Our Trip To Kitty Hawk, August 2002

by Michelle Erica Green

Though we left home later than we had planned on Sunday, we arrived earlier than we expected after barely a five hours' drive including lunch. Following a brief stop at the Outer Banks information center to pick up brochures and coupons, we headed to the Buccaneer Motel, a weather-worn but serviceable two-story across the street from the ocean with the enormous advantage of cheap two-room suites. We quickly unpacked, changed, walked over the dunes and spent several hours on a gorgeous, clean, uncrowded beach and in the very clear, warm water of the Atlantic.

In this area the ocean hosts little silver fish that swim past with every wave and leap over any floating debris, tiny black fish that swim in tightly-knit schools, various crabs and the rare jellyfish, plus sandpipers, seagulls and flocks of pelicans (I'm told there are also dolphins and the occasional shark at dawn and dusk, but we saw neither). The sea had pale glass-green water and very soft sand until just at the point where the breakers hit at high tide, where it becomes rocky; just past that, the ocean floor dips sharply but becomes less rocky, and it was easy for me and Paul to coast over the waves before they broke (Daniel tried but after a few smacks in the face with salt water, stuck closer to shore, while Adam, who can't swim as well, stayed in the outer edges of the surf and got sand in every tiny crevice). Paul badly misjudged one wave and ended up getting cut on his chest and chin after being slammed into the rocky pit.

After several hours on a surprisingly temperate beach -- it had been in the 90s driving down, but the sun poked in and out of clouds by the late afternoon -- we tried to lure the boys back for dinner. They insisted on swimming first in the hotel pool, which slopes from 3 feet at the sides to 7 feet in the center, where they demonstrated swimming moves they learned at camp -- Friday was their last day. Then we came back to our hotel room and ate the dinner we'd intended for lunch -- we'd packed a picnic, but the rest stop was closed so we'd ended up at McDonald's.

Afterwards, since there was occasional lightning, we all showered, but by nightfall the lightning had moved off, so we grabbed our flashlights and went back to the beach to see the fauna. There were dozens of small crabs that had crawled from their round holes in the sand, which would freeze and stare at us when hit with a beam from a flashlight but scuttle away as soon as the light moved off them. The hotel had a small wooden playground and basketball hoop where we let the boys play with some of the other kids staying there before we dragged them upstairs to bed. I spent the evening finishing The Leto Bundle, which I also read most of the way here in the car to review for Green Man.

Monday morning as soon as we got up, we put on our bathing suits and went down to the beach. It wasn't quite as hot as the afternoon before, and still not many people. In the clear water we could see bottom-crawling catfish and a couple of large scuttling crabs, plus lots of sand crabs that Adam collected in buckets to study. The tide was coming in at an angle, pulling us down the beach from our blankets, which made Daniel a little nervous after awhile when he finally realized the undertow wasn't something I had made up to scare him. He went in quite deep and was swimming really well, whereas Adam was afraid to go out past the rocks where the waves were breaking, though the sand was level and flat for many dozens of feet offshore -- we could see people standing waist-high out where the surfers were. There must have been a military base nearby because a couple of jets went overhead, disrupting the circling pelicans who were diving for fish. After a couple of hours of swimming and studying sand crabs, we went back to the hotel for lunch.

Then we drove to the Wright Brothers' memorial, which is actually not in Kitty Hawk but in Kill Devil Hills at the top of a hill that has moved 20 feet since their flight in 1903 due to storms. The main building was closed due to a hurricane that blew the roof off, but there were temporary buildings where we got National Park stamps and read about their aerodynamics experiments. Then we climbed the hill (in 90 degree heat) and had an incredible view of the entire Kitty Hawk region. Down below were markers for each of the four flights they made on December 17 and the machine shops where they slept on hammocks over the plane parts.

