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18 Hours South of the Border

By William E. Mckibben

South of the Border is not artificial-flowers-formica-tables-plastic-trails-through-the-living-room a little tacky. It is the showroom of tack, all the kitsch of America distilled into 100 acres by the side of 1-95. There are 304 motel units, 103 campsites, four restaurants, three gas stations, 17 stores, miniature golf, a train ride through the woods, not to mention a 200-foot observation sombrero, all based on a Mexican theme filtered through several layers of bias, ignorance and Hanna-Barbera. As the brochure says, "Ees onlee wan South of the Border, Amigos, where Pedro has put eet all together to make ze mos' excite vacation stop between La Canada and Key West! Ees leetle Mexico on 100 acres weeth 300 beeyooteefool rooms, shops, 3 sweem pools, par 3 golf, light-up tennis courts, gorjous landscape gardens, plus bran' new sombrero een zee sky tower weeth elevator to go opp een, see ever'teeng! Y'all comm, Amigo, Y'hear?"

The billboards start 200 miles away in each direction, at the Virginia and the Georgia lines. "Veeseet Pedro... South of the Border." "We started with the billboards in the 1950's" Jim Holliday, general manager, says. "Hey, Amigos--Ees Cool at Air-Condeetioned South of the Border." "The sign laws have gotten a lot more restrictive since, but we still have our leases," Holliday adds. He points to the observation sombrero, where visitors pay 50 cents to ride 165 feet to the brim and look out over the highway. "To us it's just a big billboard. We needed some southbound exposure off the interstate."

A Miller High-Life franchise and the North Carolina legislature started it all. Alan Schafer, who owned the South Carolina rights to Miller, knew a lot of people would be thirsty by the time they had come clear across North Carolina, then dry as two-year-old tobacco. "He wanted to get into the retail beer business, and this (five feet, if that, south of the state line) seemed an advantageous location," Holliday says. "He was businessman enough to adopt the name," and later invented Pedro, the Mexican figure that serves as mascot, Holliday adds. "He never intended it to get this large." "This large" means 500 guests a night at the motel and campgrounds, $20 million a year in receipts, 10-to 15,000 visitors a day through the summer and quite a few all year long. Now in his mid-60s, Schafer is "totally independent. He's a very imaginative, very progressive, and very wealthy man," Holliday reports.

An approaching driver would bet South of the Border was built after--and because of--1-95. The great torrent of concrete even seems to bend a little as it goes within a dozen yards of the place. But I-95 opened in the mid-70s, and SOB has been there decades longer. Originally built along Route 301, the owners worried that I-95 might bypass them; when the plans showed the superhighway going by their door, they began to worry about that, too. "We thought at first it might hurt us," Holliday says. "The question was, would they stop off a major highway?" The answer was yes.

Now new questions plague the management. What if people finally stop driving to Florida? Or stop driving altogether? "People are still going to go on vacation," Holliday insists. He adds, though, that some changes are in the works: "Our chief aim is to change the face of South of the Border, to make it more of a destination than a stopover." Some families have been coming here for 20 years, and Mr. Schafer, presumably would like to see more. "We intend to upgrade the amusements, get something to hold people longer," Holliday says.

In the meantime, patrons will have to make do with the shops and restaurants. Not that those aren't quite enough in themselves. Here, for example, are some of the Pedro/South of the Border souvenir items one can purchase in the 17 stores: velvet paintings, toilet seats, wall hangings, purses, change purses, ash trays, mugs (at least five varieties), salt and pepper shakers, toothpicks and holders, sun visors, jugs, shirts (uncountable selection), measuring cups, placemats, letter holders, desk organizers, soap dishes, "Pedro's paddles", baby pants, baby bibs, back scratcher, coasters, pencil sharpeners, x-rated viewing cameras, jumping beans, figurines of pedro and cacti, pencils key rings, combs, six-color magic markers, donkey toothbrush holders, puppets, letter openers, napkin rings, wind-up Pedros, frisbees, New Years noise makers, wallets, scarves, candles, fake rocks ("get your rocks off," $5.95), toy pinball machines, tambourines, slippers, sweatshirts, string ties, playing cards, punching bags, toy binoculars, pin cushions, aprons, picture puzzles, bullwhips, shopping bags, roulette wheels, boomerangs, pencil cases, piggybanks, pedro posters, sun hats, trays, wind chimes, buttons, bumper stickers, inflatable Pedros, horns, spoon racks, trivets, cigarette cases, two-piece donkey sets, cosmetic cases, pens, cups, and dog t-shirts.

