Anyone who’s driven I-95 through South Carolina knows Pedro – or Pedro’s billboards, at any rate. For miles and miles, Pedro teases drivers with puns and double entendres in lurid, day-glo colors (“Pedro’s fireworks! Does yours?” “Keep America Green – Bring Money!” etc. The billboards are impossible to miss. I don’t know what Pedro’s monthly outdoor advertising tab is, but holy cow, it’s got to be keeping some billboard company afloat.) Anticipation builds – how could it not? Just when you think, oh this South of the Border thing has to be a put-on, there in the distance it looms: Pedro’s Giant Sombrero. About the size and height of a water tower, the Sombrero has a glass elevator that ferries tourists nearly 200 feet in the air (cost: a surprisingly fair $1) to take in the view of Dillon, SC. And as soon as they return to earth, Pedro is waiting with a cluster of shops, restaurants, a hotel, a campground, mini golf, and even, unbelievably, a small amusement park. And all of it garish and loud and campy and tacky and culturally insensitive at best. South of the Border seemed to be the very alpha and omega of tourist traps, a quintessentially American place, embodying the very spirit of our vast, hungry, ever-consuming and easily disposable popular culture. Yet for all of Pedro’s leering at our bulging wallets, there was a kind of innocence about the place, too. An unspoken agreement on all parts that getting taken was part of the fun, part of the whole vacation experience, and besides, who doesn’t love a coconut painted to look like a shrunken pirate head? At South of the Border, everyone is in on the joke.
Can you see why I wanted to go? Can you understand the allure? It had been a long while since I’d driven that stretch of I-95, but a recent road trip from Hilton Head to Philadelphia reminded me that Pedro was still there, just waiting for me to get off my high horse and pay a visit. So, this past weekend, I did. I called first, just to be sure, and to ask a few questions. The man who answered the phone sounded both really busy and totally clueless. No problem. Many businesses in America have seemingly adopted that exact approach to incoming calls, so, like everyone else, I’m used to it. Here’s how that conversation went:
Me: Is South of the Border open?
Me: Is it true that the Honeymoon Suite has a taco-shaped bed?
Him: It’s a clam.
Me: A clam-shaped bed?
Him: Like on the beach. That kind of clam. (Note: are there other kinds of clams? Must investigate.)
Me: Awesome. How much?
Him: I don’t know. It’s not available. We only have one. It’s always booked.
Way to encourage the customer! Still, Pedro was open for business, and that’s all I needed to know. Arriving on a cool, overcast day, I immediately noticed two things: first, there were hardly any people there, and second, Pedro’s empire is clearly in a state of decay. I guess the former handily explains the latter. Maybe you could blame the high price of gasoline, but the kind of decline I saw takes longer than a single summer to happen. But I’m getting ahead of myself. When you leave I-95 and cruise into Pedroland, prepare to be dazzled by the quantity and variety of cast concrete animals. It’s like a refuge for escapees from Goonie Golf. Bulls, elephants, giraffes, apes, wolves, tortoises, dinosaurs, dolphins, you name it. These creatures are everywhere at Pedroland and God bless the management because you are actually permitted - no, encouraged - to climb, sit, and be photographed atop them. Don’t you just hate places that have, like, a full-size lavender-painted cement hippo and then yell at your kids when they try to hoist themselves onto its back? Me too. You won’t find that kind of nannying at South of the Border, mi jefe. You want to risk perching your baby on the head of a 7 foot long, 5 foot tall wiener dog? Have at it and bienvenidos.
The next thing you’ll notice are the shops. There’s Pedro’s Trading Post, Pedro’s Western Shop, Pedro’s Africa, Pedro’s Mexican Shop, Pedro’s Candy Store, Pedro’s Myrtle Beach Shop, and Hat World. And probably half a dozen more, believe it or not. Pedro tries hard to hold to the theme of each store, with mixed results. The Western Shop predictably leans heavily toward cowboy knickknacks and Native American tchotkes (think mandalas and drums. Also, peace pipes. I watched one elderly gentleman in a trucker’s hat pick up a peace pipe off of the counter, take a meditative draw on it, then put it back down as his wife shook her head in loving disapproval. I couldn’t help wondering how many other folks saliva had dried on that thing. Oh my God I need some Listerine just thinking about it.) The Africa Shop boasts some interesting carvings and a rack of brightly-colored traditional African garments. The Mexican Shop features lots of blankets, maracas, sombreros, and even a magnet memorializing Pope John Paul II. Pedro’s Myrtle Beach is home to a giant Great White shark and a coffee table made from a lobster trap. It’s also where you’ll find the most mystifying trinket in all of Pedroland: a glass bottle filled with buff-colored plastic beads of no discernible value, interest, or aesthetic appeal. Cost: $6.50. I guess people really will buy anything. Hat World was a delight, and I’ll probably forever regret not purchasing the giant yellow spider hat. The 8 dangling legs really framed my face in a surprisingly flattering way. And strangely enough, there was virtually no candy at Pedro’s Candy Store. Por que, Pedro, por que?
