The long-haul jobs I did while working as a professional mover were exhausting and uncomfortable, but they were also among the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken
Author Chris Wright Illustration Wesley Merritt
When I was in my 20s, living in Boston, I drove a Mercedes, which isn’t as classy as it sounds. I worked for a moving company at the time, and the Mercedes was a 28-foot truck. It was a miserable old thing, battered and scarred from years of abuse. The cab smelled like a blend of deep fryer oil and old toe. The heater had two settings—“Blast Furnace” and “Sun’s Core”—and operated on a year-round basis. The seat fabric was brittle with petrified sweat. You tried not to think about the brakes.
The Mercedes was horrible to drive, but not as horrible as heaving 1960s-era refrigerators up narrow stairways in Boston’s North End. So, the first thing we’d do every morning was check the worksheets to see if there was any travel time. City to the suburbs was good; suburbs to a nearby state was fantastic. Anything over 150 miles, however, and you were back in the land of the horrible. You really didn’t want too much highway time in that Mercedes. Occasionally, we’d get a genuinely long-haul move—to the Midwest, the Deep South or even the West Coast. My co-workers weren’t the most upstanding bunch of people—the only other driver truly capable of handling these jobs was Dickie, a Vietnam vet who gargled peppermint schnapps to mask the previous night’s excesses. So I was the one usually tasked with such trips, which, despite the hardships they entailed, I would tackle with a sense of adventure.
The first thing you needed to make it through these excursions was a tolerance for solitude. My boss was a cheapskate, so a lot of the time you’d have to do the drive on your own, then find someone to help you offload at the other end. I’d spend between 12 and 16 hours a day on the road, with nothing to keep me company but a radio and a succession of submarine sandwiches. As foraccommodations, my expenses didn’t cover the quarters needed to operate the vibrating beds, which was often the only way to dislodge the fleas.
For all the discomfort, exhaustion and dread they entailed, the thing that really stood out about these trips was how random they were, how reliably weird. I’d find myself standing in a gas station lot, munching a Hot Pocket in the shadow of the Rockies, or browsing a boondock variety store that sold nothing but Fritos, fridge magnets and bargain brand cigarettes. Then I’d be back in the truck, performing a screeching sing-along because, after 650 miles of religious instruction, the music stations had finally kicked in.
At the end of the day, I always made a point of finding a bar, eager for a bit of good-natured banter with the locals. These weren’t the kinds of places you’d find in the guidebooks. Some of them were quite scary, particularly during my spiky-haired Flock of Seagulls phase. I remember walking into a joint in Montana and the conversation stopping dead. Had there been a piano player, he’d have stopped too. There wasn’t much in the way of banter that night, but there wasn’t much in the way of bodily harm, either, which was a plus.
One of my most enduring memories from this time is stopping off at a South Dakota casino that had a name like Grim Horizons and whose skewed, cinema-style marquee promised a “Free Drink When You Cash Your Paycheck Here!” I didn’t have a paycheck to cash, but I was able to take advantage of the casino’s innovative Wallet Depleter® program. Later, over one-dollar Buds at a local bar, I grumbled about my bad luck to a man with a large mustache. Looking back at it now, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t listening.
As unpleasant as all this sounds, these trips still rank as some of the most memorable and enjoyable I have ever taken. The reason for this, I think, boils down to the fact that, under normal circumstances, I would never have chosen to do and see these things. There was no wish list, no itinerary—just me, a place to be and a big bunch of uncertainties along the way. That’s the spirit of the American cross-country trip, isn’t it, possibly the purest expression of the atavistic urge to keep moving. And if I was tapping into something primitive here, the effect was heightened by my Neolithic lodgings.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that these journeys weren’t costing me anything. Had I spent $2,500 on a sightseeing tour of the Midwest, my enthusiasm might have waned. As it stood, I was getting paid to drive past the Idaho Potato Museum en route to the Shoddy Drape Motel. That took the pressure off. I was free to be as interested in the awful and the mundane as I was the beautiful.
But then, there was an abundance of profound beauty on these trips: canyons, salt flats, mountain ranges, red deserts, old-growth forests, jagged waterfronts, beaming skylines—a bewildering variety of landscapes whose splendor was intensified by the fact that I was going through them rather than to them. It’s the difference between seeing a giraffe in a zoo and seeing one strolling around in the wild. With serendipity comes an entirely different category of thrill.
The last long-haul moving job I ever did was to San Francisco. It was in a rental this time rather than the Merc, meaning I’d be flying home rather than driving, which was a relief. I wasn’t due to head out until the following day, so, with the work done and the truck dropped off, I took a cab to a park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. I sat there long enough to watch the sun go down and the mist roll in, then went off to find an affordable hotel. It was, as I recall, one of the most wonderfully horrible I’d stayed in yet.