Reaching South of the Border via Rte. 74 from Charlotte--a backdoor route--meant missing most of the billboards. 74 starts out in suburban Charlotte, limping from stop light to stop light past shopping mall after shopping mall. Slowly it slips into nondescript country-side, the same scrubby hills that grow up beside most highways. Finally, it flattens and straightens past rolling fields, and a few flimsy shacks sag at every edge. Out of nowhere comes the I-95 interchange; turn on to the highway and suddenly the road is exactly the same as it is in northern Maine and Southern Florida and everywhere in between, a flat-out strip between nothing. Nothing except South of the Border. I took the appropriate exit, drove slowly through the center of the "attraction" and kept on going down an old back road, heading toward the nearest town and ignoring the huge placard imploring me in the name of Pedro to reverse my course.

Dillon, S.C. is a classic Southern town--a couple of pretty, tree-lined streets with nice big houses, a bustling main drag, and a dusty outskirts where poor people live, with pavement for a front yard. The back road that connects South of the Border with Dillon used to be the main road, and there are only a few rundown motels and roadhouses left. One, the Stonewall Jackson Motel, seems to have caught South of the Border disease. As motorists leave Dillon, its hand-painted sign implores "Turn Around and Sleep with Jackson."

But South of the Border drew me back. In the hot early afternoon, it's nearly empty. The ice-cream store had three waiters but one customer; no one else wandered through Fort Pedro and its rows of Roman candles and cherry bombs. Even Mr. Holliday was gone, but he came back eventually and ushered me into his absolutely bare office. Not a thing on the wood siding walls. "We won the governor's award for the best attraction in 1978," he says proudly.

I'm not sure why I stayed, except that I didn't want to return to I-95. Before long my stop evolved into a goal--I was going to visit every shop, eat at every restaurant, see every sight South of the Border had to offer. At the Hot Tamale Restaurant ("zee mos" beeyotee fool fast-food Restaurant een ze South"), a hot tamale. At EI Toro Steak Room, a steak, at the EI Sombrero Room ("weeth a thousand sombreros on ceiling), some fried chicken.

From atop the Sombrero observation tower, I put a quarter in the telescope and then realized there was nothing much to see except the lady making change in the Mexico Shop West. (The brim of the sombrero blocked all view of the Mexico Shop East.) In the Coffee Casa, I met a young coal miner on his way south to a Florida vacation. We talk about the coal strike, we talk about EI Salvador, he buys me coffee, I buy him beer, we agree the country would be in better shape were he and I in-charge. At the EI Toro bar, there's a drunken carny operator. "I don't have to work hardly at all. I gct people working for me," he says. Two men who speak little English ask him for direction to Washington D.C., and he reroutes them toward Wilmington.

I get some peanut butter at one of the two convenience stores, mail a postcard at the South of the Border post office. It's dark now, and not many people are left around, so I wander the streets and reflect. Amigoland is absolutely deserted, the Mini-Mex golf course dark as night. So this is America, very imaginative, very progressive, and very wealthy. A little grease and pavement, but there's the sweet smell of exhaust in the air and fun all around. Sombrero towers; steak rooms; fireworks; mini gold; barrooms; postcards; ice cream; swimming pools. I feel at home here, comfortable. And yet.

It was, except for the neon yellow handrail, very dark on the footbridge spanning the road that bisects South of the Border. An occasional car goes by beneath, headlights playing on the walls of Fort Pedro ("all kind Confederate souvenirs and most legal fireworks you gonna find anywhere"). In the distance are the pinball and the gas station and the tamale stand. And on one of the three "sweem" pools, this sign: "Pool for the use of hotel guests only. All others will be hanged by the neck until dead."

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