A delightfully tacky tourist trap on I-95, South of the Border is located in South Carolina, just south of the border with North Carolina.

Its mascot, Pedro, is a Mexican man wearing a sombrero and other typical Mexican clothes. His billboards have an accent: "Sleep Weeth Pedro!" Yup, there's even a motel attached to this place.

If you ever happen to pass by South of the Border... you'll be glad you didn't stop in. But if you like that sort of thing, it's great.

They have billboards advertising if for miles around.
By "miles" I mean like in "South of The Border\n\n394 miles". I'm serious.
It can be identified by the giant hat up like a water tower. It's on the right when going north, left when going south.

"Almost there
Keep screaming kids! (They'll stop)"

"You never sausage fun.
You're always a weener at Pedro's"

The second half of my freshman year, I fell in love with an adorable young latina. She wasn't actually Mexican, she was from Colombia, but I fell in love with this Frank Sinatra song because it made me think of her. She and I have gone our seperate ways, but this song still pops into my head when I'm singing in the shower, if for nothing but its cheesy attitude toward the whole affair.

The song was written by Michael Carr and James Kennedy, and originally popularized by Gene Autrey before Old Blue Eyes picked it up. I learned it from Sinatra's recording on Frank Sinatra: The Best of Capitol Years.

South of the border - down Mexico way
That's where I fell in love, where the stars above came out to play
And now as I wander - my thoughts ever stray
South of the border - down Mexico way

She was a picture - in old Spanish lace
Just for a tender while, I kissed a smile - upon her face
'Cause it was fiesta - and we were so gay
South of the border - Mexico way

Then she smiled as she whispered "mañana"
Never dreaming that we were parting
Then I lied as a whispered "mañana"
'Cause our tomorrow never came

South of the border - I jumped back one day
There in a veil of white, by the candle light - she knelt to pray
The mission bells told me that I musn't stay
South of the border - Mexico way

The mission bells told me - ding dong - that I must not stay,
Stay south of the border, down Mexico way.
Ai-ai-ai-ai (ai-ai-ai-ai)
Ai-ai-ai-ai (ai-ai-ai-ai)

Oh, I almost forgot the other reason I like this song: Check out the unexpected poetry in the last verse. It's much more striking when it's heard aloud, but in the next-to-last line, "The mission bells told me" is also heard as "the mission bells tolled me," like he was dead if he didn't get out of there. Hence, he equated the entanglement of commitment to that of death (see also "Love and Marraige.") Pretty deep for a guy who covered "Mack the Knife," eh?

Your car is moving at just under 80 miles per hour south on I-95. You've never been this way before, having spent most of your life in Maine. Now you are approaching the North Carolina-South Carolina border. For miles and miles you have seen the signs. "South of the Border - 23 Miles. Pedro is getting ready to shake his maracas at you, Senor!"

Ah, after all this driving, it sure will be nice to stop. Just 23 more miles to this promised oasis. You hold onto yourself, put off the need to relieve yourself, avoid stopping at McDonalds or a fried chicken shack because of the promise of what is ahead. South of the Border! This is going to be an evening to remember.

"Pedro is looking at you! Just 10 more miles! Wake the kiddies!"

Well, there are no kiddies, there is just you. You begin to imagine wonderful restaurants and bars. Exciting amusements. Fireworks. Happy people dancing around in sombreros.

Finally, there is the exit. You'll stop for gasoline and take a look around for something to quell the boredom. As you pull into the gas station you notice a very depressed man sitting in a booth, the plastic windows covered with stains and what appears to be smeared drool. Poorly handwritten signs warn you to pay up front. You don't see Pedro anywhere.

You get your gas from a rusted pump, not sure if you are forever poisoning your automobile. Then you take a drive to find a rest room. You find one that contains a filth encrusted urinal trough with what appears to be patches of dirt floating in a stream of yellow. You take care of business, looking up at the spiders and flies instead of the Yangtze river below. Then you take a little walk.

A big souvenir store looms ahead, just in front of a little amusement park with a ferris wheel and a carousel that looks as if no maintenance has been done since 1954. Should you buy a souvenir for a place you don't particularly want to remember? You walk in, discover questionable merchandise covered with dust. There is a very musty smell in the building, so you exit and look longingly at your car.

You get in and prepare to drive, but not before noticing the presence of some respectable motel franchises on the other side of the road. Would someone stay here for a week or so? Perhaps, but you can't quite figure out why.

