High in the Rockies above Denver, where cool summer breezes caress pine-clad slopes, Paul and Lori Meyer pull their sleek blue International tractor-trailer into a Texaco pit stop. Paul heads to the pay phone to check in with their dispatcher, and Lori goes into the little market to pick up some provisions.

The Meyers are a Trucker Couple, an increasingly familiar sight on America's highways.

"It's the only way to do it if you're married," says Lori, who's short with curly brown hair and a cheery smile. "I love to travel. It's a beautiful way to see the country, it really is."

"It works out fairly well," says her husband Paul. "It takes up a lot of empty time on the road -- at least you got someone with you."

They take turns driving, though he does most of it. They have no children, and have been doing this for eight years.

"I drive to give him a nap," she says. "We work together to make our business work."

On this run, the Meyers are hauling air conditioners from Minnesota to Fresno, Calif. They own their tractor -- a beautifully decorated $105,000 rig with a big double sleeper behind the cab containing bunks, a sink, a closet and other amenities. A small dog travels with them.

How does a marriage work in such close quarters?

"I suppose maybe once a year I stay home for two weeks and it gives me a break," Lori says. "We have our disagreements, but I guess we aren't fighters. He's calm. I do get rattled sometimes, but when I do end up staying home I get antsy pretty quick."

Says Paul, "A few days it gets tense. Mostly it's job-related, because that's a small area for two people" -- he indicates the cab of the truck.

"You can make the life what you want," she says.

"It can be work if you let it get to you," he says.

Operating out of their home in Storm Lake, Iowa, they stay on the road three weeks at a time and then take a week off. But they rarely stop to see the sights.

"Mostly it's business," says Lori. "Once you get your truck paid for, then you can afford to take time."

Making Ends Meet

If there is such a thing as a psychopathology of everyday trucking, it surely must be largely due, as trucker Brad Hille puts it during a week-long run across America in his 18-wheeler, to the business being so "lousy for your social life."

There are "lady truck drivers," he says, "but most of 'em you wouldn't want to get caught in a dark alley with." And there are always the "lot lizards" -- prostitutes who work the big truck stops -- but there seem to be fewer of them these days. Hille says he never went for them anyway, though he was tempted one time when "a couple of cute ones came knocking on my door."

By degrees, however, things seem to be changing on the highways. There are more women truckers -- some of them, like Lori Meyer, working with husbands and friends, some working on their own. As Hille drove from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles with a load of paper cups, living out of truck stops and sleeping in his rig, there were many trucker couples, some with small children who appeared to be having a great time.

"Oh, damn! Has he got himself a foxy co-driver!" Hille exclaimed at one point as he rolled past another truck on the Kansas flats.

The commodious double sleepers -- like the one the Meyers have -- make life easier for trucker couples. They're a relatively new development, made possible by a 1982 law that allowed larger trucks. Staying in motels is financially out of the question for most drivers most of the time.

In Hille's case, his marriage ended early this year, and he's convinced that if his ex-wife had been more interested in trucking the marriage would have survived -- and he would have been financially far ahead of where he is now.

"I would like very much to have a wife to help me drive, someone to be out here to share this beautiful country," he says. Besides, he adds, "we could do nearly double the miles, and double the income."

It's a simple matter of overhead, of squeezing the most possible miles out of the truck in the shortest possible time.

The payment on Hille's 1985 Mack truck is $365 a week. Beyond that, insurance runs $265 a month, fuel is a major expense, and that's just the beginning. There are repairs, parts, taxes, licenses, permits and other expenses.

The business failure rate for independent truckers like Hille, he says, is very high because "most don't have the business training. At the end of the week I came home with $1,100 or $1,200. I had to hide that money fast because if my wife got it, it'd be gone! Because half of that belonged to the truck -- had to be put aside for the next month's truck payment, or future maintenance work. And profit -- put aside for the next piece of equipment. And for taxes."

