Taking the 5 a.m. to Hilton Head

Joanne Mew arrives at the dimly lit downtown bus stop at 4:20a.m. – the beginning of her daily five-hour, round-trip commute to work.

For 15 years, the laundry machine operator has ridden 180 miles a day on the bus to work at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Hilton Head Island.

“I should be at home resting them bones,” the 47-year-old said. But she said she doesn't have a choice.

Jobs are scarce in Allendale County – South Carolina's poorest – where more than one in three residents lives in poverty.

The few jobs that are available pay minimum wage – $5.15per hour – or just a few pennies more. Work on the island can pay almost double that or more.

Scores of people commute every day from Allendale and other impoverished inland towns to Hilton Head – located in the wealthiest county in the state – where they work at resorts, grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and other businesses.

Seven publicly financed Palmetto Breeze buses make stops each morning in Allendale, Colleton, Jasper, Hampton and Beaufort counties to shuttle people to Hilton Head jobs. Nearly 4,100 round trips from those counties are made each month.

It wasn't always that way.

U.S. 301 through Allendale County once was the main route from New York to Miami. Then, in the 1970s, Interstate 95 was built some 30 miles east and took away the traffic. The county has never recovered from losing all that pass-through business to I-95.

Allendale became a “ghost town,” County Administrator Art Williams said. Motels along U.S. 301 are boarded up; the county has only two fast-food restaurants, and, he said, “you would not find a clothing store.”

Most recently, Mohawk Industries, a carpet manufacturer in Ulmer, closed in November – causing 225 people to lose their jobs.

“If there was work in Allendale, honey, I don't think none of us would be getting on that bus,” Mew said. “They need to bring jobs down here.”

After sitting on the bus 25 hours a week, Mew has just $10 for herself at week's end after bills are paid.

“That ain't no money; that ain't nothing.”

Mew rises at 3:30 a.m. – five days a week – and catches a ride to the bus stop at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Marion Street. While the bus typically doesn't arrive until 5:10 a.m., she knows it pays to get there early.

“The bus be crowded sometimes,” she said. “People be standing sometimes. That make you sad. People trying to go to work, but they need to stand up.”

The bus does not return to Allendale until 7:24 p.m. that night – more than 14 hours after it left.

Hours on the road each day make for a long workday for the bus riders – and can create strain at home.

Kenya Williams, 32, who lives in the Allendale County town of Fairfax, works as a housekeeper on Hilton Head to support her three daughters.

She describes her hectic evening routine: “See my children when I get home; start cooking; help them with their homework. Start washing clothes; go to the dryer and dry the clothes.

“Drink a couple beers 11:30, 12 o'clock, I'm in bed. … Jump right back up at 4 o'clock in the morning. Do the same routine all over again.”

At the end of the week, she knows, it's all worth it.

“You still got to take care of your children. You still got to take care of yourself, too.”

Camron Freeman of Allendale, a 30-year-old cashier at the Hilton Head Publix, is raising two daughters.

For her, the long bus ride means missing PTO meetings.

As passengers around her on the way home blow off steam with laughter – some joking with the bus driver – Freeman talks of missing her children as they grow up.

“We catch the bus at 5 o'clock, so I don't even know what (my) child be wearing unless I put it out the night before,” she said. “One of your kids take sick, how you gonna get home?”

But there's still pride.

“At least you don't have to go out here and rob, cheat and steal from somebody for some money,” Freeman said. “You got an honest-paying job.”