Time to leave. There is a lot more on the road ahead. Despite your experience, you'll be back. Something draws you back again and again.

The South's highways wind by their share of oddball tourist entrapments: Rock City, a Stonehenge replica, the world's only double-barreled cannon and a museum that exhibits a wart removed from Elvis's wrist in 1958, to name but a few.

The South is indeed a dingy, ignert, concrete-block-nite-club-strung-with-blue-Christmas-lights kind of place; these are qualities I began to appreciate the moment I got the heck out. I'm not sure what it is concrete block nite clubs say about the South, or if this is a positive statement, or why the thought of them makes me so blasted homesick. Maybe it's because Southern seediness is so honest. There are no intellectual overtones. Postmodernism is installing a new mailbox.

One roadside attraction has come to epitomize what I miss about my homeland across the Mason Dixon in all its dilapidated grandeur. A roadside attraction so grimy, so abominable, so je ne sais quoi that even the hipsters can never claim it in good conscience: South of the Border, a curious complex of Mexican-themed crumminess situated along the line between North and South Carolina. What exactly South of the Border (or Pedroland, as it's occasionally called) is cannot be adequately described in words, unless those words are WREE-TEEN LAK DEES, amigo!

Last August as my father and I drove north to Swarthmore College on I-95 from my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, the infamous billboards popped up between those advertising Virginia Slims and Idle Hour Lounges. "217 MILES TO SOUTH of the BORDER!" exclaimed the first of hundreds. Each sign featured a gnomish chap garbed in sash, sombrero, and sandals. His hands held his belly, a droll little mustache curved down his mouth, and his expression was one of ohhh-no! This golem was, of course, pedro (never Pedro), South of the Border's logo and host. His picture was accompanied by remarks like "Chili Today—HOT TAMALE! (thees sign guarantee accurate 51% of time!)," or "HOLY MACKEREL" alongside a halo-ed fish ("pedro GOT MEELIONS OF CATHOLIC FRANS!"). Generations of road tripping Georgians and South Carolinians have been kept amused for hours by these advertisements, including my little brother and I every summer when we went to visit New Jersey grandparents. As the years passed, we went from anticipating the ads for their promise of impending delight, then (expectations disappointed) for their sheer absurdity, and finally for nostalgia alone.

As in the days of yesteryear, Pops pointed out every sign, shaking his head. "'South of the Border: best in this NECK of the woods!' And…a picture of a GIRAFFE. Look at it. Cripe." I stared out the window, brooding and contemplating. Each mile marked by a pedro sign was another mile between me and my boyfriend, my old band, and my kid brother (who had recently developed a Mongolian alter ego, which I also missed). For years I had eagerly awaited my escape from the heat and faded shambles of Georgia, but at that moment the thought of leaving everything familiar, even familiar dreadfulness, made me ill.

Before long, that most scenically incongruous of landmarks loomed along the horizon: South of the Border's 200-foot Sombrero Tower, shimmering in the heat like an oasis mirage. The billboards increased in frequency, blocking the sun from view as they frantically noted every one-thirty-second of a mile: "YOU CAN'T MEES EET!" ("You know, I bet most Mexicans don't enjoy this pedro stuff," mused my old man.)

After we exited the highway and pulled in to pedro's gas station, I embarked on a survey of the premises, which comprises sundry rest stop recreations and retail opportunities. One of the more endearing aspects of South of the Border is that though the merchandise inside each store is always exactly the same (ponchos made in Indonesia, ceramic enchiladas, cheap cigars—all labeled with the words "SOUTH OF THE BORDER" in striped block letters), their signs rotate constantly. What was the Dirty Old Man Shoppe last year is now labeled Club Cancun. The Leather Store was hauled over in favor of Pedroland Park, where there's "sometheeng for every juan!" including bumper cars and the El Toro Arcade. Regardless of name, the knickknacks available in one kiosk are exactly the same as the knickknacks available in the others. (In fact, South of the Border exists as one big advertisement for itself: they'd hawk pedro bumper stickers without an actual Pedroland if they could get away with it.) One year there might be a campground: the next, a tennis court. Both resemble the same littered parking lot. It's the poor hombre's Disney, with a neon color scheme. One expects to see some fellow clad in an oversized, threadbare pedro suit, murmuring "hey, meeester..." and posing for photos.