On the subject of taxes alone he is eloquent, the numbers snapping like popcorn off his lips:

"My federal tax on fuel is $3,500 a year ... Then I have a $2,000-a-year license package, including permits for all the states. There's a $550 federal highway use tax payable to the IRS. That's over $6,000 already and the state fuel taxes are added on top of that. And excise taxes! I'll bet when all is said and done I'm paying over $9,000 a year in taxes just to own and operate this truck."

He's ordered a new Mack tractor that will cost about $73,000, of which more than $8,000 will be excise tax. He plans to keep his present rig, hire a driver and lease it out. In all, he grosses about $100,000 annually and nets a third of that, paying little or no income taxes because of depreciation and expenses. He learned to drive a truck on his own seven years ago. (Only 12 states require a road test in a truck in order to be licensed to drive one, although most states require a written exam on trucking subjects. This should change under a law that requires uniform state rules by 1992, with the exact nature of those rules still to be worked out by the Department of Transportation.)

Hille's idea is to find a wife who wants to live in the truck during the week, driving while he's sleeping and vice versa. Not forever, of course -- just for a few years until they can expand, buy more trucks, hire drivers and get off the road.

"I run into drivers who have their wives with them all the time," he says. "They seem to be quite happy." He knows of one trucker couple who grossed $230,000 last year working as independents under contract with a Midwest shipper -- that would come out to a net of maybe $70,000 with little income tax.

Hille admits a trucking marriage probably wouldn't be all wine and roses. "I've been past Mount Rushmore now about five times and I've never seen it. I don't have the time. Got delivery dates to meet. Gotta move. Now if I had a co-driver, and we were ahead of schedule, we could stop and smell the flowers now and then."

Maybe.

If he doesn't find a co-driving wife, Hille thinks there may be other ways to be happily married and remain in trucking. He has some trucking friends whose wives "love them and put up with it. They ride every now and then. Bill's wife is raising four kids -- two are in college now. Dan's wife, she works in the claims department of Nationwide. They've got a wonderful relationship. When he comes home on the weekends, they have a lot of fun."

He's thought of running a classified ad:

WANTED -- Good-looking woman, 25-35, 110 pounds, well educated, who likes classical music, is somewhat of a workaholic, loves travel and wants to see the country the hard way. Will train.

Of course, he says philosophically, it may not happen just the way he would like:

"All I need is to fall in love with someone in California who doesn't want to move."

The Rhythm of the Road

In central Utah the skyline is all pyramids and monuments. Coppery red rock faces peer down in the late afternoon sun. Traffic is sparse. A sign says there will be no services for 100 miles, which turns out to mean nothing at all but desert.

Rolling down the steep 7 percent grades, Hille uses the new "engine brake" he installed a week earlier at a cost of $1,600. When he flips a switch, the engine revs as if he had downshifted, somewhat retarding the rig's plunge. He doesn't have to use the regular air brakes so much.

This is a good thing. The truck weighs 58,000 pounds, and Hille doesn't like to get going much over 20 mph down a steep one. Here in Utah they don't have those runaway-truck ramps that were a comfort coming down off the Rockies in Colorado.

A loaded tractor-trailer going downhill is an awesome thing. It's never easy to shift gears anyway, and therefore not impossible to imagine a downshift going awry, the trucker losing it right there, flat out, rolling in neutral, brakes aflame.

There are two on each axle, five axles: 10 sets of brake shoes. God help the trucker who fails to inspect them regularly.

He passes a truck stopped beside the highway. White smoke is pouring from it, and Hille eyes the scene professionally.

"Doesn't take long to heat 'em up if you don't drive 'em right or let 'em get out of adjustment," he says. "They'll start smoking, then they'll fade, then they'll catch on fire."

He shakes his head.

Up in Wyoming that happened to him once, coming down Powderhorn Pass at four miles an hour. He "looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the brakes smoking like crazy." Naturally, he didn't feel fear, "just concern."

As Hille tells this story, he is driving up a long hill, and a loud alarm buzzer comes on in the cab -- the engine is overheating.

The buzzer persists.

