Long days and time spent away from family are the norm for America’s 3.5 million truck drivers. But now, as states start to reopen, truckers face another daily risk: They’re a vital link in the supply chain, zigzagging America’s roadways to deliver the goods we depend on.
Bunni Metanoia, 34, is a long-haul driver for a Wisconsin-based freight shipping and trucking company, and has driven and delivered in 47 states. Also known as an OTR, or “over the road,” driver, Metanoia doesn’t have a set route and goes wherever a dispatcher sends her. She grew up in a camper and loves to drive. She lives out of her truck to keep expenses low.
“I don’t know any other profession that drives more,” she says, “and it’s kind of badass to be a female trucker.”
A little more than a year ago, Metanoia was a manager at a Minneapolis Starbucks. Fed up with that job and going through a divorce, she saw a video of a woman trucker talking about how she got into the profession, inspiring Metanoia to apply for a state grant to obtain her commercial driver’s license. She got the money, quit her job and lived off her 401(k) while attending trucking school to finish faster.
Metanoia is also a single mom, and her 17-year-old daughter, Lawlli, often joins her on the road when she’s not at school. Lawlli lives with a roommate in Saint Paul, Minn., but has been staying with her grandparents in Arkansas since her high school closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I [usually] see her every other week or more, but I don’t know when I’ll see her again,” Metanoia says. “Her grandparents are high risk, and I don’t want to risk them by spending a few hours with her.”
Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak poses threats to all trucker drivers. “This pandemic has made it much harder for drivers to do their job, yet they’re out there on the front line,” says Ellen Voie, chair executive and president of the Women in Trucking Association. There are myriad hardships, Voie says: drivers not being able to access restrooms at distribution facilities and rest stops, or not being able to source essentials like masks and cleaning supplies. Finding food is also an issue, because many restaurants are closed and trucks aren’t able to fit in drive-throughs. The American Trucking Associations has been sending supplies like masks and hand sanitizer to drivers and trying to ensure they can work safely through shelter-in-place orders and 14-day quarantines while crossing state lines.
These traveling essential workers still have to gamble with their own safety and showing up for duty. Voie says that in some cities, drivers are expected to wear a mask or face fines — but if they can’t find a mask, she says, “How do you do your job?” And even as demand for food, paper products and medical supplies has increased, the industry is facing dropping freight rates. Smaller fleets are also suffering.
The Lily got a look into a few days on the road with Metanoia, who travels with her 14-year-old Beagle, Zoey. Metanoia usually transports ATVs, motorcycles and parts within retail hours, but her usual haul has also changed because of the pandemic.
This diary is pieced together from phone conversations and text messages.
Bunni Metanoia is sitting in her dead truck. Yesterday, when she was about 40 minutes from an ATV parts pickup, her 64-foot 18-wheeler stopped accelerating, and the “check engine” light came on. As Metanoia puts it: “I’m like, lovely, and saying a lot of four-letter words in my head. I called roadside service and they towed me back to the terminal here, and they were able to get me in pretty quickly to look at it.”
The truck needs repairs, so she’s waiting on a temporary one to get back on the road. While she’s out of commission, her company is giving her “breakdown pay,” a protection she wouldn’t have if she owned her truck and operated independently.
The detour is an unintentional respite. Last month, Metanoia’s loads started changing amid the pandemic; she’s usually transporting ATVs, but with the near-absence of those hauls, she’s making about $200 less a week.
Now, the hours are more irregular and she’s been running more “reefer,” or refrigerated trailers, taking coffee from Nevada to Southern California, then paper towels back to Minnesota, and later 43,000 pounds of cheese to Pennsylvania. Recently she was in Toledo, Ohio, picking up cornmeal and flour to drop off at a distribution center in Green Bay, Wis. The Toledo site was understaffed, and she waited more than six hours after her appointment time to get the dry goods. By the time she left the lot, it was around 1 a.m.
Metanoia got lucky and found a spot at a nearby truck stop for the night.
