There's something about rock 'n' roll music and the darkened cab of an 18-wheeler lumbering down the highway at night--head-knocking riffs from Aerosmith, Deep Purple and guitar god George Thorogood.
For Norman Thorne, it inspires an urge to play air guitar behind the wheel of his big rig, shouting lyrics into the darkness that mingle with the drawling banter of the CB radio boys and the steady beep of his dashboard radar detector.
It is well past midnight on a stretch of eastbound Interstate 40 in Arizona and Thorne feels bad to the bone. He is master of this frenetic freeway universe--moving the throttle through all 10 gears of a powerful 450-horsepower engine, his cab perched 12 feet above the scattering, insect-like four-wheelers down below.
Owner-operator of the 1984 Peterbilt rig he calls "The Pete," Thorne is a long-distance businessman on the road year-round. His office is a 58-foot-long, 33,500-pound beast of burden that hauls everything from coffee to cosmetics to condoms, coast to cloudy coast, on isolated blue highways and big-city boulevards.
In 14 years as a trucker, Thorne has logged enough miles to drive to the moon and back five times. He has crossed this vast continent more than 1,000 times, wandering through all 48 lower states.
Since the Great Depression, long-distance truckers have been an integral part of the country's heroic folklore--the road's version of the American cowboy.
Once a staple of this country's freight-hauling highways, independent truckers such as Thorne have become an endangered breed. Fewer than 70,000 strong, they represent a fraction of the more than 2.5 million professional truck drivers operating today.
"This truck is Eden to me," he says, lighting another Marlboro. "Being out here on the highway is what I want to do. But there are so many things working against you. Sometimes, the fact you're even moving with a load of cargo on your back, it's a victory in itself."
Indeed, on this journey from Los Angeles to Dallas, not a mile marker goes by that Thorne does not weigh the frustrations of interstate business against the beauty of seeing America through the expansive windshield of the rig he babies like a teen-age motorhead.
At 32, with his blow-dried brown hair and penny loafers, Thorne looks more like a lawyer than he does a long-distance freight mover. His boyish charm is tempered by a rough, unpredictable edge. He is one trucker who loathes country-Western music, sporting the CB handle "Carolina Free Bird," an ode to his favorite Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
He is a ninth-grade dropout who was always curious about the highway life. As a boy in Texas he watched the 18-wheelers pass from the back seat of his father's 1966 Rambler and always wanted to be riding \o7 Up There\f7 , blowing the big air horn.
Now Thorne can see potholes in his boyhood dream.
He is a typical small-time operator fighting cutthroat competition with the huge trucking monopolies, a dour-faced David complaining about what he calls the government's wrongheaded regulation that threatens to drive his one-man firm out of business.
In the world of long-distance freight hauling, Thorne and other owner-operators are like self-employed taxi drivers: commanders of their own fixer-uppers and their own schedules, paid-by-the-mile opportunists who must hustle free-lance fares without a dispatcher. Most are men, with the occasional woman or husband-wife team.
Theirs is a life of greasy chili dogs, unfiltered cigarettes and strong coffee. They are always breathing into a pay phone trying to score the next load that enables them to constantly crisscross the country. They are nocturnal creatures, driving all night long just to make time.
Unable to compete with huge companies such as Arkansas' J.B. Hunt, with its armies of drivers and sophisticated dispatch systems, independents must nibble away at the edges of the long-distance trade, relying on brokers for their loads--an uneasy relationship that makes many drivers distrustful of the hand that feeds them.
Because when you run your own 18-wheeler, there is no time to "deadhead" down the highway without a load, no money to spare for extras such as laminated road maps and impulsive $50 truck washes. You take showers that come free with diesel fill-ups.
The high cost of fuel cuts Thorne's $150,000 gross annual income in half. That and other costs make him ask the operators for refund checks of 75 cents when pay phones fail him. At restaurants and motels, he argues for the trucker's rate: "I can't believe that's as low as the price goes. All the other chains do it. Why don't you check again? Or do I need to speak to the manager?"
And, at all costs, he avoids the uniformed men at the state truck scales. He sees them as itchy-fingered civil servants ready to write him up on a pricey violation.
Indeed, out here in the middle of the night, The Man looms ahead: