A hundred miles and a million degrees of political correctness away from the Triangle is roadside attraction South Of the Border, a 200-acre park filled with tacky souvenirs, exotic reptiles, fair rides and legal fireworks. The border it’s south of (just barely) is North Carolina’s, though it takes a stereotype of Mexico as its theme, with a beer-swilling, pot-bellied, shade-seeking, uncouth man called Pedro for a mascot.
Pedro has presided over South Of the Border since the 1960s, but the business, owned by the Shaffer family, has existed in its present location since 1949, when it opened as a beer stand catering to North Carolinians in the dry counties just north of the borderline.
The website of Dillon County, S.C., states that the rest stop is known as “SOB” to insiders, describing it as “a neon yellow and pink Tijuana, with the added benefit that its inhabitants speak English and its water is safe to drink.” But traveling there, I bring Sarah Booker, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student in Spanish literature, just in case her translation services are needed.
Driving down I-95, SOB is hard to miss. More than 150 billboards for it dot hundreds of miles of East Coast asphalt. As you approach, a sombrero-shaped observation tower, 220 feet tall, looms over the tree line.
A sign displays the rules of the pedestrian overpass that arches over U.S. Highway 301/501, which runs through the park. “Pedro sez NO VEHICLES SKATEBOARDS ETC…” My translator translates: “Sez is making fun of a Mexican accent.”
From atop the overpass, we survey SOB’s smorgasbord of gift shops and, across an expanse of fallow pavement, a Ferris Wheel. Fantastical statues dot the landscape: a giant gorilla, a snarling T-Rex, flamingos, leaping porpoises and myriad Pedro sculptures.
In the Sombrero Restaurant, I’m not very hungry and order the “Miguel” optionchicken tenders, “extra tender”off the kids’ menu. My translator’s tacos are “más o menos.” In May, the restaurant and grounds are desolate, but our waitress assures us that SOB is packed from June through August.
Outside the restaurant, Junior Morales, a traveler from Florida, tells us, “This place would bother me if it was close to Mexico, but where it is, it doesn’t bother me.”
The Sombrero Tower observation deck is closed due to an impending “state inspector.” Instead, we visit the ice cream parlor, where France’s Francoise Adamson says, “It is, how do you say, borderline good taste? This place?”
Her companion, Jeom-Yoes Gicquel, adds, “We have gone from New York to Washington, and now we are here. It is weird. But it is America. You have everything weird. Next, Charleston.”
In the Reptile Lagoon, we see gators and crocs and watch as excrement is cleaned out of a yellow anaconda’s cage.
In the fireworks store, we learn that the mammoth Cherry Bomb Blaster is not in fact the biggest combustible available for purchase at SOB. Reloadable mortar kits pack the most bang for our buck.
The $99 SOB Honeymoon Special includes a wedding ceremony, a bottle of champagne, a red shag-carpeted suite and a sombrero-canopied waterbed. I ask my translator to marry me, right here, right now.
“How many words long is this article?” she asks. I tell her it’s about 500.
“I wouldn’t marry you for anything less than 2,000,” she sez.
I start to sweat at South of the Border.