Metanoia’s sleeper cab is outfitted with bunk beds, one of which converts into a table where she’s partaking in one of her quarantine pastimes: sewing face masks to mail to high-risk friends and family in Missouri, Colorado, Arkansas, Florida and Ohio. “I have my sewing machine and a bunch of fabric because I’ve been working on a quilt for my daughter’s graduation present,” she explains.
For now, she and Lawlli, a senior in high school, talk on the phone at least once a day. They also chat through Instagram, Snapchat, Marco Polo and House Party. Lawlli is trying “her damnedest” to get Metanoia on TikTok, she says.
Metanoia is vegan and has a meatless chili in the crockpot for dinner. Zoey is resting under her feet. “People ask me all the time how I can eat vegan on the road. A little bit of planning goes a long way. And if you’re being lazy, Lay’s and Oreos are vegan,” she says.
Today, Metanoia is moving into her new truck. Before she hits the road, she completes a routine inspection and paperwork before heading out around 2 p.m. The truck itself is “a little bouncy,” she says, “but otherwise it’s all right.” She’s about 30 minutes west in Shakopee, waiting to pick up Polaris ATV engine parts that she’s taking to Alabama — a job similar to her usual ones before the pandemic.
Before Metanoia goes inside any stops, she puts on a mask and gloves. She also has a can of Lysol in her truck so that when she gets in, she can spray her gloves. She says her company has distributed masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and is reimbursing employees for up to $50 worth of cleaning supplies — if they can find them.
In the winter, Metanoia got sick with coronavirus-like symptoms. She doesn’t know for sure whether she had the virus, but she’s taking precautions.
“I’ve been acting like it’s dangerous for me and everybody around me,” she says.
There have been other changes since the pandemic hit, including contactless paperwork exchanges at pickups and drop-offs, and limited access to restrooms and driver lounges. “You’re not even allowed in the building anymore at some places,” Metanoia says. Just in case, she keeps two portable urinals in her truck that look like collapsible water bottles.
Around 4 p.m., her dispatcher calls — Metanoia is reassigned to take a time-sensitive load seven hours northwest to Roseau, Minn. She leaves Shakopee around 8:45 p.m., and about an hour and a half later in St. Cloud gets fuel and snacks: a vegan cookie, a Naked juice and a small coffee. Caffeine aggravates her fibromyalgia — a condition characterized by chronic pain and fatigue — so she tries to avoid it, but today she needs the boost. Metanoia says that her fibromyalgia “isn’t terrible in the truck”; if it does get bad, she pulls over to nap.
On the way to Roseau, she talks to Lawlli, who’s excited because her grandparents surprised her with a car. Afterward, she “jams out” to some music and listens to the final installment of the “Outlander” series.
Metanoia drops off her trailer at the factory in the wee hours, then parks at a nearby gas station with truck spots. It takes her about an hour to wind down and fall asleep. “I see a lot of deer and owl,” she says, describing the stop. “The stars are incredible up here because there’s limited light pollution.”
Metanoia usually parks at the end of a lot so she can get some steps in when she walks to the station store or restroom, and to nearby neighborhoods she finds on Google Maps. That’s also where she goes for runs — she’s training for a marathon right now.
Safety is always a concern, especially for women drivers. Metanoia has taken to asking women working at the stops if the abutting neighborhoods are safe to run in. This parking area is not well lit, but she carries pepper spray and a pocket knife. She says she’s never felt “really threatened.”
Metanoia gets a few hours of rest that morning, walks Zoe and makes some homemade vegan pizza rolls in the toaster oven. “I’m about to get on the road,” she texts at 3:30 p.m. “I’m running another load from here to Spirit Lake, Iowa, and then picking up the load back in Shakopee for Madison, Alabama. All kinds of changing it up. Lol.”
Metanoia says she hasn’t seen anyone wearing a mask in Roseau — “not one person.” What she has seen everywhere are littered gloves. “Even at my terminal the other morning, whoever was parked next to me had thrown his gloves on the ground,” she says. “There’s a trash can 50 feet away. That just drives me nuts.”