"Oh, hush up," he says, "you're not that hot yet."

He downshifts to take the strain off the engine. "There goes my fuel economy."

The buzzer peters out.

For the last tank of diesel, Hille got only 5.7 miles a gallon, which is a lot better than most truckers get but bad for Hille, who is a fanatic. He likes to average 6.7 or better, and has tuned his engine to help achieve that. As a result, he has less power than many truckers, but a higher net income.

"We got a lot of guys who have big 400-hp engines," he says. "It's ego. They'll argue no, but that's the reason. They don't need all that power."

The head winds he bucked coming across the Great Plains, he says, probably cost him half a mile a gallon.

"This is a long hill," he complains.

He begins slapping the dashboard to find "where that clicking noise is coming from."

The CB crackles and another trucker comes on to warn about "a comedian behind a mound of dirt in a white Mustang at the 15-yard line" (a cop hiding at Mile Marker 15).

Hille takes off his left tennis shoe, puts his foot up on the dashboard to rest it.

Time passes.

He rolls on -- truckin'.

Beaver, Utah

The El Bambi Cafe and Truck Stop sign on the edge of town has a little picture of Bambi, the Disney deer, on it. A red scale just outside the restaurant's door says "Character Readings." Next to that, a bronzed young trucker stands making a call at a pay phone. He's wearing a sleeveless yellow T-shirt that says "SAME {EXPLETIVE}, DIFFERENT DAY."

Inside the El Bambi, the paper place mats are titled "THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF BEE POLLEN." Under a section containing "Statements by Doctors," one is quoted as saying that bee pollen contains a hormone similar to a human hormone "which functions as a sex gland stimulant."

One That Got Away

At a weigh station in Utah, where you can see red rock hills jutting onto the plain 60 miles off, the station officer is working alone. The place is fairly busy, with trucks coming and going over the scales and a group of young hitchhikers walking by.

The officer stands at a computer in a small building, watching the trucks through a window -- but suddenly he falls silent. Appears dazed.

Does not move. (In fact, he has clutched.)

Finally, still motionless, he says in soft deadpan:

"Christ, these hitchhikers come in here ... "

Pause.

"Christ, where did everybody go?"

Pause.

"Somebody ran out on me, I think ... "

Pause.

Then, quietly, with a shake of his head, he returns to work.

Pet Live Prairie Dog

The signs are wood, hand-lettered in white on a red background.

"SEE THE LARGEST PRAIRIE DOG IN THE WORLD -- 50 MILES," the first one says.

Then after a while: "BUFFALO. PHEASANTS. QUAIL. SEE LIVE RATTLESNAKE. PET ... "

Then: "SEE 5-LEGGED COW ... "

When you finally get there, it's a ragged scattering of buildings and corrals in the middle of nowhere. But, sure enough, there in a corral is a scruffy brown buffalo.

The Longest Day

Despite his reputation as a safe driver with 800,000 accident-free miles, Hille is driving a longer day than allowed by federal regulation, which says he can drive 10 hours in a 15-hour period before having to take 8 off.

He started the day in Goodland, Kan., at 7:50 a.m. eastern time and spent 17 hours on the road crossing part of Kansas, all of Colorado and most of Utah, finally stopping in Beaver at 12:54 a.m.

A 740-mile run.

Hille spends 14 1/2 hours driving; during the other 2 1/2 he takes a nap and makes various pit stops. Nevertheless, he fills out his logbook, which federal law requires truckers to keep, to show him driving legal hours this day.

He says he's been driving safely even though he hasn't followed the letter of the law.

"I listen to my body before the logbook," he says.

A National Transportation Safety Board study of 200 truck accidents in 1984 and 1985 found that 28 percent were caused by driver fatigue. In a separate study conducted in 1985, the American Automobile Association found that fatigue causes 41 percent of heavy-truck accidents and estimated that one in three interstate truck drivers exceeds the government's driving hours.

The last few hours of Hille's longest day:

10:23 p.m. -- Sundown.

