Step into Ray Reynolds' office, but watch the first step. And the second.

Now sit back and relax, if you dare.You'll soon be rolling at 55 mph on 18 burly wheels hauling 48,200 pounds of caustic acid.

Reynolds is a trucker, or a fleet operator.

He owns four trucks that he now leases to NuBulk Service Inc. in Henderson, Nev. The trucks haul hazardous chemicals, usually to either Los Angeles or Phoenix, each making four or five trips a week.

Reynolds doesn't fear hauling hazardous chemicals. "They're only as dangerous as the people who handle them," he says as he coddles the 79,470-pound hulk down a Henderson highway using the truck's 13 forward gears.

Chemical plants dot the desert landscape, and the Las Vegas skyline floats in the distance like a mirage.

A mile down the highway from NuBulk, the PEPCON plant lies in rust-colored rubble, a silent testimony to what can happen when something goes wrong. Two people died and hundreds were injured on May 4 when the plant that made solid rocket fuel exploded. PEPCON officials have since decided to relocate the ammonium perchlorate production facility to a site near Cedar City.

This September morning, workers are replacing the walls on the NuBulk building that had been damaged in the PEPCON blast a mile away.

Reynolds is a man who knows chemicals and trucking. After a stint in the Navy, he got a job hauling hay in California. That was 36 years ago, and he's been driving trucks ever since. Using a standard truckers' formula of 1 million miles in 12 years, that's 3 million miles. He moved to Las Vegas in 1986 after 25 years in Utah.

He's had only one trucking accident that was his fault. Back in 1966 he fell asleep at the wheel and turned a truck onto its side. A year earlier he was snoozing in the sleeper while another trucker was driving. The driver jumped from the cab just before a crash, leaving Reynolds in the sleeper. He had to be cut out of the truck, but he was unhurt.

He vows he'll never have another accident that's his fault.

His confidence is contagious as the Peterbilt truck cruises easily along I-15, its big handsome snout chasing the sun to Los Angeles.

If the truck is Reynolds' office, the interstate is his place of business. He feels comfortable on it. Trucks with drivers he knows pass on the northbound side of the interstate. He chats with them over the CB radio in banter difficult for an outsider to follow.

One of the trucks he owns comes into view. He talks business and jokes with the driver as their trucks pass on opposite sides of the interstate.

The drivers are curiously courteous toward each other. When another truck passes, Reynolds lets the driver know when he's cleared the Peterbilt by flashing his headlights. The driver then changes lanes and acknowledges gratitude by flicking the truck's rear lights a few times.

As the desert miles tumble by, the ride becomes deceptively smooth. The air-conditioned cab is comfortable with plush upholstery. The two seats ride on adjustable bags filled with air. Then, to remind you what you're hauling, the caustic acid rocks back and forth, slapping at the walls of the 42-foot trailer.

Caustic acid is classified as a corrosive. It is used in food processing, cleaning agents and water purification. It must be hauled in a stainless steel trailer adorned with placards that indicate what chemical is being hauled and what action to take in an emergency.

They say trucking is a risky business. "It's no worse than owning a bar or a grocery store," Reynolds says. "The taxes are worse, there are more rules and regulations, more insurance. But it's the way I choose to make a living. I make a good living. I can't complain."

All those regulations mean Reynolds spends a lot of time struggling with various logs and forms in the truck. He keeps a log of all his driving time, rest time and sleeper time. The truck is weighed after being loaded with chemicals and weighed again before being unloaded at its destination. A sample of the chemical is taken upon loading and is delivered to the unloading facility.

Back home, his wife Shanna - an accountant and tax preparer - writes the paychecks, pays the bills and tries to keep enough in reserve to cover any emergency with the trucks. She also keeps Uncle Sam smiling.

The truck reaches the summit of an apparently nameless California mountain, and Reynolds pulls off into an area set aside for trucks. He jumps from the cab carrying an aluminum bat and starts slugging away at the tires, checking for flats. Everything looks OK.

Reynolds stresses safety and maintenance. His driving method is easy and precise, with a heavy dose of traffic imagination. That's what it takes to know that a truck several blocks ahead of you in the right lane is going slower than you and will have to move into your lane at about the same time the two of you reach a Greyhound in his lane. So you flash your headlights and let him into your lane. That's truck driving.

Reynolds says he still learns something new every day about trucking and about the chemicals he transports.

He is fortunate that he loves the desert. Its solitary beauty and shifting moods are an integral part of his work. Yet he seems just as much at home as the California hills sprout clusters of condos and lookalike homes somewhere near Pomona, and the freeways become choked with traffic.

This is where 55 seems fast. This is where other drivers squeeze in front of the truck, apparently unconcerned about the monster on their tail. This is where the sun sets big and red in a land where the endless river of red lights mingles with the endless river of white lights.

Reynolds rides it well. He admires some of the the cars that seem to travel in another dimension, and says he'd like a Mercedes or a Jaguar - the only foreign cars he'd ever buy. He shares a special dislike for Volkswagens. They're so small he sometimes can't see them over the truck's long, high hood.

As the Los Angeles area settles into darkness, the Peterbilt rolls into a Long Beach chemical plant. The truck is weighed again and Reynolds hands over a sample of the caustic acid that was taken back in Henderson. It takes more than half an hour for the caustic acid to be sucked from the truck's trailer into a large tank. An evening breeze blows in from the unseen ocean and mixes with the sour chemical fumes.

The ride back to Las Vegas begins right away. The truck is lighter now with its trailer empty. The long river of lights eventually grows less crowded, but it never rests. Trucks rule the late night, prowling the interstate like lighted dragons.

Reynolds finds a cafe that seems protected from time by the desert. An overly friendly waitress brings hamburgers while a very large trucker tells trucker tales. Reynolds is obviously embarrassed by this living stereotype of a trucker. Yet he wants nothing to do with some of the younger truckers who, he says, take drugs and chase women at the truck stops.

He defines a good driver as one not afraid of work, who understands a truck, knows what to do in an emergency or breakdown - and one who cares.

More time and miles up the road, Reynolds pulls into a rest area. He crawls into the sleeper and sleeps soundly until dawn.

Back on the interstate, the sun reappears in a fiery diesel sunrise.

Reynolds finds another trucker going his way and they kick off a 50-mile CB conversation. They discuss their trade and hunting and fishing and what it's like to live in Las Vegas and what it's like to live in California, where they agree things have gotten too crowded. They ride and talk together all the way back to the Henderson highway, ending the 23-hour haul.