Martin Gilley, perched some 7 feet above the asphalt of U.S. 98 near Pembroke Pines, notices the white pickup 100 yards ahead in the early morning dimness and seems to discern the driver's thoughts. "Watch this truck," he says.
The pickup leaves a side road and pulls in front of Gilley's tractor-trailer rig, forcing him to gear down. The pickup promptly turns left at the next crossing road.
Gilley's face shows a seen-it-a-million-times expression.
"People can't stand to be behind a truck," he says in his whistling drawl. "If it was up to the public, we wouldn't be out there. They think we're just a nuisance."
The Winter Haven resident has become familiar with attitudes toward truckers during two decades as a professional driver. Some drivers, like the man in the pickup, act as if Gilley's rig -- at 44,000 pounds empty -- is not even there. Other drivers broadcast their ill regard in the form of hand gestures.
Gilley would gladly remind those contemptuous drivers that they depend on him and his colleagues far more than they realize.
"Everything is brought by truck," Gilley, 42, says. "A percentage is shipped on rail, but the train can't take it to the grocery store. If people think that stuff just magically appears in the grocery store, they're badly mistaken."
Gilley was born in Frostproof but grew up in Alabama. His father and grandfather both drove 18-wheelers, and he first settled behind the wheel of a big truck at age 14.
He later received training as a truck driver in the Army. In 1983, when Gilley was discharged, the trucking business relied upon an informal apprenticeship system, and his father-in-law at the time helped him enter the business.
Gilley met his current wife, Karen, six years ago when both worked for CTL, a Mulberry trucking company. They both worked hauling hazardous materials for a time, and they spent a year as a long-haul team, with Martin driving during the day and Karen at night.
Karen eventually dropped out of full-time driving to be home with the couple's three children, though she still holds a commercial license and drives on occasion. The kids -- Nicole, 16; Matthew, 12; and Briana, 4 -- often go on the road with one or both parents during the summer or over winter break.
"It gets a little claustrophobic from time to time, especially when the kids get real bored," says Karen Gilley, 36. "But we get to go so many places -- the redwood forests out west and later the same week at Kitty Hawk."
Since 1999, Martin Gilley has driven an 18-wheeler for Broadway Express, a division of Griffith Trucking, based in Effingham, Ill. Though Gilley has hauled produce and just about everything else, these days he delivers mostly furniture, exercise equipment and electronics.
At 3:30 a.m., Gilley sits in the idling truck parked in his yard, waiting for the air pressure in the brakes to rise and catching up on his logbook. Drivers must carefully document their time in 15minute intervals, and a violation can lead to a hefty fine.
He has a load of furniture picked up in Connecticut and headed to Miami. Gilley has stopped at home along the way, arriving late Valentine's Day after 50 days on the road.
City rules require Gilley to get signatures from his neighbors allowing him to keep his cab in his yard. He parks his trailer in the lot of a warehouse less than a mile away, but there is talk of a new tenant that will no longer allow truckers to rent space there.
If that happens, Gilley doesn't know where he will park his trailer. He says the city has barred truckers from using the parking lots of grocery stores -one of many reasons he asserts, "Polk County is anti-truck."
Gilley's company supplied him with his vehicle, a 2000 Peterbilt 385B with an 8-cylinder, 425horsepower engine. The rig, worth about $180,000, hauls a 53-foot trailer and can carry a gross weight of 80,000 pounds.
Whereas the standard truck has only a closet and a retractable single bed, Gilley's expanded cab has a small living space behind the driver's seat, complete with a shower and toilet, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a toaster oven, a sink, a hookup for a laptop computer, a folding table, a full-sized bed and a TV with a satellite connection, as well as a DVD player and a VCR.
While on the road, Gilley nearly always sleeps in his truck. A generator powers the appliances and keeps the truck engine warm, drawing only a fraction of the fuel an idling engine would use. He uses biodegradable soap in his shower and empties his toilet waste at truck stops.
Gilley collects his trailer and heads south on U.S. 27. A former smoker, he pops packets of Skoal Bandits into his mouth at regular intervals as he drives. He says a small percentage of truckers rely on stronger stimulation -- particularly amphetamine pills, or "speed" -- and admits that he used the pills early in his career.
But random drug checks at trucking companies and weigh stations -- Gilley underwent 17 last year -- keep most drivers clean.
Gilley offhandedly says he often brings along his miniature Schnauzer, Schnapps, who sits beside him as he drives.
"It gives you somebody to talk to beside yourself," says Gilley, a large fellow with swept-back, salt-and-pepper hair. "I go down the road and pet him, and it relieves the tension."
Pets are surprisingly common among truckers. In addition to dogs, cats and birds, Gilley has seen even bobcats and monkeys.
