The workers aboard the bus are sleepy as they ride past the bear-crossing territory, over the Alligator River and across two sounds--through 70 miles of quiet countryside. They are on their way to a much more clamorous place, to jobs making cheeseburgers and motel beds for the summer beach crowd.
None of them can afford to live where they work, certainly not on the Outer Banks, where the cost of living is one of the highest in North Carolina. None can afford the gas to drive the distance; most do not even own a car. And many are trying for the first time to support themselves and their small children, working to banish a dependency on government assistance. At home, however, there is little to do but labor in the tobacco fields.
"I wouldn't be able to work without this bus, and I want to work," said Rachelle Jackson, 30, of Roper, who has five children and works as a maid at the Best Western motel in Kill Devil Hills. "I've got to work."
As millions of vacationers throng the beaches of the Carolinas this summer, these are among the thousands of invisible people who labor behind the scenes. In few other places is the gulf between the prosperous and the struggling so great.
While tourists ponder their next seafood platter, these workers wonder how to pay their utility bills on wages that are often little more than $6 an hour. And as the vacationers stroll the beaches at sunset, these people are on their way back to their inland homes aboard buses and vans, retracing a route that may have begun 14 hours earlier.
Although some workers have been bused into the beach resorts for years, the recent explosive growth along the Carolinas' coast has meant that many more--several thousand in South Carolina alone--are now taking the long ride. In Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, S.C., and here, at the gateway to the Outer Banks, "Help Wanted" signs seem to plaster every other business window, and the demand for workers has reached deeper and deeper into the outlying rural communities. That those far-flung communities are, for the most part, some of the poorest in each state offers a stark contrast to the carefree luxury of the vacation spots.
In some places, the buses run around the clock. In Myrtle Beach, which welcomes 13.4 million tourists a year, the Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority, one of several transit agencies serving the area, delivers 500 workers a day, according to executive director Ben Knight. By the time employees who operate rides at the Pavilion in Myrtle Beach are returned home after their jobs end around midnight, it is time to pick up and deliver the first workers for the early breakfast shifts at the fast-food restaurants, he said.
Farther down the coast, in the posh resort of Hilton Head, the Low Country Regional Transportation Authority brings in 800 workers a day from homes as distant as Allendale County, 130 miles away and again, one of the least developed parts of the state, said executive director Joseph Lawton.
And here in Dare County, N.C., the first transit service designed to deliver workers from the countryside to the Outer Banks began operating last spring, on an experimental basis, with the aid of an $80,000 state Department of Transportation grant to cover the first six months. If it succeeds, it could ease two problems--the area's need for workers and the workers' need to work.
The idea was first proposed three years ago by Cristan Zdanski, who with his wife, Virginia, operates The Connection, a shuttle service for tourists between the Norfolk, Va., airport and the Outer Banks. The Manteo-based couple had long been troubled by the lack of a public transit system in the area, but earlier attempts to establish a worker-delivery service had run aground because of the costs.
Most of the riders on the 24-passenger bus are participants in the Work First program, North Carolina's welfare-reform initiative that requires aid recipients to go to work after two years of assistance. The cost of their commute, $16 a day, is covered by the departments of social services in their home counties, with their employers, in some cases, pitching in to help. Other employees from the countryside manage to get to work by car-pooling, or in private vans supplied by their employers.
In April, the long bus ride to the tourist mecca was launched. But it is not a place the workers are necessarily drawn to on their own.
"I can't swim, and I never go out there anyway," said 19-year-old Jamie Norman, a maid at the Pebble Beach Motel in Nags Head.
The Outer Banks is a favorite vacation spot for many in the Washington area. A series of low-slung barrier islands, the area is filled with wildlife and long stretches of federally protected sand dunes--and increasingly, vacation homes that cost as much as $1.5 million. The area is also awash in history; here on Roanoke Island, the first failed attempts at English settlement were made in the 1580s, some 20 years before Jamestown, Va., giving rise to the mystery of the Lost Colony.
This time of year, Kitty Hawk and other settlements are more and more crowded with tourists, and natives admit mixed feelings about the onslaught, ever mindful, however, that the local economy depends on the $440 million the vacationers bring in each year. Although the area is becoming more of a year-round destination, according to Carolyn McCormick of the Dare County Tourist Bureau, 60 percent of that income is still generated during a 10-week period in the summertime. A county of 28,000 people suddenly swells to 225,000.
"We sit and pray for these tourists to come," said Lyn Steele, 51, who drives the bus, "and then we want them to leave."
The tourists are decidedly prosperous, and largely white, McCormick said. Those who come here from September through May have household incomes of $85,000 on average, hold advanced college degrees and have 1.7 children. During the peak summer weeks, the household incomes still average more than $55,000.
That is an amount that the riders of the bus, for the most part, can only dream about.
The first light is starting to seep through the sky at 6 a.m. when Steve Mason boards the bus. Mason, 36, of Roper, is working as a temporary at a hardware store in Kitty Hawk, stacking pipes and unloading other heavy merchandise. He is raising his 7-year-old son alone, he said, and has in the past done field work and relied on government assistance. "It's nice to get a check every week, instead of once a month," he said. "I'm a good worker. Once I learn a job, I don't forget it."
His fellow passengers, most of them women, bring pillows onto the bus, and settle down across the seats for a snooze. Among them is Alicia Mercer, 26, of Creswell, who works at a pizza restaurant. She hopes to become a nurse someday, she said, and already has taken some nursing courses.
In the meantime, she is thankful for this bus. "I don't have to think," she said, "and if I was driving a car, I would still have to leave this early. I just hope they continue it."
That is a decision that will be made this fall. Jerry Rhodes, director of the Department of Social Services in Washington County, where most of the riders live, also hopes the bus service will become a permanent fixture and expand. In a rural county of only 14,000 people, rated as one of the neediest in North Carolina, there are never enough jobs to go around.
"We wish things were a little closer to home," Rhodes said, "but we will go anywhere and everywhere there is work. Even with the sacrifices they have to make and even though they aren't making big bucks, they're developing a good work history and good work habits."
The bus cuts through the gray light, rain splattering the windshield. Soon, another workday will begin, of serving pizza, flipping burgers, vacuuming carpets, cleaning toilets. The vacationers may not notice them, but the workers do not mind.