11:19 -- In Salina, a fair-sized burg, Hille looks for a truck stop but can't find one he likes.

He continues on a two-lane road south toward Richfield.

Darkness falls. Headlights are on. There's a car ahead, two trucks behind. Hille asks one of the drivers by CB if it's an hour down to Interstate 15. Nobody knows.

He passes a Husky sign.

"I hope it's a Husky truck stop," Hille says. "I never heard of just a Husky gas station."

(Well, he has now.)

He drives on through Richfield, still on the two-lane.

"We better find something pretty soon," he says. "I'm starting to feel a little punchy."

But he will continue for at least another hour.

He passes another Husky sign.

Hille, brightening: "What's that!"

Later: "Just a {expletive} gas station!"

A road sign says: "Sharp Curves Next 5 Miles."

Finally Hille gets back on a four-lane divided highway, a lonely stretch with little traffic. He's still about 45 miles from Beaver.

"I don't know if I can make it," he says.

But he keeps on truckin'.

Some lights appear ahead, and he says, "If those lights are a rest area, I can tell you what we're going to be doing."

But they're not. He drives on.

12:30 -- Hille has been driving for 14 hours now. Another trucker tells him by CB that "there's a Husky in Beaver and a nice place 35 miles" after that; the place in Beaver, according to this driver, is "a dive."

12:54 -- Dive or not, Hille opts for Beaver, pulling off I-15 and parking next to the Husky, which offers truckers a free shower with a fill-up.

He enters the El Bambi Cafe and Truck Stop, next to the Husky, for a piece of pie and a glass of milk.

Then he beds down in his truck for the night.

At the End of the Run

The next day, Hille drives down through Las Vegas and stops for a while at Whiskey Pete's on the California border, where he wins $4 playing the slots, then on into the Mojave toward Barstow. By evening, he's twisting down the mountain passes toward San Bernardino, which lies in a great valley of gusting wind, dust and gray smog.

"OUTPOST WEDDING CHAPEL," says a sign. "Complete Marriage Service. No Blood Test Required!"

Hille pulls into the Ontario 76 Auto/Truck Plaza, a big truck stop with hundreds of rigs lined up in the parking lot, a store, restaurant and motel, with rooms for truckers only. The stop is just an hour from where he is to deliver his freight next morning.

As he parks, some truckers are arguing about drugs over the CB.

"You got drivers sitting in this truck stop hollerin' for dope all day!" says one voice. "You got that, what do you expect the goddam DOT to do?"

The answer is inaudible.

Each truck stop has its own personality, Hille says. At T-5 (Exit 5 off the Ohio Turnpike at Toledo), there's a "party truck stop with a country-western bar"; in Youngstown is another with a lounge where alcohol is served. A truck stop in New Jersey "is the worst, the roughest -- you can get hurt there, hurt bad"; another, in Ohio, is "a bit seedy ... a lot of {expletive} goes down there. There's an active prostitution trade and active drug trade that goes on there."

Hille, who took some prescription pills for high blood pressure during the trip and had a couple of beers before bed one night, says he doesn't take illegal drugs. Sometimes, he says, he has used NoDoz.

He checks into a $22 room -- small and with a diesel smell, but also clean and equipped with a hot shower that works. He has to leave a $5 deposit with the fuel desk, recoverable upon turning in the towels the next morning.

Hille says he's stayed in trucker rooms "where your shower slippers went crunch on the cockroaches."

Downstairs, truckers of all shapes and sizes bustle about, making arrangements at the fuel desk, talking into pay phones and using the laundry room and other facilities. The window of the barbershop has a sign: "Country Roads Creative Hair Design."

In the store is displayed that peculiar mix of merchandise that truckers seem to buy, from teddy bears to road maps, radar detectors, brake lights, batteries, cowboy boots, china figurines, spotlights, fuel filters, bee pollen, nachos, black lace teddies on buxom plastic models, billy clubs, cattle prods, beer mugs and T-shirts that say "MY DADDY IS A TRUCKER."

