It was like sitting in a truck stop in Butte, Mont., this morning except that everyone was speaking Arabic.

The men were rough and ready, and although their dress was different, they exhibited the same bravado of the American trucker. They were also bored and anxious to get moving; for more than two days they had been stuck in this little crossroads town because an unexpected spring snow in the mountain passes west of here had closed the main highway between Beirut and Damascus.

It caused a gigantic traffic jam - more than 500 vehicles at either end by actual count - as cars, buses and trucks lined the road waiting for snowplows to clear it.

The road is a key transit route to the rest of the Arab world for citrus fruits from southern Lebanon and goods from Beirut's newly reopened ports, and the major channel for supplying the more than 30,000 Syrian troops on duty as peacekeepers in Lebanon.

With a shortage of port facilities in the booming Middle East, the gaily painted yellow and red truks have become increasingly important. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other oil-rich Persian Gulf nations depend mainly on trucks for their supplies.

The trucks stalled here were either Syrian army vehicles heading into Lebanon with supplies and replacement troops, or empty trucks from Jordan, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia going to pick up loads at Beirut or the orange groves near Sidon.

Despite the importance of this road, Lebanon and the Syrian army could muster only three snowplows to get it open. There were no sanding or salting trucks in operation.

Compared to the Rocky Mountain passes in the western United States, neither the amount of snow (less than a foot) nor the height of the mountains was impressive. The highest pass, Dahr el Baidar, about eight miles from here, is only 5,059 feet.

Yet the impact was tremendous. Du Point's Middle East manager, for example, left Damascus Thursday morning, for an important meeting in Beirut that afternoon. Today, he was still stalled in a hotel here. He hoped to get to Beirut for a few hours this afternoon to sign some papers before flying off to another meeting in Jordan.

He was not the only one to miss appointments. The badly heated summer resort hotels here were overflowing with businessman trying to get to Beirut. The truck drivers stayed in their cabs.

Early this morning, the businessmen and truckers rushed for their vehicles and roared off in a scene reminiscent of the Oklahoma land rush - only to be turned back by Syrian troops who insisted the road was not yet cleared.

In wily, Levantine fashion, though, some cars used back roads to get around the checkpoint and lined up three miles farther up the road. These cars were first to start up the still slippery, single-lane roads.

At Sofar and Bahamdun, mountain resorts 15 miles from Beirut, another 500 or more cars and trucks were tyring to head for Damascus. Most of the trucks were loaded, and it was complete chaos in the towns as they jock-eyed for positions and line up three and four abreast.

"It's madness, but it only happens three times a winter so the government doesn't bother going anything," said one Lebanese.

Getting here provided an illustration of the extremes of the Lebanese character. It started as a trip into Fatahland, the rocky area in southeast Lebanon that Palestian Fatah commandos use as bases to attack Israel. The southern outskirts of Fatahland have been under attack by Israeli backed Christian forces.

Partway across the mountains, near Jezzine, our car got stuck in a sudden snowfall. About 20 cars lined up behind us on the narrow mountain road while heavy trucks - trying to beat the close main Damascus-Beirut highway - headed downhill toward us.

One Lebanese threatened to douse our car with gasoline and set it afire to clear the road. There was great tension before everyone got together to push all the cars over the crest of the hill. If there had not been Syrian troops present, someone could have been shot. There have been shootings in this country for lesser offenses than blocking a road.

A few miles further along, though, drivers townspeople and Syrians joined to open a perilous narrow passageway in a portion of the road blocked by two trucks that had skidded.

This morning, truck drivers here said they were sure they could move the stalled trucks and completely open up that secondary route. Tired of waiting, they set out to try. By nightfall they had not reached their terminal here. Presumably they joined the vehicles bogged down on the secondary route between Damascus and Beirut.