What all of the shops had in common was a dizzying array of the cheap, the ultra tacky - just mind-blowing acres of crap. And no matter the theme of the shop, crap made its way in. And in the midst of so much merchandising and shelving, there are bound to be all sorts of serendipitous and hilarious collisions. My personal favorite: the Grim Reaper statue (ghoulish, full-color, 12 inches high, $17.50), displayed atop a decorative disk featuring the yin and yang symbols (6 inches in diameter, sturdy resin, $6.50), shelved next to the lounging and laughing Buddha porcelain (also $17.50), all directly beneath the aforementioned Pope John Paul II magnet. And directly across the aisle from plastic statues of Pedro himself, wide-eyed and grinning and so raucously stereotypically “Mexican” that it frankly bordered on racism if not outright crossing the line. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to love it. I sure did.
There are multiple restaurants in Pedroland. I can only comment on one, however, and in that one, the burrito we ordered came out looking and acting suspiciously like a taco. Maybe it was unreasonable to assume that Pedro’s South of the Border could adequately dish up some Mexican food?
Head deeper into South of the Border and you’ll come to Golf of Mexico – Pedro does love a pun – and the amusement park, which is just north of Pedro’s Convention Center. (How the National Association of Broadcasters missed this location, I’ll never know.) Here’s where it started getting sad for real. The Sombrero ride was rusty and abandoned. The carrousel was still. The Ferris wheel was spinning unattended, at a speed faster than seemed sensible. The bumper cars worked, but what fun are bumper cars if you’re the only driver? The big draw, a relatively new rollercoaster, squatted next to the interstate riderless and silent. Most poignant of all was the shuttered building that once housed an attraction called “Pedro’s Reality Ride”. I couldn’t figure out what on earth that might have been, but looking around at the weeds growing through cracks in the asphalt, at the chipped and fading paint, the empty buildings, I could see that Pedro was taking another kind of reality ride, and it wasn’t pretty.
Places like South of the Border are nostalgic from the moment they open. Was there ever an America so wide-eyed, such a cornfed rube, that Pedro wasn’t a winking irony? No, not really. But it’s pleasant to think so. To think of families, cruising toward sun-kissed beaches in sprawling station wagons, luggage tied to the roof, pulling into South of the Border for a bit of good-natured hoodwinking. Automobile culture, nuclear families, good, clean fun – the American dream, doled out with a big, gooey side of blatant capitalism. Not to mention explosives, girlie mags, tobacco, and beer. Did Pedro’s ever truly reflect who we were? Or has it always been an outrageously exaggerated tip of the hat to the more innocent past we like to imagine was ours? After all, ours is a new country, populated by folks who all come from someplace else. Maybe it’s in our collective dna to rush to fill all the empty spaces with symbols and memories, with an instant shared history, a harmless, fun sort of history that we can all fondly agree upon. Those famous good old days, right?
South of the Border is fading. Next time you’re racing up I-95, you might want to slow down and pull in. Your kids, distracted by Gameboys and i-Pods and Zunes, may not beg for the privilege quite as much as you once did. And frankly, kids now are so hip and cool and post-ironic themselves that a trip to Pedro’s might result in their temporary blindness due to extreme eye-rolling. So what. Do it anyway. Because when South of the Border closes, as someday it inevitably will, it’ll be replaced by a clean, modern travel plaza. Sbarro, Starbucks, Burger King, an Exxon station. No herd of Technicolor cement dinosaurs, no faux-coconut bras, no rulers emblazoned with the words, “Peter Meter”. Just another oasis on the highway, one you pull into in the middle of the night, bleary and hyper from too much caffeine, pissed off at the price of gas. Under the fluorescent light, surrounded by familiar logos, you could be anywhere. That feeling of dislocation - call it strip mall vertigo - that’s the new America. Say what you want about Pedro. Laugh at how tacky and ridiculous and lame it all is. But when you park your car in the shade of the giant sombrero, at least you know where you are, amigo. You’re at South of the Border. As Pedro says, you never sausage a place.
Hey Facebook members! Visit Pedro’s South of the Border, a fan site I’ve created to celebrate the wonders of Pedroland. See photos, add photos, share your own Pedro memories, and make new friends – the kind of friends who know how to appreciate a well-executed Horny Hillbilly figurine.