Because it was so hot, we next went to the Nature Conservancy's Nags Head Woods sanctuary, which was nicely shaded but also rife with mosquitoes in the stagnant water so we took only a short hike. On the way back we stopped at Buccaneer's Walk, where there was a fudge store and a couple of book and toy stores (the boys got Lord of the Rings bookmarks and rings that they have coveted since seeing the movie, and Paul and I got some traditional folk music in a nautical store). We had dinner at Jimmy's Buffet, a local tradition -- we originally wanted to go to Carolina Buffet which has free lobster tail before 5:30, but the wait was so long that we didn't have a chance of making it, so we opted for Jimmy's huge selection. I had crab bisque, a crab cake, deviled crab, stuffed salmon, blackened tuna, popcorn shrimp, baby shrimp, steamed scallops, fried clams, breaded flounder, hush puppies and some kind of very rich brownie for dessert. The crab legs cost extra and I decided I didn't really need them, but they were all Daniel ate for dinner...apart from ice cream of course.

The boys had been campaigning all afternoon to go back to the beach and/or the pool, so we went back to the hotel to read and digest for awhile, then got our bathing suits on and went back to the water. In the gibbous moonlight, reddish from the sunset, we caught lots more sand crabs and Paul pulled a single purple starfish from the water that had wandered too close to shore. (Of course we put all the animals back in the water.) Then we took turns showering and getting boys ready for bed.

Tuesday morning we got up before 7 to drive to Roanoke for Breakfast with the Rays at the aquarium there. Before the place officially opened, we were given a tour of the back rooms, including two baby alligators being raised in an isolated tank. The breakfast room for the animals had freezers full of dead rats for the sharks, crickets for the frogs and buckets of smelt which our tour guide chopped up while discussing the eating habits of the various animals. Then we were taken to the stingray tank, where we got to take turns petting the rays and throwing them bits of chopped-up fish. The rays, which were surprisingly soft -- much more so than fish -- and a little slimy, got very excited and flapped against the sides of the tank before chasing after the fish bites. The crustacean touch tank was in the same room, so we got to hold hermit crabs and to watch one leaving its shell for a larger one.

Our breakfast (cereal, bagels, donuts, little muffins, fruit) was served in a classroom along with a brief child-oriented lecture about skates and rays of the Middle Atlantic and a video about the life cycle of a skate. Our guide passed around various models and stingers in formaldehyde. Afterwards we toured the rest of the aquarium, including more alligators, otter, turtles, a "Graveyard of the Atlantic" tank showing how fish and coral make use of the various boats that have sunk off the Carolina coast, and (of course) a display on hurricanes and their consequences. Outside was a fossil pit where we dug for shark's teeth, coral, bits of ray palate and small shells. We found several of each, though Adam was very annoyed that he didn't find his own shark's tooth.

From the aquarium we went to Fort Raleigh, near where the Roanoke colony was founded in the late 1500s. We watched a brief movie about the colonists and toured what's left of the fort, which is mostly just a few hills (though half the businesses in Roanoke are named for Virginia Dare). Afterwards we stopped in Roanoke's famous Christmas Store, which is sort of like a classy Wall Drug -- more than 30 rooms of merchandise, including a restored Victorian grocery, a Halloween room, displays of many local artists and lots and lots of ornaments and cards. Next door is a store devoted to cat lovers where we got to meet several live specimens as well. On the drive back we passed Jockey Ridge State Park, famous for hang gliding, where enormous sand dunes had covered the former miniature golf course next door -- there was a miniature castle sticking up out of a dune looking like something out of Ozymandias.

We came back to the hotel for lunch and to rest, then went to the beach, but we'd only just started swimming when an emergency vehicle pulled up to warn us that the National Weather Service had put out an alert for Manteo and Nags Head just south -- where we'd been that morning -- for severe hail and deadly lightning strikes. They were advising that everyone not only get off the beach but take shelter away from doors and windows. So needless to say we went back to the hotel, where we read and played cards for over an hour, listening to the rain and thunder. By the time it stopped, we had decided to eat dinner in the hotel room -- we had a microwave and table and chairs, and had brought some canned stuff -- then to go out later, perhaps to play miniature golf. But the ground was still soaked when we left, so we decided instead to browse some souvenir stores and get ice cream, and save the golf for the next day.

