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Finding The Rhythm Of I-85

At dusk, trucks fill the lot at Wilco 364 in Salisbury, NC.

Labor Day weekend: the last big travel holiday of summer. Triple AAA estimates the vast majority of people - 91 percent - are traveling by car. Tens of thousands will make part, or all, of their trip on I-85. It stretches from Virginia to Alabama, linking the major cities of the Southeast like a strand of pearls. Tourists rule the road on holidays. But the true rhythm of I-85 is best felt on a normal day - say a Wednesday - from a truck stop like "Wilco 364" at Exit 71 in Salisbury where Tony Moffre is assistant manager. "Lunchtime it's madness here," says Moffre. "I mean it's insane busy. Then it slowly starts to slowdown as the day goes on." Truckers ease their enormous trailers into the parking lot and hop out for a snack, to stretch stiff legs. Evenings they line up for one of the showers back behind the soda case. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are busy shower nights, says Moffre. "Guys are home on the weekend. Monday or Tuesday they stop for a shower. Wednesday or Thursday, stop for a shower and they're back home on Friday," says Moffre. I-85 has helped make Charlotte a major trucking hub. Some 300 trucking firms in the region employ more than 30,000 people. But long before I-85 was built in the '60s the same route was a trading path for American Indians. White traders and trappers came later, carrying beaver pelts to suit the latest trend among European settlers - the top hat. Today the haul is more varied. Here's a sample: Plastic planters for big trees, brand new furniture, pet food, empty DVD cases, paint supplies, and grape juice. Since the '60s, all of that kind of stuff has come to the region by truck, for the most part. Before that, it was by railroad, which was finished in the 19th century and followed the same old trading path, bringing with it new industry and career opportunities to farmers and mill workers. "My daddy was a railroad man," says 74-year old James Worth Mullis. "He started out as a young boy." Mullis was born and raised near Salisbury. That railroad job was a big step up for his dad. But something new was making it way down the old trading path when Mullis came of age: I-85 brought him a career on the road. He drove 30 years for Carolina Freight. "It was a good life, good paying job," says Mullis. "You'd be surprised the money I made." Decades later, it's the same story for the truckers who file into the gas station off exit 71. The open road has its allure. But most say they drive for the money, which could be between $30,000 and $50,000 a year depending on how much you drive. "I started driving truck to make extra money to take care of my kids," says Joyce Davis who stopped for coffee at the Wilco station. "When you're a single mom, I never got my full education, so driving truck was more money than you would make at a convenience store, department store or whatever, so that's what I done." Before the night's through she'll get to Atlanta and come halfway back before curling up in the small sleeping compartment behind her truck's cab. Two to three times a week she drives down from Virginia with merchandise for a department store. Carlos Velasquez makes the same trip so often now he doesn't even notice the most famous landmark on I-85. But he sure remembers the first time he saw that water tower painted like a blushing peach just outside Gaffney, South Carolina. It looked, to him, like a giant rear-end, he recalls with a chuckle. Nowadays trucks passing by that giant peach are as likely to be carrying parts for the nearby BMW factory as they are local produce. And the drivers are as likely to tune into satellite radio as talk on a short wave system. The trucks pulling into the station of exit 71 are tricked out with laptops, wireless internet and flat screen TVs. Around 8:15 p.m. the parking lot is like a sardine can full of trucks. Their engines rumble, keeping the cabs air-conditioned for drivers who are sleeping, watching TV or, in the case of Rob Wilson, making videos to post on YouTube. He puts his camera on a tripod next to the steering wheel, secured with bungee chords. Wilson's videos are mostly day-in-the-life montages set to music. There are shots of him sleeping in the truck. Shuffling into a convenience store with messy hair on his way to the showers. Eating in diners. Thinking out loud on long, straight stretches of road. The videos usually get a few hundred hits - mostly from other truckers who also post to YouTube. But that's enough to make Wilson feel less isolated. As a kid, dreaming of life on the road, he never imagined the loneliness that would drive him to talk to his camera like it's a passenger. "Well, where am I going now?" he says to the camera in one video. "How about Asheville, North Carolina to Duluth, Minnesota?" Occasionally he'll cross paths with another YouTube trucker. They use Twitter and Facebook to keep tabs on each other. But often, the clock is running, so there isn't time to pull into a rest stop and catch up. All they can do is "run together for awhile" down a familiar stretch of I-85, pulling up side-by-side for a quick wave, as the rhythm of the road rumbles on.