It was somewhere south of Virginia when the memories kicked in and nautical twilight crept in like a night light at the end of a dark hallway. It was the time of morning when the road is populated by sleepy truckers, travelers and blue-collar types heading in to work.
A fresh cup of coffee heightened the senses and stirred the memory vault.
A mind finds interesting landing zones when hundreds of miles await your car’s rolling tires.
Grammy winner Shawn Colvin and I once had a conversation about the importance of road trips and road trip music selections backstage at the Birchmere. I told her I liked listening to her songs on early morning drives. Early mornings are for angsty singer-songwriters, jazz or radio sermons.
“A person’s road-trip music selection is one of the most important components of a trip, it sets the mood,” Colvin told me. “I’m honored you featured my songs on your early morning fishing trip drives. Travel mixes are serious business.”
As my car crossed the Virginia/ North Carolina border I began to see the signs, the first of approximately 175 billboards urging me to stop at South of the Border.
My music shifted from Sarah Jarosz to John Prine.
When I was a child my family often drove long distances on I-95—our journeys tended to be moves (Army family) or vacations to Florida. Our Ford Maverick was usually packed with pets, suitcases and a few fishing poles.
My dad liked to listen to Civil War campfire songs and the Carpenters.
Kids today cannot fathom the creativity, resilience and patience it took to drive hundreds of miles with family. The levels of boredom, laughter, agitation and fast-food odors were mind-blowing. Today, a kid can easily stare at a smartphone for eight-straight hours and be perfectly cool with burning through your data plan like one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons torching goats.
In my childhood, my brothers and I had a simple, yet relentless mission… to read all the corny South of the Border billboards until either my mother or father stopped. It was pure ad-inspired psyche-ops.
As kids we listened to the Muppets Band, Elvis, Ray Charles, and the soundtrack for Jaws.
In midlife, I can still hear my late dad telling me to “ignore the tourist traps and lure of rubber reptiles.”
I stop now, because I can. Sorry dad.
I admit I have no shame—it’s selfies with giant gorillas, Pedro and a few dinosaurs.
My music shifts to rebellion and bass—with Peter Tosh, Specials, Pogues, Clash and Black Sabbath.
No tourist trap has the historic swag as South of the Border. In many ways it is a perfect blend of Americana and nacho cheese. It’s the Donald Trump of tourist traps—it is ridiculous, oddly effective, culturally offensive, politically incorrect, brash, hilarious, slightly shady and strangely David Lynch-esque.
It’s a poor man’s Vegas, a kid’s junky-toy wonderland and a dad humor mecca--- all in one-exit.
Where else can you get a burrito, whoopie-cushion, taffy and a giant fly swatter?
To the north are sleepy little towns in North Carolina, to the south a speed-trap known as Dillion, SC.
South of the Border is an iconic southern stop that rescues the mood when you’re sad about returning home from cool places like Charleston, Savannah or Florida’s beaches. It slays boredom!
Annually about 8 million people stop at South of the Border---for selfish motives. So, it’s not just me.
Since it’s humble origin as a border beer stand next to a dry county in 1949, South of the Border, the brain-child of the late businessman Alan Schafer flourished with the construction of I-95 until the present day. Over the years, it has endured recessions and boom times—all the while retaining a kitschy charm that has drawn tired drivers off the interstate like a giant neon bug-zapper since the 1960s.
Good times? Raise the prices. Bad times? Lower the prices.
Critics of South of the Border, most notably the Mexican Embassy, have mounted various efforts over the years to soften many of stop’s more culturally-questionable aspects—the late owner chalked it up to Baby Boomers lacking a sense of humor.
I’d probably feel the same if there was a place with a giant-neon-kilted Scotsman. Then again?
On my last trip I bought my son a plastic Viking helmet, my daughter a frog hat, a Trump stress ball, four rubber lizards and a South of the Border t-shirt that reads— “You never Sausage a Place. You are always a Wiener at South of the Border.” All items brought smiles.
Decades ago I bought a rubber-tipped spear, peanuts and a Gadhafi puppet.
The feeling remains the same.
The B-52s, Miles Davis, Jimmy Cliff, Prince and Kool Moe Dee kept me awake as I drove north.