Call me a prisoner of the highway, driven on by my restless soul. -- Ronnie Milsap (lyric by Mike Reid)

The first night out, Brad Hille, the trucker, began thrashing and screaming in his sleep as he lay in the bunk behind the cab. "No! No! No!" he shouted. It was 3 a.m. at a rest area off the interstate in Ohio. He had just embarked on a week-long trip across America in his 18-wheel Mack cabover, hauling 25,743 pounds of Wendy's and Whataburger cups to Los Angeles, and already he had sped from the Jersey border along the pitted reaches of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, chugging on into the night across a slice of West Virginia and into Ohio.

Making time.

For five days he would be living in the truck, riding the bucking rig or sleeping in it, running from one truck stop to the next for showers, meals and a little psychic relief in the form of bantering waitresses. To make the trip pay, to get a little closer to the true good dream of his life -- running his own fleet of trucks -- he had to make time, make California by Friday morning, unload fast and reload fast, then head on back.

And after that, keep on going. Another load. Another trip.

Truckin'.

The nightmare was, perhaps appropriately, a chase dream. Mother Theresa was being chased by a teenager with a jackknife -- and Hille was Mother Theresa.

When he woke the next morning -- Monday -- a hot sun was already hovering over the shaggy green hills of eastern Ohio, burning the mist off the hayfields. Hille rubbed his eyes, combed out his nascent handlebar mustache and announced he'd make St. Louis between 6 and 7 that evening. "We'll miss the rush hour, the worst of it anyway."

Thirteen and a half hours later he was wolfing down meat loaf and mashed potatoes at a small rural truck stop near Williamsburg, Mo., and speculating on the nightmare. "Maybe," he said with a grin, "I see myself as a good Samaritan being unfairly persecuted by my ex-wife."

The waitress was about 19 years old, and saucy. Some of the truckers had their wives along, and someone had turned the radio up so you could barely hear anything over the price of feeder pigs and slaughter cattle, and singer Reba McEntire exhorting truckers to use their seat belts.

"You who drive those big rigs are the lifeline of our nation," she said.

On a nearby wall, someone had scribbled:

Here I sit with a broken heart

Took four pills and my truck won't start

So just to show I'm a super trucker

I'll take four more and push the sucker.

Outside, the rigs were lined up in the dusk. A soft breeze was bringing in (so the radio had said) a nippy mass of Canadian air, and Hille, pronouncing it "perfect sleeping weather," retired to his bunk in the truck.

As the night deepened, you could hear the crickets, and the quiet swish of traffic going by on the interstate. The red Texaco sign cast a faint glow over the pumps, and soon a dome of stars capped the vast grassy expanse of the surrounding plain. A lone figure emerged from the diner, walking slowly and bowlegged and wearing jeans, a cowboy hat and boots -- an apparition, a figure out of the old West. He swung up easily into his cab and, with a grunt of the diesel, pulled out onto the access road. A sign on the side of his truck said: "ROYAL CREME FILLED COOKIES & SNACK CAKES."

Troubled Highways As Americans hit the road this summer, they may be more aware of the country's 1.6 million large trucks -- and afraid of them -- than ever before.

Truckers seem to be driving faster and wilder, though their general mood of dissatisfaction with the new economic realities of the business stops short of the violence of the 1983 independent trucker shutdown, marked by widespread shootings and a cavalcade of 18-wheelers to Washington.

A nation that still eulogizes its truckers in song and fable has, at the same time, increasingly come to fear what a recent "60 Minutes" report dubbed "Killer Trucks" barreling down the interstates. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry research organization, reports that big trucks have more crashes per mile on superhighways than cars -- and when cars and trucks collide, it's usually the occupants of the cars who get killed or hurt.

On the Washington Beltway, trucks accounted for less than 3 percent of vehicles but were involved in 19 percent of accidents during an 18-month period ending in December 1985, according to an American Automobile Association report.

Another Insurance Institute study of more than 300 truckers found marijuana in the blood or urine of 15 percent, cocaine in 2 percent, prescription stimulants like amphetamines in 5 percent, nonprescription stimulants like diet pills in 10 percent, and alcohol in less than 1 percent. Overall, the study found, 29 percent had taken drugs having a "potential for abuse."

