Pamlico County is a long drive from everywhere. It's a remote North Carolina peninsula surrounded by creeks that look like rivers and a river that is vast like the sea. It’s not difficult to find people who have never left the county.
The favored way to leave, free and easy on the gas tank, is by ferry—across the Neuse River, from Pamlico County to Cherry Branch.
School buses and trucks drive dark roads fenced-in by tall pines and arrive at the ferry terminal with bug-splattered windshields. The drivers are primarily commuters headed to Cherry Point, a Marine Corps Air Station on the other side of the Neuse. There is etiquette while boarding—do not use your headlights.
The first ride starts in the dark at 6:15 a.m.
From the bridge, a glass room above the car platform, Captain Travis Fulcher steers and surveys his passengers. The sky lightens, making the water look dingy green.
On this Monday morning, Fulcher runs his usual route. The ferry engine vibrates in a constant rumble, people sleep behind the wheel. One car blares gospel music. A truck has fishing poles racked in the back, ready.
“We service the ‘down east,’ counties mostly,” says Fulcher, 50, who has been ferry captain for five years and has a family name common along the coast.
Ferry workers clock 84 hours a week—seven days on, seven days off. Forty-four departures a day. All of the men working this ferry were once commercial fishermen.
“This allows us to scratch that itch,” Fulcher says.
The river can get crazy, he says, rough and unpredictable. Beyond hurricanes, the summer southeastern wind can make the tide too low. A northeastern wind (a nor’easter) in the winter “crams the whole Pamlico sound into the Neuse.” Both can make the river unsafe, forcing commuters to drive an extra hour inland where the river can be crossed by bridge.
Pastels take over the sky. Seagulls dive after shrimp and other edibles churned up by the ferry. Though the air is still and heavy, the water looks choppy.
The boat slowly docks, bouncing off large wooden fenders. Cars sway. One by one, engines start. Seagulls rest on docks, waiting for the next trip.
The sun rises. Fulcher takes photos with his phone. Through the window, he sees the sun emerge from a cloud on the water’s horizon.
“I send a sunrise to my mom and dad every morning,” he said.