Pops retold the tale of my grandmother's first trip to South of the Border: "She opened the car door, looked outside, and vomited! She hasn't been back since!" A radio broadcast buzzed tinnily from speakers around the grounds, but the truly ubiquitous sound was that of grill grease sizzling. We strolled by the Golf of Mexico Indoor Putting Green, a gorilla statue, a fireworks depot ("pedro's FIREWORKS! Does yours?"), and the Hot Tamale Grill. Most classic of all was the Motor Inn and Carport, which advertised "heir-conditioned honeymoon suites complete with a complimentary bottle of champagne!"

A chat with the inn receptionist revealed that South of the Border started out as a beer stand back in 1949. It eventually grew to cover 350 acres of land, thanks to the efforts of founder Alan Schaefer who died last July. "He had a vision," stated the receptionist, who had known him personally. "Every cent he made, he put back in. He had a T-shirt printing plant installed right here."

Legend has it that Schaefer began referring to all of his Hispanic employees as "pedros" back in the 50's because he couldn't tell them apart. The powers-that-be obliged him to minimize the Mex-speak in roadside advertisements, but the South of the Border web page still welcomes visitors like so: "BUENS DIAS, AMIGO! pedro VER' GLAD YOU COME!! pedro got 112 meelion amigos, who stay weeth heem, opp teel now all satisfy come back, send frans…thees make pedro ver' HAPEE…like for frans come back all time…pedro hope YOU make 112 meelion and wan happee amigos! you come back soon, too, yes?" According to the receptionist, no Hispanic people actually work at South of the Border.

Pops and I have a running competition: whoever finds the most useless South of the Border relic for under three dollars has the other person buy it. I headed to El Drug Store, where souvenirs abound (albeit under a hearty layer of dust). After sorting through garments labeled "MY PANDRES WENT TO SOUTH OF THE BORDER AND ALL I GOT WAS THEES STEENKIN' T-SHIRT," plastic back-scratchers, and a bin of straw footwear, I unearthed a sombrero-shaped ashtray for only 1.99. Capital! After all, what could be more appropriate than purchasing souvenirs by which to remember a souvenir stand?

Eventually Pops and I made our way back to the station wagon with the trinkets. A glimpse at the trunk, laden with luggage, reminded me of our journey's purpose. Home was hundreds of miles away, in both directions. And there I stood, at the dividing line between youth and adulthood, on the threshold of carving out a new existence at some intellectual epicenter. pedro's dread visage beamed from all directions: pedro, the master spider, reeling in motorists with billboards and 70-cent chili dogs. One day I would return to his plywood habitat: the sole emblem of my youth that won't ever transform.

I hopped in the car with Pops. We cruised betwixt the sandals of a huge pedro likeness, and within moments we were speeding onward. Billboards blared anew: "WRONG WAY, AMIGO! SOUTH OF THE BORDER HALF MILE BACK!" The Sombrero Tower receded in the rear view, and suddenly we had reached North Carolina.

The following is an excerpt from the South of the Border Heestory promotional booklet:

"In 1950, pedro, hitch-hiking down U.S. 301 on his way back to Mexico, got lost. Arriving at a place called Hamer, S.C., almost starving, he stopped at a farm, scrounged some bread and cheese and went back to the road to catch a ride.

A Hungry Yankee saw him, hit the brakes, and offered him $5 for the sandwich. Pedro immediately decided that at $5 for a nickel's worth of cheese and a slice of bread, this was the place for him!

So pedro bought a wheel of cheese, 3 loaves of bread, borrowed a tobacco crate, and set up business by the side of the road. Sadly, no one stopped.

Desperate, pedro grabbed a board off an old barn, and wrote on it: SANWEECH $5. The Yankees still kept whizzing by. A day later, the bread getting stale, pedro changed the sign: SANWEECH $1. Six or eight people stopped. pedro was in business. Soon, he changed the sign again: SANWEECH 50 CEENTS. Business Boomed! pedro sent for hees brother, pancho. They added another crate, and wrote two more signs, reading SANWEECH 10 CEENTS. They were mobbed!

In the Mad Rush, pancho was run over by a New York Cab Driver who had no insurance. Pedro decided queek, he better get off the road.

Off the road, not so many Yankees pulled in to buy the Sanweech. So, pedro put up more Signs, and More and More. An' pedro leev happily Ever Seence! Hope you are the same."

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