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Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. I’m not ashamed to admit

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. I’m not ashamed to admit

State of Wonder

Acrocanthosaurus skeleton display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Illustration of Highway 64 traversing North Carolina

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

I’m not ashamed to admit that for the first two months of my maternity leave, the most exciting part of every other week was usually a trip from our home in Cary to the Costco on U.S. Highway 64 in Apex. We’d push our stroller through the aisles with our baby boy, James, feeling like totally normal people for approximately half an hour.

While driving home after one of these trips, Alex dared to make a suggestion. “Maybe we should get out more,” he ventured.

I considered this, noticing my mismatched socks. “You know,” I said, “I think you might be right.”

Where to? Well, if we kept heading east on Highway 64, we’d run right into Raleigh. A plan formed: a grown-up version of a childhood field trip to our capital city. We’d spend the day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences — both James’s and Alex’s first time.

Soon, we were setting off for our first real family outing, our diaper bag filled to the brim with every conceivable thing we might possibly need to survive for several days in the wild.

Megalodon shark jaws at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Discover other treasures like a model of the jaws of a megalodon shark. Photography courtesy of VisitNC.com

When we walked into the museum, James’s eyes were wide-open. I was so excited to watch him take it all in. (Look, I’m not crazy enough to think that an 8-week-old really “takes in” much, but there would be new sounds, colors, and textures to experience!)

“This is one of my favorite museums in the state,” I said, turning to Alex. Wait, where was Alex? I whirled around in confusion, searching for my husband.

There. Peering over a group of schoolchildren in the “Natural Treasures of North Carolina” exhibit, I spied him on the other side of a glass case displaying a model of the enormous jaw and teeth of a megalodon shark, his face a comical mirror of the amazed kids nearby.

Established in 1887, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences is the oldest museum in the state. One of its buildings features four floors of flora, fauna, and fossils that showcase North Carolina’s natural habitats and inhabitants from mountains to coast through interactive exhibits and incredible displays. Four floors that I began mentally preparing to chase my husband around.

Blue whale skeleton hangs from the ceiling at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences offers fresh perspectives on the world, like the view from underneath a colossal blue whale skeleton. Photography courtesy of VisitNC.com

We rolled over to “Coastal North Carolina,” where gigantic whale skeletons hung high above — surely impressive, even to a baby. James would no doubt get a kick out of the world’s biggest mobile. “WOW,” Alex said, before all but sprinting off. I gazed down at James, ready to share in his wonder, and — he was asleep. I sighed. In preparing for this outing, I’d allowed for a worst-case scenario that revolved around James scream-crying in public. I hadn’t considered that he might sleep through the whole event.

Alex was completely unbothered. “Let’s go see the dinosaurs!” he said.

Well, I thought, it turns out I will get to experience familiar wonders through fresh eyes — they just happen to belong to my husband and not our son.

But by the time we reached the light-filled circular atrium on the third floor, where “Acro”— a rare Acrocanthosaurus skeleton — looms large, I’d started to get that childlike urge to race around and discover, too. Known as the Terror of the South, the fossilized dinosaur, which predated the T. Rex by 45 million years, is the most complete of its kind ever found and the only one on display in the world. Standing beneath Acro, I suddenly felt small, once again the 8-year-old girl who’d borrowed books about snakes and crocodiles and prehistoric predators from the school library and let her imagination run wild — the 8-year-old who’d visited this very museum.

I gently pushed our stroller and a still-sleeping James out of the way so that the little boy next to us could take it all in, the pterodactyl models soaring above us unseen by my boy — for now. But it wouldn’t be long, I thought as I smiled down at him, before he’d be the 8-year-old racing around this museum, his dad trying to keep up. My heart only ached a little.

Beyond the windows of the atrium, the busy, familiar streets of Raleigh beckoned, and a few hours later, we emerged into the heart of downtown. As we took our time walking along Bicentennial Plaza toward the Capitol building — something neither Alex nor I had done since a fifth-grade field trip — the surrounding buildings didn’t seem quite as big as the ones in my memory, when a bagged lunch waited for me back on the bus. But suddenly, they did seem to hold new possibilities.

“What amazing place should we show James next?” Alex asked, the stroller coasting along.

We agreed to make a return trip to visit the North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Executive Mansion. And we’d been meaning to spend an afternoon exploring the shops and restaurants in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood neighborhood. And James would love the carousel at Pullen Park and a picnic at JC Raulston Arboretum, and, and, and …

Soon, I knew, he’d wake up. Soon, we’d do our best to show him everything. But for now, he dreamed. So we did, too.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 West Jones Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 707-9800

This story was published on Mar 12, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.