Marshall Siegel of the Independent Truck Owner-Operators Association, who arranged for Hille to drive a reporter cross-country, called this study "a total sham ... The great mass of drugs found in the samples were not illegal at all, but {were} aspirin, Formula 44, Dristan Nasal Spray, Primatene mist, Robitussin or Sine-Aid."

Be that as it may, Institute President Brian O'Neill said in an interview, "Drugs are freely for sale in major truck stops across the U.S." Hille confirmed this, adding that he thinks very few truckers actually take illegal drugs.

O'Neill also told a Senate subcommittee in July that truckers routinely drive longer hours than allowed by federal law and "falsify their logbooks" to cover this up. "We're very concerned," he said, "with the hours that drivers are being pushed to drive by unscrupulous shippers and brokers."

Legislation requiring the Department of Transportation to investigate the merits of installing "black boxes" in trucks -- like those used on jetliners -- is under consideration by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. These recording devices would monitor speeds and lengths of time trucks are driven.

The legislation also requires a study of the effectiveness of new antilock or antiskid brakes.

Some of these problems, truckers say, may be traced to federal deregulation that brought intense competition to the industry after 1980. Freight rates dropped as thousands of new shippers entered the market and established carriers went belly up. Drivers found themselves going faster and longer to make a buck.

The day of the friendly trucker stopping to aid a motorist in distress appeared to be ending.

In the last couple of years, the industry has rallied to repair its image, and Hille has played a leading role in the effort. Last year, spiffy in a blue blazer and red tie, he joined a small group of drivers sponsored by the American Trucking Associations who went around lecturing on safety and giving media interviews as reps of "America's Road Team."

"We're tired of being classed as a group of drugged-up, drunken idiots," Hille said. "We're not a lot of yahoos and ying-yangs."

He enjoyed the assignment but found it difficult in some ways. When he phoned Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune, the oft-acerbic columnist was "friendly ... but when I told him what I do, he got real quiet. I couldn't get anywhere with him. He claimed to have been sandwiched between a couple of trucks playing games with him, trying to run him off the road."

Bending the Regs In a sense, Hille represents the new breed of trucker emerging from the turmoil of deregulation. His CB handle is "Businessman," he has a fetish about fuel economy that keeps his foot light, and he tends to look down his nose at "a lot of the old-timers {who} grouse about the rates and how they can't make money any more. They have to streamline and become more efficient to make it."

At 39, he's a college graduate -- perhaps 5 percent of truckers are -- who plays classical music on the four-speaker stereo in his cab. But the romance of the road holds little charm for him: He got into the business seven years ago, he says, after realizing that restaurant management was overcrowded. Where other truckers see deregulation as a disaster, Hille sees opportunity. He thinks that by operating efficiently, and taking advantage of tax breaks, he can buy another truck, then perhaps build a small fleet of his own.

There are perhaps 150,000 independent owner-operators like Hille. The rest of the nation's 2.4 million truckers, an unknown proportion of whom are long-haul drivers, are employed by shipping and other firms. Like most independents, Hille is under contract with a shipper, Dart Transit Co. of St. Paul, Minn. Working out of his lakefront home in North Canton, Ohio, he crisscrosses the nation in his $65,000 Mack.

In one week before the coast-to-coast trip he hauled cans to Iowa, washing machines to Kentucky, plastic bottles to Cleveland, bathtubs to New Hampshire, paper to Chicago and hardware to Pennsylvania. "That was a good week, about a 3,200-mile week," he said. "Anything less than 2,000 miles is a bad week. A week like that, after everything's paid, I can take home $1,000."

In a typical year he grosses $100,000 and nets maybe a third of that -- but, because of depreciation and expenses, he pays little or no federal income tax.

"I hope to be off the road within five years," he said of his dreams as a small businessman. "The golf clubs are already in the trunk of my car."

On the road, Hille frequently pokes at his little watch calculator -- figuring fuel economy, time and distance, axle weights, toll totals.

At homeon weekends, he drives a BMW.

Here is no gypsy of the road, no lost and drifting soul. Here's a pleasant guy with a sense of humor who takes an afternoon nap to keep fresh and cares enough about safety to adhere to his own "strict rules. I will not go around the clock. I work hard, but I get my sleep every night."

