Kids in tow

Salma Kate and George at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

Salma Kate and George at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

by Samantha Thompson Hatem

We love a spontaneous weekend road trip.

At least, we used to. Before we had kids.

George and Salma Kate arrived, and we decided they would not stop us from traveling. We got on planes with them. We took them on boats. We hauled them to the beach, weekend after weekend.

All of it, though, was meticulously planned, down to their favorite flavor of Dum Dums for flight take-offs and arrivals, and strategically timed pit-stops at gas stations with mama-approved changing tables.

So the thought of a spontaneous road trip, spending the night who-knows-where without researching the swimming pool, the number of beds, the breakfast options, or how we’d keep the kids entertained both terrified and thrilled me.

The day after Thanksgiving last year, we realized we had an honest-to-goodness, don’t-have-to-be-anywhere weekend. There were no birthday parties to attend. CASL soccer was over for the season. YMCA basketball was on break for the holiday.

A road trip was calling. Could we? Should we?

We packed everyone for an overnighter (which, as anyone with kids knows, looks more like a trip for a week) knowing there was a good chance we’d be back to Raleigh that night. We texted a few friends we’d been promising to visit down east with vague plans and we hit U.S. 64.

George Hatem digs for fossils in Aurora

George Hatem digs for fossils in Aurora

Aurora

There aren’t many reasons you would go to Aurora, 30 miles southeast of little Washington, down Highway 33 on the edge of Eastern North Carolina’s farmlands.

You wouldn’t go unless you knew Aurora’s big (or shall we say old) secret: Fossils. We’re talking fossils so impressive people come from around the world to dig for them. The nearby PCS Phosphate Mine regularly unearths dazzling Pliocene and Miocene era fossils, some as big as your hand. (Practical translation: sharks’ teeth are everywhere!)

Our friend, Raleigh lawyer Mack Paul, had been asking my husband Greg to visit Aurora to see what more could be done for its downtown. Paul grew up visiting Aurora, and he’d told us how the town’s fossil pits were a tourism draw. We knew it would be a hit with our 5-year-old son, George.

The pits, which are across the street from the Aurora Fossil Museum, were bigger and better than we’d imagined: Big heaping mounds of sediment, or mine “reject,” peppered with fossilized sharks’ teeth, shells, and coral bits. They’re periodically replenished with new reject from the mine, so there’s a fresh supply of treasures to find.

At the museum store, we invested in plastic shovels and sifters, essential tools in the pits. The store also stocks plastic bags and a fossil chart. (I would have loved knee pads, but spontaneous road trips aren’t for sissies.)

Everyone had a different approach. George went to the top of the mound, digging deep and pulling out big chunks of fossilized dirt balls. (That’s George-speak for dirt-covered rocks.) Salma Kate, our almost 4-year-old daughter, preferred the less dirty sidelines, hunting for the itty-bittiest sharks’ teeth and shells she could sift out.

Forty-five minutes into it, we still hadn’t found the big stuff that would impress the kids back home at share time. A museum volunteer stopped by and within minutes he pointed out a broken 1 ½-inch megalodon tooth. Score!

The fossil pits were consuming. Of course, spontaneous moms don’t pack picnic lunches, but it would have been nice to have one at the nearby picnic tables. Instead, Mack and his dad, Allen Paul, who lives in Raleigh but grew up in Aurora, brought us take-out burgers and pizza from Terry’s Convenient Mart.

Dragging the kids from the pits and Greg from envisioning Aurora’s future wasn’t easy. But we had a ferry to catch. It’s a 14-mile dash to the Aurora-Bayview ferry, which, if you’re on time, will take you across the Pamlico River in 30 minutes. We arrived just as it was pulling out, a sight that sent Salma Kate into a full-on meltdown as we rerouted through Washington before getting back on track to Swan Quarter.

Russ Swindell in front of his great-great-grandfather’s country store.

Russ Swindell in front of his great-great-grandfather’s country store.

Swan Quarter

We figured we’d just text the Swindells for directions once we were close to Swan Quarter. We didn’t count on Eastern North Carolina’s notoriously spotty cell service. But the Swindell family has a long history in Hyde County, going back to the 1800s. Surely someone in town could help us find them.

Russ Swindell and his wife Meredith bought the family home in Swindell Fork from an aunt last fall and have updated it as a weekend getaway from Raleigh. Their property includes the family’s corner store, which Swindell’s great-great-grandfather opened in 1875. Today it’s like a family museum, with odds and ends going back generations.

