.
But, as compelling to me as Thomas’s prose is, the species still hasn’t gone extinct! In fact, census data shows that we have more independent truck drivers now than we’ve had in 20 years. So, you could cast Thomas off as having missed the mark. Betting on red when the roulette ball landed on black. But the culture that Thomas writes about does feel far away from us now, if not nearing extinction. And Thomas’s point, I don’t think, was ever to nominate himself as the great industry forecaster; rather, it was to nominate his subject—the American truck driver—for inclusion into the old and slowly closing book of American folk hero myths.
James H. Thomas died in 2001 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For 20 years, he was on the faculty of Wichita State University after serving with the US Army in Vietnam. The Long Haul was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.