South Of The Border
Dillon, South Carolina
The automobile trip from the bleak cities of the Northeast to the sunny shores of Florida via I-95 takes two good days of driving. Halfway there, as you speed between endless miles of pine forest, visible heat rising up off the road, a huge alien sombrero nearly 200 feet high suddenly appears in the distance. Have heat, fatigue and eight ceaseless hours of auto bingo and childrens' hands grabbing at your sunglasses shredded your senses like old retreads on hot asphalt?
You grin, speed up, and quickly turn off at the next exit, as if compelled by some otherworldly force. The sombrero is, in fact, Sombrero Tower, landmark of the South Of The Border tourist complex. After enduring an accelerating onslaught of 120 billboards for more than 200 miles, this is what you've waited to see.
South Of The Border (or SOB, as it's known to insiders) is a unique amalgam of Dixie and Old Mexico. At first you wonder what all this Mexican stuff is doing in South Carolina, thousands of miles from its natural habitat. But in a remarkably short time you'll accept SOB as a neon yellow and pink Tijuana, with the added benefit that its inhabitants speak English and its water is safe to drink.
The lovable mascot of the place is pedro, a grinning mustachioed caricature topped with an outsized sombrero. It is pedro who speaks from the billboards. It is pedro who straddles the SOB entrance, 97 feet tall, "the largest freestanding sign east of the Mississippi." You can drive between his legs.
Once parked by "The Big Fella," a visitor can venture into Mexico Shop East -- West being across the street -- and pick up any one of figuratively millions of souvenirs. Quantity rules, with, for example, eight types of backscratchers and twenty-two types of coffee mugs. Rifle through bins of address books and shot glasses. "Bins" is no exaggeration, as the fourteen different gift stores are all packed with thousands of each type of gewgaw and doodad.
The South Carolina state line is the summertime starting point for fireworks, and SOB offers a huge selection. Load up with roman candles and rat chasers at pedro's Rocket City.
Relief from the heat is afforded by a stop in the Sombrero Room Restaurant, serving the best Mexican food in northern South Carolina. Ten dollars donated to the local Shriners gets a tourist's name magic-markered to a construction paper sombrero, which is then thumb-tacked onto the ceiling, already heavy with others.
Pedro's Casateria offers food in short order, and pedro's Southern Fried Chicken restaurant looks like an ante-bellum mansion, with rocking chairs on the porch and a giant chicken on the roof. Peddlers Steak House puts to rest the longtime myth that one cannot get a good steak in a building shaped like a Mexican hat.
Before getting back in the car, which is by now an oven anyway, take a ride up the glass elevator to the top of Sombrero Tower, the same monolith that caught your eye in the first place. As you walk around in the brim of this huge hat, look out over the piney woods and desolate terrain cut in two by the interstate. There is nothing to see. SOB is a real oasis.
If you find yourself spending more time here than originally scheduled, and it starts getting dark, don't worry. SOB has both RV campgrounds and 300 motel rooms spread over its 135 acres. And staying here allows access to pedro's Pleasure Dome, with its indoor pool, steam room, Jacuzzi, bar and wedding chapel
A dozen weddings are performed here every summer weekend. One package gets you married, a night in an "heir-conditioned" honeymoon suite (complete with champagne and waterbed), and a free breakfast the next morning!
As with other great accidental discoveries like X-rays and penicillin, it took a man of vision to realize SOB's vast potential. That man was Alan Schafer, who began his rise to roadside immortality in 1950 with a simple beer stand. When building supplies began being delivered to "Schafer Project: South Of The [North Carolina] Border," a neon light went on in his head. He began to import Mexican souvenirs, and on one such trip arranged for two Mexican boys to come to America and work for him. As Schafer said, "Somebody began calling them 'Pedro' and 'Pancho,' and since it fit into the theme, we began calling them both 'Pedro.'" Today, all SOB workers, regardless of race, creed or color, are called pedro.
South Of The Border always amazes return visitors because it continues to evolve, casting its nets in different directions as popular taste changes course. Giant Vegas-like electric signs announce specials deals. A jogging trail runs around the par 3 course. The Top Hat is a swank private bistro located above the Rodeo Drive shop.
SOB's proximity to large military bases means that its "Dirty Old Man" shop isn't a naughty boutique with woman's breast salt and pepper shakers, or toy monks that pee on you when you push their heads. No, it's an adults-only-style outlet, stocking books, DVDs, and various latex helpers. Of course, it does make it more like the "real" Tijuana, but where will that sort of logic end? With a donkey show out behind SOB's post office? No thank you, sir! South Of The Border has the best of both worlds right now.
Update: SOB is AOK
R.I.P.: Alan Schafer dies at age 87.