While we pondered the store’s possibilities, the kids exhausted themselves running around the big yard with the Swindell boys and climbing one of Hyde County’s oddities – a mulberry tree known as Mr. Harry’s Tree that was blown over in a 1932 hurricane and rerooted itself lying down.

A glorious Eastern North Carolina sunset was coming, so we packed everyone back into the car and followed the Swindells a few miles down U.S. 264 to Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina’s largest natural lake.

Here’s where we found another well-kept Eastern North Carolina secret.

From the first full moon in October to the first full moon in March, migratory birds, including Canada geese, tundra swans, and 22 duck species, come to Mattamuskeet to spend the winter. We pulled over to watch them flying over the swamps, nesting in the trees, and diving for food. An otter glided by. It was peaceful and serene, except for the kids wrestling in the dirt and running around screaming.

They clearly needed a little more action.

Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge

Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge

Back in the car, this time to the Mattamuskeet Lodge, a historic pumping station built on the lake in 1911 and what could be a diamond in the rough for some enterprising hotelier. The three-story, 15,000-square-foot building was renovated in 1934 into a hunting and fishing lodge, which helped the area earn a reputation as a world-renowned hunting capital for Canada geese. In 1974, two years after goose hunting permits stopped, the lodge closed. Recent efforts to restore it have been slow but steady. Nothing a little vision and lot of money couldn’t fix.

While we fantasized about the lodge’s potential, the kids resumed their game of chase. The egrets were settling in for the night in the surrounding trees. The sun had set. We vowed to come back in summer, when the lake is alive with boating, crabbing, and fishing (and apparently gigantic mosquitos, too).

It was dinnertime when we left the Swindells, the witching hour back home in Raleigh when our children get grumbly and sometimes, well, unpleasant. We turned down the Swindells’ offer to stay in the nearby family hunting lodge. We fed the kids the last of the bananas and made a hasty decision to make the 60-mile trek along the very dark two-lane U.S. 264 to the Outer Banks, where neither of us had been in two decades. It was a risk. A storm was brewing in the backseat. The snack bag was nearly empty. The “you started its” had kicked in. And the inevitable “Are we there yet?” was coming at us every five minutes.

At the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Salma Kate Hatem checks out the bust of Orville Wright.

At the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Salma Kate Hatem checks out the bust of Orville Wright.

Kill Devil Hills

We drove until we found Darrell’s Seafood Restaurant, a locally owned spot in Manteo with fresh local oysters, wines by the glass, a barbecue combo plate, crayons, and a menu the kids could color in. Everyone left happy. Three phone calls later, we found an ocean-view room in Kill Devil Hills for less than $100 and we were all asleep by 9 p.m. Success.

We woke the next morning to amazing views. The calm ocean view on the front deck was nice, but the one out the back was even better: The Wright Brothers National Memorial, one of the state’s crown tourism jewels that I’d somehow missed in my three decades of living here.

We were the first ones at the memorial on that sunny, chilly morning. Knowing we had a three-hour car ride ahead of us that afternoon, we had a race to see who could get up Big Kill Devil Hill first. Up top at the 61-foot granite monument, we paid homage to the Wright brothers and did our best to explain about faith and courage, even when others doubt you. We got a few blank stares.

We raced back down across the grassy field where we hit gold again, stumbling on a life-size interactive bronze and steel sculpture of the Wright brothers’ plane. We enjoyed our coffee while the kids played Wright brothers on the sculpture.

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We tried to linger inside the visitor’s center, but the kids saw other children running along the mock runway outside. With the help of numbered distance markers, the kids could run 120 feet, the same distance that Orville did in 12 seconds on that first flight in 1903.

Our spontaneous road trip was capped off, fittingly, by running into one of Greg’s old high school friends. Our families had never met, and now we’re ready to get together for a meticulously-planned Outer Banks summer weekend.

Not that we’re giving up on spontaneous. Our unlikely impromptu road trip has already earned a place as one of our most treasured family weekends, one that could have taken place in 1964 instead of 2014. We never broke out the iPad. We didn’t take refuge at a special kids museum or park. Each stop was unscripted. We showed up and let the moment take us, leaving the kids to use their imaginations for entertainment.

It gave us faith we’d be doing it more often.

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