North Carolina in the Winter
For Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend of 2017, I visited my friends Bob and Lucy, who live in Raleigh now. Lucy and I worked together in Arizona years ago. Our friend Ned, who lives in Idaho now, was at a conference in Washington and took the train down for the weekend, so we had a little reunion.
Beach vacation at Cape Fear
We got up latish on Friday, had breakfast, then packed the van for a road trip to the beach. Bob drove all the way, both ways, intrepid soul that he is.
Our first stop was Bob and Lucy’s son Patrick’s suggestion, the USS North Carolina, which is just across the Fear River from Wilmington. The North Carolina is a World War Two battleship that was in the Pacific during the war – it was the first ship built after a 1923 peace agreement, and construction started in 1937. The battleship was ready in 1941, although it went back to the shipyard in New York for a bit of retrofitting after it first set sail. We think we saw some evidence of the retrofitting, way down in the engine rooms, where two levels are joined by a ladder and a stairway but the ladder is unusable because of the position of the stairs, which we thought must have been put in afterwards.
The ship held over 2,200 enlisted men, officers, and marines. You enter by way of an exhibit hall, which has an introductory film and a few artifacts, including part of the ship’s silver service. Back home in Arizona, the entire silver service from the USS Arizona is on display at the Arizona Capitol Museum. It’s a spectacular display, made possible by the Navy’s practice of taking such nonessentials off a ship that’s in a battle zone – otherwise, it would have sunk with the Arizona on Pearl Harbor Day.
The highlight of the USS North Carolina monument is the self-guided tour of the ship itself. Arrows guide you deep down into the many levels of the ship and up into the bridge, with informative signs explaining what you’re looking at. A nice feature was the “in their own words” pieces on the signs, written by the men who served on the ship, telling their memories of life on the ship – the mess halls, store, laundry, sick bay, etc. – and of significant events like the time they were torpedoed by a Japanese sub and the day they were hit by friendly fire, killing three and wounding many more.
We drove on into Wilmington and had lunch at the Front Street Brewery, then took a horse-drawn trolley tour of a bit of old downtown and a residential neighborhood. The driver told stories, including the story of how cooks had to carry meals from the kitchens – in separate buildings to protect the main house from the risk of fire – to the dining room, and would toss bits of fried dough to fend off the wild dogs that lived in the town, saying “hush, puppies” and giving the snack its name. The horses that pull the trolleys are all rescues. Ours was a Percheron named Pete.
After the tour, we drove down to Carolina Beach and checked into our hotel, the Hampton Inn, where we had reservations for two adjoining ocean front rooms. We settled our things and then went downstairs to have a drink at the patio bar, where we sat around a lovely gas fire pit and watched the moon rise over the ocean. Later, we took a walk down the beach and then over to town and had dinner at Havana’s. Bob said his clam chowder was the best he’d ever had.
We awoke to the sunrise over the ocean,
and headed over to the Carolina Beach State Park for a walk on the Flytrap Trail to look for carnivorous plants. The Venus Flytrap is native to the area. It’s a tiny, inconspicuous plant, though, and tends to hide beneath other plants, so we didn’t find any. It was a nice walk through the woods, anyway. I was a little nervous about alligators (after seeing warning signs over by the battleship). My friends told me that alligators can move faster than a person can run over short distances, so your best bet is to climb a tree. The trees didn’t look very climbable to me. Luckily, it was a cold day, and there weren’t any alligators out.
Before we left the park, we went over to the marina – very quiet at this time of year – and wandered around a bit, taking pictures.
We had a couple of options for the rest of our time at the beach: a Civil War reenactment and a visit to the aquarium. Both were at Fort Fisher. We’d heard a blast from the reenactment while we were in the woods, and we could see it from the road as we drove by, so we decided that was enough battle for us. We went on in to the Aquarium and spent an enjoyable few hours exploring the exhibits. Albino alligators, jellyfish, seahorses, sharks, and an eagle – the aquarium has it all.
Our beach adventure was at Cape Fear, which I only knew about before from the terrifying movie starring Robert De Niro. An excellent movie, but definitely not one I’d recommend to Lucy. Ned and I’ve both had the experience of finding out movies we liked were too disturbing for our friend, and a running joke over the weekend was, “but would you recommend it to Lucy?”
Back home in Raleigh
Raleigh’s only two hours from the coast, so we got back in time for the Chinese Lantern festival on Saturday night. A big grassy area was transformed with what must have been hundreds of beautiful silk lanterns representing everything from bicycling pandas and roaring lions to an enormous Chinese dragon that seemed to be floating in a lake. It was the festival’s second annual holiday season visit to Cary, NC.
On Sunday, we visited the spectacular Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. The first thing you see when you enter is a huge glass wall, behind which are the stacks where the books are kept. A robot called the bookbot retrieves and shelves the books, and you can see a demo: the robot rushes down the aisle, raises or lowers an arm to the correct level, and pulls out a drawer full of books. It takes the whole drawer away – maybe to a human librarian who selects the correct volume and hands it over to the user.
The library has hundreds of seats of all different kinds, so you’re bound to find a comfortable place to read and study. Some are configured in conversational formations, and for more demanding study group needs, there are rooms where the walls are lined with whiteboards, complete with flat screens to hook your laptop up to. There are even music rooms on the top floor, with keyboards and headphones.
And for serendipity of discovery, there are a few places with shelves of actual books. Patrick found a Mishio Kaku book on the physics of the future that Lucy checked out for him with her faculty card. Pat’s twelve and in 7th grade, but he was fascinated by the book and had read a quarter of it by the end of the day. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future himself.
Bob and Patrick are train enthusiasts, and are active in the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club. We stopped in to tour their terrific new clubhouse and chat with the other members who were there.
Finally, we visited the natural science museum in downtown Raleigh. We had lunch at the museum cafe and then looked around at a few exhibits while waiting for the monarch migration movie to start. We would certainly have stayed longer and seen more, and gone for a hike in the afternoon, but I’d managed to pick up a cold somewhere along the way and I was fading fast. My friends graciously cut their own adventures short to take me back to Bob and Lucy’s cozy house.
I spent the last day and a half of my visit sleeping or bundled up in front of the fire, reading, working on a jigsaw puzzle with Lucy, and watching movies on tv.
January might not seem like the best time to visit North Carolina, but except for getting sick, it was a wonderful time with lots of interesting sights and good conversations with old friends.