Truckers have other ways of keeping themselves occupied. The CB radio remains a fixture in cabs, though Gilley (whose handle is "Tabasco") says the increasingly coarse language forces him to turn it off when his kids are in the truck.
Satellite radio has become popular with drivers, and Gilley hopes to add an XM radio soon. In the meantime he buys or rents audio books from truck stops. He also talks to Karen and the kids at least twice a day by cellphone, using a hands-free headset.
Speeding past fields of sugar cane near Clewiston, Gilley towers above vans and SUVs, a position that lets him gaze well down the road and anticipate unwise maneuvers. In addition to erratic "four-wheelers," Gilley is alert for "road gators" -- rubber strips peeled off retread tires.
Gilley says he has experienced only one significant accident during his career, when a woman pulled in front of him in Alabama. He has had many close calls, though, and has seen plenty of risky driver behavior: people smoking dope or drinking, reading newspapers, holding cell phones in one hand and writing with another, applying makeup, flashing truckers or committing sex acts with passengers.
Inevitably, Gilley has witnessed horrific scenes. Once he was trailing another trucker who either fell asleep or had a heart attack and crossed the median, colliding with another semi and killing both drivers.
He has seen dead children in cars and drivers decapitated after running under trailers. He has seen kids toss pumpkins down on cars from overpasses. He once saw a man commit suicide by dropping from a bridge in front of a motor home.
Gilley's schedule of 21 to 30 days home per year, plus a week of vacation, is typical for truckers. He can usually be home for Christmas but not necessarily Thanksgiving. Karen, who coowns a martial-arts studio in Winter Haven, has learned not to expect her husband home for her birthday or their anniversary.
"It takes a special person to be married to a long-haul driver," Karen Gilley says. "You have to be able to be self-sufficient and handle all the rigors of being a single parent. I know a lot of people who married a truck driver and just can't handle their husband being gone all the time."
During the round trip to Miami, Martin Gilley lists the many disadvantages of a trucker's life. States and cities continually add regulations and increase fines. In some states, trucks are restricted to 55 miles per hour while other vehicles can go 70.
Then there are the restrictions on highway lanes, the difficulty of finding places to park for the night, and the anti-idling ordinances many cities have passed.
Though Gilley makes up to $57,000 a year before taxes, he says the pay rate is less impressive if based on what he considers a 24-hour workday.
"We sell our souls out here, and sometimes I wonder if it's worth it," Gilley says. Then he answers himself: "I've been doing it so . . . long I wouldn't know what else to do. I wouldn't be comfortable in an office. . . . You've got a little more personal freedom out here. I don't have my bossman looking over my shoulder. As long as I get my load there on time, he's happy."
DOWN AND BACK -- 14 HOURS
Gilley arrives in northwest Miami at 8:01 a.m., well ahead of his 9 o'clock deadline. He has covered 222 miles from Winter Haven to a furniture warehouse in an industrial area. He backs into a bay, fills out his logbook and opens the back of the truck for the employees to unload it.
Back on the road at 10:12 a.m., Gilley heads north on Interstate 95. The lanes in a construction zone are so narrow the truck's side mirrors hang above the striped lines.
He takes an exit at Port St. Lucie for the Flying J, a large truck stop that is part of a national chain. He tops off his tanks with 111 gallons of diesel fuel and slides into a parking spot beside a rig fronted by a copper-colored Mercedes cab with hydraulicpowered steps.
Some drivers -- mostly owneroperators -- trick out their dashboards with mahogany and chrome touches. Gilley notes a small percentage of drivers literally live in their trucks and pour all their earnings into their rigs.
Truck-stop patrons, generally in their 40s through 60s, include more than a few women. (About 6 percent of commercial truckers are women, according to the American Trucking Associations.)
Gilley settles in for a buffet lunch. Noting his "truck driver's belly," he says he had lost 30 pounds through a low-carbohydrate diet and a walking regimen at truck stops before the weight returned during the winter. After lunch, he waits 11Ú2 hours in line for a truck wash, a biweekly indulgence that costs $62.
Back on the road, Gilley heads north to Vero Beach and gets off at S.R.60, heading west. Reaching a passing zone, he goes around a black SUV that has been holding him up, and the driver immediately starts tailgating. Spying a white Saturn stopped ahead at a crossing road, Gilley says, "Watch this car."
Sure enough, the Saturn turns left into Gilley's path, forcing him to slow down.
Gilley reaches Winter Haven at 5:30, dropping his empty trailer at the warehouse lot before returning home 14 hours after he left. He backs the cab into his side yard.
His daughter Briana, wearing an iridescent purple dress, is waiting in the front yard. As is her custom, she clambers up onto the truck and disappears inside for a few minutes.
Inspection completed, Briana slides back down to earth. She opens the front door of her family's house and calls out, "Daddy's home!"
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or at 863-802-7518.