After the Spirit Lake drop-off, she’s almost back to Shakopee to pick up the Alabama haul and finally start her southern trek. “I didn’t see it in time to get a pic but I passed a farm with a homemade sign at the end of the driveway that read, ‘THANK YOU TRUCKERS,’” Metanoia texts.
The public gratitude for essential workers has shifted how she views her job. “Because I normally haul big boy toys, I didn’t necessarily feel like my role in trucking was very impactful,” she says. “But besides food, hauling the Polaris parts does make sure their employees are working.”
“Just got fuel at a Love’s,” Metanoia texts about 17 miles from the Iowa border. “I was the only one with a mask but everyone was staying apart and the drink machine and roller grill were roped off. The bathroom was clean. Zoey got spoiled with a tuna can added to her dinner.”
Metanoia parks at a Road Ranger gas station in Elk Run Heights, Iowa, and showers there the next morning before getting back on the road. On Saturday and Sunday, while most people are off and sheltering in place, Metanoia is out on the road logging over 1,000 miles to make it to her Monday drop-off. After leaving Minnesota, she passes through Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, parking for the night at a Walmart in Clarksville, Tenn.
To pass time, Metanoia blasts feminist anthems by Lizzo and Angel Haze, listens to audio books and records thoughts for a self-development book she’s writing. It’s about the power of putting all your energy into your “Plan A,” and tuning out internal messages of failure to achieve your goals. What Metanoia really dreams about is building a self-sufficient, off-the-grid compound (“except for WiFi,” she says) to host friends and family on land she owns in Arkansas, or maybe somewhere in Texas, where she’s currently looking. “I’ve been planning out plants I want to grow and how big the greenhouse needs to be,” she says, “and learning about solar and rain collection.”
Metanoia says that with little expenses, she’s on track to retire in seven years.
After fueling up farther south in Columbia, Tenn., the next morning, Metanoia drives the last hour and a half to Madison. At the plant for the engine parts drop-off, she sees some people with bandannas around their necks, but nobody is wearing anything over their face.
Next, she’s heading to Baltimore for more engine parts, and then to Philadelphia to pick up seed to haul to farms in Michigan. Later it’ll be taking turkey sausage and chicken deli meat from Wisconsin to Ohio and New York (of late, she’s gotten more of her ATV loads again, too). Her company sent out an email that encouraged drivers to be flexible so they can get better loads, which Metanoia says really means, “If you’ll drive reefer, then you’ll have a load.” Hauling reefer is more stressful, she says, because the odd hours mess with her sleep schedule, but she needs the money. She feels good about helping people, too. “I’m glad that I can make sure people have food,” she says. But Metanoia doesn’t see herself as a hero: “I’m at work.”
In Alabama, it’s what she calls a “gorgeous” day, 75 degrees and sunny. Metanoia is planning on eating her lunch on the hood of the truck to enjoy the sunshine. At the time, Alabama was one of the first states to see protests pushing the government to reopen, as well as an eventual softening of restrictions as the country’s virus death toll rose. Now, even as public health experts warn of an uptick in infections, U.S. states and territories are reopening their economies — albeit to varying degrees.
“I’m seeing a lot of people out and about,” she texts. “I saw people golfing. There’s not many people in masks down here. It’s annoying that most people aren’t even trying to cover their face. The number of people who don’t have a basic grasp of science in this country is terrifying.”
Seeing people not doing their part to stop the spread doesn’t worry Metanoia about her own health. She’s mostly angry and anxious about the future — unsure of when she’ll see her own parents, who live in different Arkansas towns, and Lawlli, who she hasn’t seen for two months and who graduates at the end of May.
“It’s frustrating to think that I might not get to see her for a year. I don’t want to miss her 18th birthday. That’s a big deal.”
Still, she’s “running hard” — a trucker expression for staying busy — and getting the job done.