In the restaurant, the booths have individual credit card telephones; four clocks on the wall show times in different zones; TV screens display brokers' listings of free-lance loads and destinations.

A bearded trucker who looks like Willie Nelson sits in a booth intently watching one of these screens; a woman sits across from him, eating. A woman driver sits at the counter drinking coffee and reading the National Enquirer. Another trucker is having breakfast with two children. A striking young woman with a backpack is smoking a cigarette and gazing vacantly into the middle distance.

Later, at a bank of 30 pay phones, the woman driver says: "My permit ran out. Can we get {someone} out there to put some lights on that thing so I can run at night?"

A handsome young trucker is saying: "I'm getting married this weekend ..."

An older trucker, who not only looks like Willie Nelson but sounds like him, is complaining: "You cain't reach anyone on that 800 number ... Okay, I'm gonna head up that way pretty quick, see if I can find me a place to stay. I don't have any i-dee where I'm gonna set down."

Another lean trucker speaks animatedly into the phone as a boy stands beside him: "Well, I'll just put him on the plane! ... What did you do with that dog? ... Don't give me that! ... Well, he ain't gonna have no more dogs! Don't tell me you're gonna haul this one around with you ... Yeah, but they grow up to be a nuisance ... They do, too!"

Suddenly the girl with the vacant gaze is standing by the door, asking everyone who goes out, " 'Scuse me, you know anybody who's going up to Utah?"

"No, I shore don't," says a guy in a cowboy hat, swinging out the glass doors.

Then a guy in a blue baseball cap tells her he's just come in from Utah.

"And you're goin' back, yeah?"

"I may be!" He points: "The truck's over there!"

"Oh, that would be great!"

But an hour later, she's back in the restaurant smoking and looking depressed.

Dock and Load

Friday morning, the day Hille is scheduled to deliver his cargo of 25,743 pounds of paper cups in Los Angeles, begins badly. His dispatcher breaks the news that there's been a mistake, and he can't unload until Monday.

He fidgets and drinks tea in the restaurant.

"If I sit here till Monday, it's gonna make it awfully darn difficult to pay the bills," he says. "I'm sitting on a very fine edge right now, having lost three days last week {one for the engine brake retrofit, two due to scheduling problems}. I was hoping to make that up over the weekend."

Just last night, anticipating a quick turnaround in L.A., he had said cheerfully, "If I could get loaded up Friday, deliver on the East Coast Tuesday or Wednesday, then take a load from there to Chicago, then back home, I could pay for that new garage. I'd have one super week."

Now he complains of a headache, goes for some Excedrin.

Hille's problem is not the five-day trip across country, for which he will be well paid, but the turnaround time. Each day he sits idle costs him $250 to $325 in expenses and lost revenue.

The worst he ever experienced was "five days in El Paso with no freight, and I got sick on bad water."

Downtime is a nightmare, pure and simple.

Maybe it's not so bad for independents who hold out for high-paying loads, but Hille works for a relatively low compensation per mile, and he's got to keep moving.

"A lot of guys will sit around truck stops waiting for the load that pays $1.75 or $2 a mile," he says. "They don't realize what they're losing. A lot of people criticize me for working for 73 cents a mile. They say I'll go broke. If going broke means buying a new truck every two years, having a beautiful home on the lake, a new BMW in the garage and money in the bank, I can stand it."

For this trip he will receive $1,817.64, or 68 cents a mile for 2,673 miles, the shortest book distance between his starting and end points; his actual road miles are 2,825.

He calls his dispatcher and complains, charmingly.

Takes another Excedrin.

Waits.

Suddenly the fuel desk pages him. It's his dispatcher.

"They'll take the load!" he shouts.

And sprints for the rig.

P.S.

Later that afternoon, Hille picked up department store merchandise for Wal-Mart in Mississippi. Then he deadheaded to Louisiana for insulation, which he took to Michigan. There he picked up air conditioners for Cleveland, and was home for the weekend in North Canton, Ohio.

Calling to report this, he said cheerfully: "It was a good two weeks, after all!