The Fastest Route Across America

Last spring, we took an unconventional road trip. An NG photographer and I followed a truck of strawberries across the U.S. in three days, from California to Washington, D.C., to understand what it takes to deliver food grown thousands of miles away. The story appeared online, and in the November edition of National Geographic Magazine.

We received several questions about the trip, like why we chose to follow strawberries (they’re a classic American food, agriculturally isolated, and extremely fragile) and whether the truck drivers knew we were behind them (yes, and they even slowed down for us).

But one question was more complex. From John Daly in Chelsea, Michigan:

“Why did the truck travel 3,200 miles via I-40 when it could have made the trip in only 2,895 miles via I-80?”

We wondered the same thing. If shipping’s about saving time, why take a longer route? So we asked Tim Rife, the gregarious trucker with Inman Trucking who drove the truck (alternating at the wheel with his wife, Karen) that we followed. Shipping is about many variables, not just distance. This from Tim:

Taking I-80 would’ve been shorter, but the way we went on I-40 was faster. On I-80, you’d have to go through the Sierras in California and Nevada, and then on the other end in West Virginia and Kentucky. Fuel is expensive in a semi, and every incline burns it faster.

Then, if you take I-80, it drops you onto I-70, which is a toll road. Every booth you pass in a semi costs I think $21, and that adds up. It could cost you an extra hundred bucks for the same load. When you’re driving your own truck, you want the cheapest way.

In all, taking I-80 might have saved us an hour, maybe 90 minutes, in Tim’s estimation. But it would’ve cost more in fuel, tolls, and wear on the truck. What’s more, there’s usually little incentive for truckers to race to their destinations. Trucks have a pre-assigned drop-off window, and if they’re early, they have to sit outside the loading dock and wait.

Since we joined Tim and Karen in May, they’ve made 50 more cross-country trips, carrying everything from tomatoes to air filters to more strawberries. We’re glad they’re on the job, and that they know the nuances of America’s roads.