Yet even this paragon of trucking virtue, the Mr. Clean of the industry, violated on this one-week trip the federal regulation requiring truckers to drive no more than 10 hours during any 15-hour period, and then to take 8 off. The first night he took only 6 1/2 hours off, then drove 11 the next day. On Wednesday he was on the road 17 hours, of which 14 1/2 were spent driving.

Indulging in what he cheerfully called "creative logging," Hille filled out his logbook so it would show him driving proper hours.

"Most of the time it's a joke," he said of the log.

If caught with an improper logbook by a cop or a DOT officer, a trucker might face a $100 fine and a mandatory eight-hour layover.

"You got a lot of horsepucky laws we got to put up with," Hille said of the DOT's 10-8 rule. He said it was promulgated by "a bunch of people sitting around a conference table saying what's safe."

Stanley Hamilton, a spokesman for the office of motor carriers in the Federal Highway Administration, part of DOT, said trucker safety rules are "very scientifically" worked out based on studies of driver fatigue and other factors. Asked about Hille's hours on this trip, Hamilton said, "I'd be very concerned if we found a driver doing that."

Hille is far from alone, however. Trucker magazines routinely refer to the logbooks as "comic books," and once when Hille got a ticket for being overlength, the friendly cop left out the time and place so there would be no record to conflict with Hille's log.

"It's the biggest problem in trucking," said "Big" John Trimble, who operates an all-night, nationwide trucker show over WRVA radio in Richmond, of long driving hours. He said many firms "force drivers to drive overtime," and then if anyone complains, or a trucker gets a ticket, "it's all on the driver's back."

In Hille's case, Dart's schedule for the cross-country trip allowed him sufficient time to make it following the 10-8 rule -- 56 hours of actual driving time to cover 2,825 miles. In fact, Hille made it in roughly 51 hours at an average speed of about 55 mph. (Many of the states he crossed had raised their speed limits to 65 for superhighways.)

In not following the 10-8 rule, Hille didn't gain any time. What he did was simply arrange his hours to suit his body rhythms and the exigencies of the road rather than the DOT's formula.

He said that following the 10-8 rule would mean driving and sleeping at crazy hours, which would "turn my body inside out ... If you adhere right to the letter of the law, I defy anybody to do it for two weeks and maintain their health."

He insisted that he was driving safely.

"The fact is I will not do anything that is unsafe," he said at one point, "which doesn't change the fact that I am illegal as {expletive} right now."

He Loves Her "What kind of flowers?" said the grizzled old trucker into the receiver of the truck-stop pay phone he had draped himself over as if preparing to sleep on it. He wore a dirty, blue baseball cap, and the beginnings of a smile curled on his lip. "Hell, I don't know. Ones that stink, I guess. No, not roses, they're too expensive! It's my old lady -- I'm her husband, not her son."

Free and Clear Truckers share all kinds of information over their CBs, or just chat. In this laconic exchange, reproduced in its entirety, the second trucker is apparently confirming that he has succeeded in avoiding a weigh station by taking a back road:

First trucker (astonished): "You went up over Utah Hill?"

Second trucker (low-key): "Yup."

"And you didn't get caught?"

"Nope."

"I wonder how come?"

"Don't know."

Spray Paint The bosky heat of Ohio -- field and glen, forest and grassland. Flowers. Chestnut horses in a field. White farm buildings. A pair of warplanes sprinting across puffy clouds in a blue sky. Corn. And, spray-painted on an overpass: "I love you. Jeff." Or maybe it's: "I love you Jeff."

Security At the Pemco Fast Break off an I-70 exit on the Kansas plains, Lisa A. Spence, the clerk, watches the diesel pumps out front where truckers are filling up with hundreds of gallons. She is young, and works alone.

"The truckers are pretty decent," she said. "Hitchhikers make me a little nervous because they're usually down on their luck. I saw one guy sleep under the overpass for four days. He couldn't get a ride. And there's still three of those guys escaped from the New Mexico prison on the loose. I-70 is the most traveled highway in the nation. And there's two mental patients escaped, too! It was in the paper. You just don't know what kind of fruitcakes are on the road."

She gazed out the window. Suddenly a cop car swung in by the pumps.

"There goes Johnny Law!" she said happily.

