Travel

Bonner Bridge: Driving on Water

  • By Glenn McVicker
  • Photography by Matt Lusk

The Bonner Bridge carries N.C. Highway 12 across Oregon Inlet, making it possible for people to get to Hatteras Island. But if you stop at the top, it yields a view unlike any other in the state, a view that helps shape the writer’s perspective on life.

bonner bridge

I am on top of the world, and there’s no place to pull over and stop. The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which crosses Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks, serves the same purpose as all other bridges — it’s meant to carry you from one piece of land to the next. But to me, this is the finest scenic overlook in North Carolina. The apex is six stories above the water, the ocean to the east and the sound to the west, with only strips of sand north and south, a piece of man’s concrete coursing over some of the most untamable natural terrain in the state.

My job with this magazine allows me to travel everywhere along the North Carolina coast. The top of the Bonner Bridge is my favorite place. It’s unexpected. It breaks the continuity of a seemingly endless view of tall dunes and grasses splashed by an occasional glimpse of water either ocean or estuary.

It’s not natural to expect a bridge. N.C. Highway 12 leaves land suddenly and starts up the steep rise, where, looking straight ahead between the railings, I see only sky.

•••

My first trip across Oregon Inlet was on a ferry. I was 7 years old when my family took our first vacation to the Outer Banks in my parents’ 1958 Chevy Brookwood Station Wagon. This was its first big trip, and its colors matched the inlet’s colors. The exterior was dark blue-green, the shade of the deepest water, and the interior was aqua green, matching the shallows.

As we pulled aboard, I pretended I was taking a ship to sea. I asked my dad if this was like the Liberty ship he rode to England with the U.S. Army trucks. “Well, not exactly,” he said. “This smells a lot better.”

The next time I crossed the inlet, the bridge was there.

It was 1973, and I was 21 years old, driving my 1962 Ford Falcon Club Wagon. The van was a mess, boxy and ugly. Orange and white and looking much like a crab-pot float, the van would have looked better on the old ferry.

The bridge, meanwhile, was flowing and dramatic, like a modern sculpture. The flat nose of the Club Wagon brought the view inches from my hands on the wheel.

I was with a friend on a camping trip. We roughed it, hitting every campground on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I worked as a graphic artist and carried serious camera gear. I processed my own film. I looked at the Outer Banks through lenses. Looking down upon an inlet for the first time, I fell in love with its form; it conjured up a new fantasy and fascination.

•••

Nowadays, I make it to the Outer Banks and across the Bonner Bridge often, driving my 25-year-old Volvo 240 Wagon. I have put more than 470,000 miles on my trusted, rusted haul-all, most of them along the North Carolina coast.

More than ever, I look forward to each crossing and to looking down upon the ever-changing drama below. Heading south, the Bonner Bridge starts by running low over the marshes and beach, then begins to rise toward the main shipping-channel span. To the left, I see the first bold view of the Atlantic Ocean. The south end of Bodie Island bends under the bridge. Breakers roll into the mouth of the inlet, and the water changes color as it shallows. Ahead on the north end of Pea Island is a restored building that once housed a U.S. Coast Guard station now overrun by the southerly migration of the inlet.

Now near the top, the view goes on for miles down Hatteras Island. Here it’s easy to realize how narrow and fragile this ribbon of sand actually is. The Atlantic Ocean lays out flat to the eastern horizon, and Pamlico Sound does the same to the west. Looking to the west, I expect to see mainland North Carolina and a view toward home. But it’s just water. It’s a lonely feeling, like being cupped between two oceans, looking for the familiar North Carolina and it not being there.

•••

Sometimes, if there’s no traffic approaching from behind, I stop at the top. From this spot, the 360-degree view is new every time, the ever-moving waters always in control of the scenery. Suddenly, I don’t miss the familiar North Carolina land. I’m simply in awe.

The bottom of Oregon Inlet pushing into Pamlico Sound shows through the salt water. Shoals and tidal flats rise, creating constantly changing patterns and colors.

Sport-fishing boats and skiffs head toward and pull out of the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. From this vantage point, the shallows and shoals of the ocean’s ebb-tide delta and the sound’s flood-tide delta stand out. The maze is confusing, and it’s a wonder how any boaters ever find their way through.

The Bonner is a disputed bridge. Dredging issues cause problems underneath and safety issues up above. It’s not an old bridge, but it’s not young anymore, either.

Oregon Inlet is not all that old either; a storm opened it in 1846. Like so much of the Outer Banks, shifting sands keep the view and passage in constant flux.

On my living room wall hangs a lithograph of a painting done about the same time as my first trip in the Club Wagon. In the early 1970s, artist Doug Gilchrist created a painting of the first ferryman to provide service across Oregon Inlet, Toby Tillett. Gazing out his pilothouse window, Old Tobe steers the original ferry toward Pea Island. The austere style of the artwork gives the feeling that he is alone, looking for the same North Carolina I couldn’t see from my position well above his.

I hear there is going to be a new bridge. That’s good. It needs to happen. The Bonner Bridge was built in 1963, and it was made to last 30 years. The folks out here I know need the bridge for their livelihood. But for those of us who just pass through, a new bridge will be good for us, too. It will be a reminder that we must progress. I’ll be ready, with another car for another bridge, and every time I cross, I’ll be looking for another opportunity to slow down, maybe stop, and enjoy the view.

Bonner Bridge
For information on the bridge, including upcoming projects, visit the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s website at ncdot.org/projects/bonnerbridgerepairs.

Glenn McVicker is a senior account supervisor with Our State magazine.

This entry was posted in Coast, January 2012 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Bonner Bridge: Driving on Water

  1. maryjo gibson says:

    i just took a vacation to rodanthe north carolina a few weeks ago. the scenery in the rodanthe area is absolutely beautiful, especially near the pea island refuge and the bridge across oregon inlet. will be back next summer for sure!

    • Glenn McVicker says:

      Maryjo, I hope you stop at the Chicamacomico Historic Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe on your next trip. There is nothing like in anywhere else in America. Thank you for enjoying Our State.

  2. caren fallon says:

    It is breathtaking! I was stuck in traffic at the very top one time, I didn’t care, the views are heavenly. The way the white caps break against that turquoise ocean, I could of stayed up there for hours. It is one of my favorite parts of trip to Salvo. The sun setting on the sound side is just as beautiful a view. Worth the 6 1/2 hour drive down from MD. I too have stopped at the top willingly and I do it every chance I get. My little Jeep lifts me a bit higher then a car so I get a better look. I hope to retire with my husband to the OBX, and I will never , ever get tired of that view.

    • Glenn McVicker says:

      Caren, as I read your comments, I wish was driving onto the bridge with the windows down to feel the breeze and smell the air and water. Glad to know you sneak in a “stop over” once in a while! And, thanks for reading Our State in Maryland. I hope you share with your friends.

  3. Jack says:

    Very nice article. However, the best way to experience the view from the bridge is to ride a bike over it and stop often. It provides views of the panorama that cannot be equalled from a car or truck.

    • Glenn McVicker says:

      Jack, I like the bike idea. Can you drop me off at the top? I will need you to do it twice – once so I can roll down hill to the north and again for the southbound view.

  4. Elizabeth Ivy says:

    Awesome article Mr. McVicker!! I too love that bridge.. I can’t tell you how many pictures I’ve taken as we’re crossing it taking our day trip to Hatteras… I truly hope something can be done with the inlet to bring the fishing boats back and the Natives of OBX can go back to what they know…

    • Glenn McVicker says:

      Elizabeth, thanks for the comments. There is a story coming in the May issue that you will want to read.

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