Pure Roadside America

Sorry, señor: Pedro says the Hat is closed. But everything else is wide open at South of the Border.

Sorry, señor: Pedro says the Hat is closed. But everything else is wide open at South of the Border.

DILLON — When the concept of the summer vacation stormed America in the late 1940s, it fired up the imagination of people stuck on the road to “there.” Dreamers created roadside attractions to snare all that loose change rolling right past them. That other change, however, caught up with them. All these years later, all across the United States in the middle of nowhere, you’ll see aging spectacles that gave highways character, rest stops that kids refused to let their parents pass. Visit these relics of the road and you can hear rust crackling. Cars roll on by and maintenance funds ride with them. Roadside attractions, welcome to the end of the road.

Two hours to the east you can see a most unique roadside attraction, South of the Border. Recently I drove to Apex, N.C. My daughter, Becky, and her two children went with me to visit my other daughter. Becky left Atlanta earlier at 7 a.m. By 3 p.m., the children had been in a car for over seven hours. To say they were restless is an understatement.

As soon as we left I-20 for I-95 crazy billboards appeared, hyping a pseudo-Mexican character, “Pedro.” Fluorescent orange, green, red and yellow text, suggestive of the tropics, covered the billboards and campy word play added a corn pone element. One billboard held a huge link sausage, reading: “You never sausage a place. (You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s.)”

The star of South of the Border is the 165-foot high Sombrero Tower. The kids had never seen South of the Border. As we approached North Carolina, the Sombrero Tower rose into the Pee Dee sky. “Y’all want to climb the tower?” I asked. I don’t have to tell you the answer.

Pulling in I felt we were driving back into the 1950s. We parked and went into the building over which the Sombrero Tower reaches skyward. I asked the attendant if we could climb the tower. “It’s closed,” she said. “Probably always will be.”

Perhaps maintenance funds had dried up. Disappointment set in. I had taken my daughters up the tower when they were children and I wanted to repeat this bit of family history. Plus it would have done the kids good to burn some energy. After throwing some money in one of those “grab a stuffed toy with a claw” games, we left.

South of the Border is the first thing southbound Northerners see of South Carolina. Their first impression of the state, known for Charleston, mountains and its haunted lowcountry, is that of a campy Mexican village. Despite the kitsch, I like the place and am glad the politically correct crowd leaves it alone. Maybe they think it will become a ghost town from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

The old magic persists. When my grandkids saw the place they thought they had landed in Disney World. I suggest you visit this one-time oasis that sprang from beer, fireworks, reptiles and more. See roadside Americana in the making.

If You Go …

Make it to I-20, then I-95 north, and look for the signs. If you cross the N.C. state line, amazingly you somehow missed SOB.


Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected].


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