Brad's World Sitting high in the cab of his Mack Ultraliner 300-horsepower roadchugger and dressed in a sky-blue "DART" uniform and white tennis shoes, Hille seems the lord of all he surveys, a latter-day Prince of Transport guiding 57,000 pounds of speeding steel, rubber and freight down a narrow paved lane with the delicacy of a technician.

A wrong flick of his wrist on the heavy black steering wheel, it seems, could mean curtains. "If I got somebody a few feet in front of me slams on their brakes," he said, "they're history."

The tractor's cabover configuration, with the driving compartment directly on top of the engine, makes the truck easier to maneuver in tight spots than conventional tractors with their engines out front -- but it also makes for a rougher ride.

Inside, the cab is a nifty little world of dark gray vinyl. Hille sits in a narrow, air-cushioned seat before an impressive array of instruments, including a pyrometer to measure exhaust gas temperature and a computer showing fuel use second-by-second. The odometer has 325,000 miles on it, which is nothing; he'll run up over half a million miles before needing an overhaul.

Just above head-level within easy reach: the tape deck; CB radio; and "Ralph," the radar detector, which is legal in the states he drove through on this trip.

The passenger seat, which is not air-cushioned, is also narrow, and between the seats is a big flat plastic "doghouse" over the engine, which juts up into the center of the cab. With enough pillows, you can sleep across the seats and doghouse.

Also in the cab: a yellow wastebasket; small refrigerator stocked with bread, cheese, pickles and innumerable cans of Hawaiian Fruit Punch; Windex, Spray Nine cleaner and paper towels; orange baseball cap; flashlight; paperback copy of "Red Storm Rising"; thick Rand McNally road atlas with plastic-coated pages; and a box of music tapes.

Best of all is the little sleeper compartment behind the cab, consisting of a roomy 36-inch-wide bunk and some storage space. It is a little cave, a womb -- you can crawl in there, draw the curtains and have some real privacy. After larger trucks were allowed by federal law in 1982, many drivers added roomy double sleepers, some with stoves, showers, bathrooms, even water beds.

"I don't need a playroom," Hille said of his relatively utilitarian setup. "When I jump in that bunk, I'm tired. I go to sleep."

Before setting off, he does a walk-around safety check -- bleeds off the condensation from the air brakes, makes sure the air hoses are looking good, tires inflated. All 18 tires have to be checked several times daily; otherwise, you could have a flat and not know it. Truck stops sell billy clubs for this purpose but Hillie likes to use his foot. He owns the 10 tires on his tractor -- two steering tires at $298 each and eight drives at $326 -- more than $3,200 total. He runs Bridgestone radials, 42 inches high, so thick of tread that, after awhile, normal wear will throw the speedometer reading off.

The rig is 13 1/2 feet high, 8 1/2 feet wide and a shade over 64 feet long, of which the trailer box accounts for 53. This is longer than the usual 48-foot box, but Hille's cargo, packed in 1,113 cardboard boxes, is relatively light. "We cube out before we weigh out," he said. His overall weight on this trip is about 22,000 pounds short of the 80,000-pound maximum generally allowed for trucks.

The safety check complete, Hille swings into the cab and crunches into the first of nine gears forward. (Ninth is overdrive.)

Once on the road, he pops open his belt and the top button to ease the pressure on a generous belly, an occupational hazard.

Suddenly he exclaims, "Eeeeeee-yessir!" -- his favorite catchall phrase, honed to perfect insouciance at military prep school years ago.

The Run Across An incident in Colorado highlighted how a trucker, due to a mere inadvertence, can suddenly face hundreds of dollars in unexpected expenses. What happened was, Hille had a tape of Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" that he wanted to play as he rolled down the western slopes of the Rockies into the fierce, beautiful deserts of the west. But the tape was twisted.

Steering with his left elbow, he tried to untwist it as he drove, but after swerving onto the shoulder a couple of times he gave it to his passenger -- who began unspooling it onto the floor, where it got sucked into one of two air conditioning motors under the seat. The motor burned out, and the cab began to heat up.

"I gotta get it fixed," Hille said. "I'll guarantee you it'll be hot tomorrow. It may be well in excess of 110 down in Vegas." He stopped in Grand Junction to call a Mack dealer, opening the conversation with a folksy, "Make my day and tell me you're working late!" But the dealerdidn't have the part, and Hille grimly drove on.

