A Rapid Rabbit Hole Road Trip Guide to Eastern North Carolina
All-You-Can-Bowl! Top-notch hotel oatmeal! A pile of phosphate mine waste! Here is how to make the most (or least) of a trip through eastern North Carolina.
It’s road trip season! A lot of you (dads, only dads) may be excited to drive from town to town this summer. However you, a normal person, are probably not planning to cover hundreds of miles over two days to make short stops in six small towns. That seems unnecessarily brazen and potentially useless, but not if you’re a writer who has four stories to write and a rapidly approaching deadline! In 2016, I anxiously drove to six small eastern North Carolina towns over the span of 48 hours, and eventually wrote about the best parts of them. However, there were a lot of other parts of the trip that I didn’t really have time to get into. Because I believe in service journalism, I have created this travel guide to eastern North Carolina. If you have a full tank of gas, a weekend, and middle-of-the-road expectations, you too can live the exciting travel writer life. (NOTE: This post may be too long for your email, so be prepared to read the website version if, uh, you get that far.)
The best way to react to any fact you learn about Rocky Mount is by saying, “Wait, that’s in Rocky Mount?!” Two years ago, the DMV moved its headquarters there from Raleigh. QVC, the home shopping TV network that’s been around since 1986, had a large distribution center in town for decades until it burned down last year in what the state insurance commissioner called one of the largest fires he’s ever seen (QVC won’t rebuild it, unfortunately). Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town in 1962, nine months before the March on Washington, and dropped “I have a dream” in front of a crowd for the first known time. The speech was recorded, but the magnetic tape was lost for decades until someone found it in a closet at the local school district. Someone, luckily, had written “Do not erase” on the box.
In 2016, I went to Rocky Mount because I wondered if it had any really good non-chain restaurants. Yes! There is at least one. It’s called the Prime Smokehouse, and it’s a mix of Ethopian spices and Texas barbecue with a heavy dose of jazz atmosphere and a great backstory. Rocky Mount, like many of its small town Southern peers, is divided by race. But when the Prime Smokehouse opened, white and Black folks told the owner that they all agreed on something: This place was not gonna last. That was in 2013, and luckily everybody was wrong.
But! That’s not the most memorable experience I had. Late in the evening, I found a bowling alley that allowed me to roll as many games as I wanted for $10. I was by myself, and finished seven games in two hours. At one point, a woman who worked there asked me if I wanted to join a league. I was either really impressive or an obvious mark. I finished with a high score of 192, which made me better than Joyce Arrington but not quite as good as Kiki White.
I’m not sure if the Rocky Mount Bowling Center still offers a $10 bowling buffet, but I will say that when you get unlimited games for a low price, it’s easy to take it for granted. The man bowling next to me was rolling strikes with his right hand and talking on the phone with his left. It may be the most amazing athletic feat I’ve ever witnessed.
The Roanoke River is right there, and if you’re looking for unique overnight accommodations, you can tie off your canoe and pitch a tent on one of any number of raised wooden platforms that sit over the water. However! I chose the Hampton Inn, because I adore hotel breakfasts. The waffle iron. The egg discs. Everything. When I was there, one of the workers told me a secret. "People love this oatmeal," she said, before leaning in and whispering, "It smells so good."
I went there in February, which was prime mistletoe hunting season because it’s the only green thing you can see in any tree. You know how you get it down? Shotgun. Or, you know, a big pole with shears at the end. Either or.
However! When I was in town, I spotted this potentially quasi-military vehicle.
This is the sort of thing that you buy if you need a hovercraft, but you’re on a budget and think that air boats suck. I’m guessing it’s the sort of thing you need to get around in a swamp? Maybe it floats? Maybe you can accessorize it with a gun turret? Either way, that’s not the sort of thing you need to harvest peanuts.
How is it, exactly, that a hot dog stand can survive for almost 100 years? What is the profit margin on an encased tube of questionably-made meat? WHAT ARE YOU HIDING, BILL? We do know the backstory, at least. A guy named Bill Jackson opened a hot dog stand in Little Washington in 1928. That’s it. They just sell bright red hot dogs. Buns. Chili. Chips. You know Bill’s Hot Dogs will never die, because people eat them for breakfast. Such is their devotion to nitrates.
And exactly what are the ingredients in the chili? IT’S A SECRET. “There’s a lot of people who think they know it, but they’re not even close,” the owner told a local magazine in 2014. Got it. The secret ingredient is nicotine.
Also, the Pamlico Riverfront is top notch.
This is one of those places that I assumed would be interesting for one reason only: It has a funny-sounding name. I was so sure of it that I told my boss that I was going to go there to find a story. However! When I arrived, all I found was a gas station and this Doppler radar behind an abandoned television studio.
For what it’s worth, those were the original WITN-TV studios from 1955. They’d been shut down since 2013 when the station moved its offices to Greenville, and the building itself was demolished in 2018, so don’t go looking for it today. The station’s most famous alumni may be John Beard, who ended up being the news anchor in Arrested Development.
I say this in a very loving way: Aurora is the town in North Carolina that most resembles a moon colony. It is really, really remote. It sits on the edge of the largest phosphate mine/chemical plant on Earth. At any given moment, it is perfectly quiet, except when you can hear a dog barking far in the distance. It looks like this, mostly:
The biggest thing in Aurora, other than the mine, is the fossil museum. Basically, the folks over at the mine found so many fossils that they opened up a fascinating set of displays to show them all off. You want megalodon teeth? Buddy, you’re gonna get megalodon teeth. It is also, as far as I am aware, the only museum that provides a pile of mine tailings for you to dig through and find your own fossils.
I really, really tried hard, but came up empty. And as I was about to give up, a family of three pulled up, jumped on to the pile, and started filling up their buckets with sharks’ teeth. They squealed with delight, which, you know, if you can achieve that on any road trip, you win.