We got back after dark but the sky had cleared, so we took a walk on the beach. This time I brought my camera to try to get some pictures of the ghost crabs (we'd thought perhaps they were female fiddler crabs, but a book we skimmed at the aquarium in the morning set us straight). Someone was setting off fireworks down the beach, and except for the swarms of post-rain mosquitoes, it was a beautiful, not-too-hot night where the surf over our feet was as warm as the air.

In the morning, there were slightly lower temperatures and a nice breeze. We climbed over the dunes to a different Atlantic: waves many feet higher, dark with sand and silt churned up from the bottom, wild from the wind and the storm the day before. Because of the wind, the water and the inches of foam on top were warmer than the air. After being knocked off their feet several times in our first minutes at the beach, the boys decided to dig for sand crabs and build towers instead of trying to swim. This is the ocean as I remember it from my childhood going to the shore in Delaware, where I never saw water as clear as the Atlantic during our first couple of days in North Carolina. The kids did more real swimming in the tiny hotel pool, where we stopped on the way back from the beach.

After an early lunch, we drove into Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of three famous lighthouses down the coast along the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Both the lighthouse at Bodie Island and the more famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse are being repaired, so no one can climb to the top, though we got a good view from the bottom and a park ranger's talk on how the lighthouses worked. Bodie Island is set among thick rushes and has a short boardwalk to a pond where we saw an egret and lots of smaller birds. The lighthouse itself is open only on the entrance level, from which you can look up the many levels of spiral staircases to the bottom of the room that houses the light.

Directly across the highway from the lighthouse, on Coquina Beach, lie the ruins of the Laura A. Barnes, a ship that sank early this century. We walked over the boardwalk and through the beautifully-kept public bathhouse (indoor and outdoor showers, separate dressing rooms and bathrooms) to the entrance to the public beach. There's almost nothing left of the Laura A. Barnes -- a few large planks of wood, some smaller shards, a long row of rivets in rotting beams -- but it's obvious from the shape of the dunes forming around it that it used to be a ship. We walked to the water to see if the sand was any different on the island -- there was a lot more seaweed. The back of the lifeguard's chair had a big sign warning of strong currents and telling people not to swim any further out than they could stand.

When we got back to our car, we discovered that our rear-view mirror had fallen off the front window, apparently from the heat. The park ranger suggested a repair place in Nags Head, so we drove there and killed time in a big surf shop while we waited for the mirror to be replaced, narrowly evading Adam's attempts to get us to buy him a hermit crab. We decided to have dinner very early because many of the buffets have specials -- Adam really wanted lobster tail and Daniel wanted crab legs, neither of which are particularly plentiful (nor cheap) this summer. So we went back to Jimmy's where the kids' buffet is free before 4:30 and adults get free lobster tail. After this enormous meal, we went to Lost Treasure -- can't have a family vacation without miniature golf! To get to the course, we rode a "mining train" through "historic ruins" to the top of a course with lots of waterfalls and tunnels. Of course Adam successfully hit his ball into the water trap so we got to scramble trying to stop it from going down the waterfall. I believe Paul had the lowest score but none of us were concentrating too well.

We came back to the hotel for another trip to the beach, where the ocean was even rougher than in the morning -- the clear, gentle waves of our first few days were gone, replaced by huge breakers, thick foam and fierce undertow. Adam spent his entire time in the water clinging to Paul's arm so he could be whooshed above the waves, while Daniel was narrating a story about the imaginary inhabitants of two sandcastles that were destroyed by the tide (with a little help from the boys) while we were there. We stayed until high tide, right around sunset, at which point abandoned beach umbrellas were washing out to sea and we had gained a new red shovel that washed up near our stuff on the sand. After we came over the dunes, the boys insisted on another swim in the pool, then on watching Spongebob after their baths.

Thursday we woke very early so we could spend some time at the beach before checking out by 10. The water was still rough, though not as much so as the day before, and the sun was stronger since it was rising directly over the water. We took some photos of sand crabs and pelicans and boys digging pits in the sand. Then we went out to brunch at Stack 'Em High (t-shirts decorated with Dr. Seuss, "The Cat and the Stack" and "Great Eggs and Ham") where the boys and I had chocolate chip pancakes. Afterwards we drove home, dropped off the laundry, and picked up the cats.