South of the Border
Photos by Dana Holmes
Ifyou've driven Interstate 95 from Virginia to South Carolina in the past 51years, you've seen the florescent green, orange andyellow signs for South of the Border.
Unapologetically tacky, the billboards lure motorists off the highway with promises of souvenirs, fireworks,a place to eat and sleep, and discount tickets to Floridaattractions -- never mind that you're still hundreds of miles from Jacksonvilleand even further from Orlando.
The first few signs at the North Carolina border are an interestingdiversion on from the flat, rural concrete stretch of interstate. A giantsombrero-clad mascot, Pedro, who adorns all the billboards, offers such pithyprose as "You never sausage a place!"
Then it begins to sink in -- you have 150 miles and perhapsanother 75 billboards before you hit the South Carolina border. Worse still, thekids have noticed the signs. They start to read them to you. Little voices cheerfully announce from theback seat, "Only 75 more miles to South of the Border...now only 70 moremiles...now only..."
Well, you get the picture.
You know your fate is sealed: There's no way you're going to make it to Floridawithout stopping at South of the Border. The signs become more frequent as youapproach Dillon, South Carolina. Then, just when you think seeing another Pedrowill drive you mad, a 200-foot-high sombrero looms out of the sandy scrub.
Burritos, burgers, hotdogs, chilidogs are among the refreshments offered. In the background, the famous giantsombrero.
You have arrived at South of the Border.
For a price, you can take an elevator ride to the top of the sombrero, whichoffers panoramic views of...the miles of Interstate 95 you've just driven, andthe hundreds of miles still ahead of you.
You could have predicted that a Mexican-theme attractionhundreds of miles from Mexico (and on the wrong coast) would look suspiciouslylike a tourist trap. Yet, the place is not without its charm. It harkens to family vacationsbefore the blanduniformity and predictability of chain restaurants and hotels. South of theBorder is from an era when the car drive was as much of an adventure as thefinal vacation destination.
Roadside America, a self-described online guide to offbeat attractions, callsSouth of the Border "one of the seven wonders." It stops short ofsaying seven wonders of what.
The place remains remarkably unchanged from year to year. Pedro smiles down fromeverywhere...the fireworks store, the gift shops, even the rest rooms. He seemscharmingly innocent, oblivious to the threats to his very existence byencroaching modern development.
The owner and originator of South of the Border, 83-year-old Alan Shafer, didmake one concession to modern times and political correctness a few years ago.Billboards that had Pedro speaking broken English were replaced in response tocomplaints of insensitivity from the Mexican Embassy and otherorganizations.
Baby Boomers, Shafer sniffed in an interview with the Raleigh News andObserver, have no sense of humor. Then, in true entrepreneurial spirit, Shafer gathered photos of thebillboards into a booklet, "Pedro Presents Award Weening Billboards!"The booklet has a printed price of $1.00, but sells for 50 cents.
Tourists love a bargain.
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