FREDERICK -- They come here from Way Out There, from just about every state you can name, traveling thousands of miles in the big rigs, hauling what the United States eats and wears and uses. Robert Klein, for instance, left his home in Nebraska and made stops in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, picked up a cargo of frozen seafood, then traveled cross-country to New Jersey and Pennsylvania before winding up in Maryland.
And he did all this in too short a time to mention, which means maybe he stretched the rules on driving without rest.
"Truckers don't get paid for sittin' still," Mr. Klein says, his voice rich with what could be the official twang of the U.S. heartland. "Gotta keep that knot in that wallet."
Right now, this young truck-driving man has plenty of time to sit and talk about the trucking business, the presidential election and life in the United States. His Kenworth 3408 with the "four-and-a-quarter Cat" -- that is, a Caterpillar engine putting out 425 horsepower -- has broken down. "Transfer pump gone bad" is how Mr. Klein describes the mechanical problem.
He tried to fix it himself and has the grease-monkey hands to prove it. His T-shirt is dirty, and his blue jeans are smudged with engine grease. His eyes are squinty from too much cigarette smoke and not enough sleep. He's sitting on an ash can filled with cat litter by a bank of pay phones in the big truck plaza, just off Interstate 70, hard by the exit to Buckeystown.
"You want to talk politics?" Mr. Klein says, cradling a phone between his left ear and his shoulder. "Perot's back in it, isn't he? Let's vote for him. Somebody different. These other guys just wanna keep taking money out of our pockets, and I can't afford too much more of that."
"I'm for Clinton," says Henry Hudson, another trucker making a phone call. "He's as smooth as Routes 30 and 40 in Arkansas."
A big laugh goes up among the truckers. Routes 30 and 40 in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton is governor, have reputations.
"They're rough," says Carl Reddick, a large man from Memphis, Tenn.
"Real rough," says Garry Rhone, from Sacramento, Calif.
"Rough as a corn cob," says Mr. Klein.
The condition of Arkansas highways notwithstanding, Mr. Hudson says, he'll get off the road long enough to vote for Mr. Clinton in next month's presidential election.
A handful of other drivers says the same thing, though Mr. Clinton takes a lump or two along the way.
"I don't trust him," Mr. Reddick says, between bites on a smoked sausage in the cab of his tractor-trailer. "He sounds like a used car salesman. Too slick. Tells everybody what they want to hear."
They're from all over the country, proud of the work they do, informed and conversant on the issues of the day. They read USA Today and watch Cable News Network when they stop to rest.
During drive time, they listen to plenty of talk radio and the trucker chatter on CB radio. Four or five of them will run down a road late at night, bantering about politics and the presidential candidates. On a recent evening on I-70 near Cumberland, a self-described "trucker-minister" criticized President Bush for sending troops to the Persian Gulf, a comment that sparked a hot debate on the CB. One trucker cracked, "I'm gonna vote for the weasel," but it was not clear which candidate he meant.
Truckers provide a unique perspective on the U.S. scene today. The condition of the nation well can be measured in the amount of miles they drive each year and the redness in their eyes.
To a man, the truckers say they find themselves working more hours for less money. And some privately admit to driving longer than they should to make the money they need to live on. They are away from home for longer and longer periods.
Things were better, they say, before the trucking industry was deregulated in the early 1980s. "Freight is cheaper, fuel is higher, taxes are higher," says Mr. Hudson. "We're hauling for less than we did before."
"I made more money 10 years ago than I'm making now," says Jimmy Rogers, a trucker from Atlanta. "I get paid based on my mileage. There are some weeks when I'm not driving 500 miles. . . . There were years when I made $30,000, or $35,000, up to $42,000 one year. Last year, I made about $25,000. "I like the way Clinton is talking because he's focused on the economy. That's a big thing to me. If he can get other folks jobs, better jobs, then maybe I'd have to run more miles."
Just about every truck driver who stops to speak with The Sun pokes fun at Mr. Bush for his reluctance to acknowledge the recession last year and for his recent criticism of Mr. Clinton's activities during the Vietnam War.
"That's a nothing issue," Mr. Hudson says. "I didn't go to Vietnam. I never believed in it then. I don't believe in it now."
"It's not an issue," says Mr. Rogers, who is 49 and a Vietnam-era veteran of the Navy. "If someone doesn't feel right about a war, that's his right. Bush wants to put a rap on a guy because he didn't serve. Guys went to Canada to get out of the draft, didn't they? They were granted amnesty, weren't they? Give Clinton amnesty."
"The issue is this economy, it's jobs," says Mr. Rhone, accompanied on this trip by his wife, Kimberly, who is six months pregnant and expecting twins. "There's less money moving around today. People are less eager to spend, to send freight around. We sit more than we used to."
"We haven't had a vacation together. Can't stop for one. The company I work for filed for bankruptcy, but I'm sticking with them, trying to help them get back on their feet," Mrs. Rhone says.
The truckers say the president of the next four years has to shake things up, get things moving again. U.S. commerce looks, from the truckers' standpoint, about as flat as a Nebraska highway.
A couple of these men had bumpy rides on the way to this truck stop. Mr. Hudson, for instance, did not set out to be a trucker. He once thought he would always be an auto worker.
Ten years ago, he had a good job with Ford Motor Co. in Michigan. He lost it when the tractor division in which he worked as a welder was moved to Mexico.
He's been a truck driver for five years. He was in Frederick with a load of tomatoes destined for wholesale markets in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"I've been a Democrat all my life," Mr. Hudson says. "And I'll probably always be."
"I gave Bush a chance," says Mr. Rogers. "He made a lot of promises. Like everyone else, I believed him. . . . He has his good points, I guess. Foreign policy. The Persian Gulf War -- that was the high point for everyone, you know what I mean? The U.S. was winning. It was something we could say, you know, that we did. We did this, we won this one since we lost Vietnam.
"We've had nothing to get excited about in this country for a long time. And the war relieved that depressed state for a minute."