As it turned out, that cool Canadian air saved him. He finished the run to the coast without replacing the broken motor. Thursday night in California was so cool -- in July! -- that you could see your breath in the air.

The trip had begun Sunday evening at a loading dock in Easton, Pa. Hille had hit the turnpike at Harrisburg, crossed a swatch of West Virginia and fetched up at that Ohio rest stop for the night. From there, for the next four days, he continued on I-70 through St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver, cut south on Rte. 15 in Utah, touched a corner of Arizona, then dropped down through Vegas to the Mojave and on into L.A.

What a trip!

And what a view from the cab -- from the verdant East to the plains, where gigantic white grain elevators gleamed like pale sculptures; across the flat farmlands of eastern Colorado until, with an almost shocking impact, the white-tipped Rockies suddenly filled the huge windshield; and on across the stunning sandrock wilderness that stretches all the way to the coast.

Approaching Denver, Hille had the "William Tell Overture" blaring on the stereo. His right wrist rested loosely on the gearshift, and his hand was bobbing like a conductor's.

The day he went through Indianapolis, President Reagan was there. Billy Graham was preparing a crusade in Denver as he passed. He went through Independence, Truman's home town; and Abilene, where Ike was born (now, a sign says, it's "Dole Country"); and past Hannibal, the land of Tom and Huck.

A place you never thought you'd be: Terre Haute, in a heavy rain.

We saw a Budgetel Inn, Signature Inn, Holiday Inn, Rodeway Inn, Days Inn, La Quinta Inn, Ramada Inn, Walden Inn, Aloha Inn, Carriage Inn, Red Roof Inn.

(But no Done Inn.)

The conversation ranged, and Hille came back time after time to safety questions, saying that, in his view, many "four-wheeler" drivers are discourteous, know little about trucks and drive dangerously when near them.

"Now why did you do that? Dummy!" he muttered at one driver.

At another: "Stupid!"

And: "He just started to come around me on the right! The idiot's got his wife and little kid asleep on the back seat."

"Lookit this jerk!"

"This scares the pee out of me!"

Some Theories on How Not to Get Smooshed by a Truck

"The real problem is people doing dumb things in front of you," Hille said. A loaded truck going 60 mph on a dry road needs the length of a football field to stop, and if a four-wheeler stops or slows too quickly in front, there can be trouble.

"Treat the truck with a little respect. It's like that old joke, what do you call a guy who's 6-4, 240 pounds and not an ounce of fat on him, and who's got a switch-blade in his hand? 'Sir!' "

What if a truck comes roaring up behind you?

"That truck may be going 60 or a little better to get a run on the next hill. If you accelerate a little and let him get his run on the hill, he'll be grateful to you. On a superhighway, the easiest thing is to just jack your speed up five miles or so and get out of his way. Or pull to the left lane or right to let him go through."

Why shouldn't the truck go around?

"Sometimes they can't. They're not allowed in the left lane."

Well, what the heck -- why should the car move?

"If a trucker comes up behind fast, either he's a discourteous {expletive} or his brakes don't work. Are you willing to take the chance that he's just a discourteous {expletive}? That's what I mean by respect ... If somebody wants to drive like an {expletive}, let him! You're not gonna change him. You can get his company name and turn him in."

How come trucks sometimes hog the left lane?

"Say I want to go 65 to get a run on a hill. Even with that, I know I'll be at 50 halfway up the hill. I moved to the left, but now I can't move to the right because I'm not past that car. So I end up running the hill in the left lane."

It is astonishing, Hille said, what a trucker can't see from his cab. There's a long cone-shaped blind spot behind the truck, and another low and to the right. If you're closer than four seconds behind, or passing on the right, the trucker might not see you.

"I get nervous when somebody sits back there by my trailer wheels mile after mile without passing," he said.

Finally: "Generally speaking, four-wheelers should give trucks a wide berth. Don't follow close to a truck, don't sit next to a truck, don't jump in front of a truck."

Ho, Bub!

"Six minutes to breakfast," Hille announced one morning.

At that moment we passed Smokey, and "Ralph" went BEEP-BEEP-BEEP.

The car ahead slowed to a crawl.

"Why is this guy going 45?" Hille demanded irritably. "Probably because he has a latent death wish!"

Tomorrow: Trucker sex, love and marriage