A Run for the Border

Driving north on I-95 from Florida to the Carolinas, you see a bunch of strange signs. They start at Daytona Beach, Fla., and continue every few miles.

They’re big. They’re in neon colors. Many have a sombrero. Some are bad jokes; some are simple statements. One has a giant hot dog and says, “You Never Sausage a Place! (You’re always a weiner at Pedro’s) South of the Border.” Another with a hippie smiley face says, “Smile! You’re Almost There! South of the Border.” Or: “Your sheep are all counted at South of the Border” or “Kid Stuff! South of the Border.” (From the north, the signs start at the Virginia/North Carolina border.)

What is this “South of the Border” place? At first, maybe at the sign saying, “Only 263 miles to go,” you think it must be some gimmicky shop or something. But what little shop would put that kind of money into promoting itself? So you just have to pull off the highway to see what this thing is.

Curiosity has gotten the better of more than one trucker. “Pedro has more billboards than there are mile markers in the Carolinas,” says driver Doug Troxell of Higginsport, Ohio. Pedro is the nickname of Alan Schafer, who created the place.

The first thing you see from the interstate just south of the North Carolina-South Carolina border is a 22-story tower with a sombrero on top. It has a glass elevator leading up to the rim of the hat, from which you can look down on the interstate and surrounding pine trees.

Then you pull off the interstate, and you see bright colors everywhere. There are three gas stations, an 18-hole indoor miniature golf course, five restaurants, 10 shops and a 300-room motel. There’s a 40-foot-high monkey. Don’t ask. It’s a strange place.

Doug Troxell has been coming to South of the Border for more than 20 years. Sometimes he makes a family trip of it from Ohio.

South of the Border even has its own police force – eight armed security officers who cruise around in patrol cars to keep the peace. It has its own fire department, water department and post office. It even has its own zip code.

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Believe it or not, this 135-acre tourist oasis in the middle of nowhere started small. Very small. “Pedro started South of the Border way back in 1949 as an 18-by-36-foot beer stand, and it’s all grown from there,” says Susanne Pelt, public relations director for the town.

Schafer came up with the name “South of the Border” when he was building his beer stand, and supplies were delivered to “Schafer Project: South of the [North Carolina] Border.” He began importing Mexican souvenirs, and on a trip to Mexico he hired two boys to come to America and work for him. People started calling the boys Pedro, and now all workers at South of the Border are called Pedro, though most are American. Schafer keeps the place open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“It’s more like an amusement park than anything else,” says Tom Sweeting, a trucker from Halifax, Va. He drives for V&TS Trucking.

But Sweeting doesn’t come here for the amusement. “It’s a good place to stop if you want to lie down and go to sleep,” he says. “Up and down 95 there’s not a whole lot of places, and they’re all full. From here to the Florida line there are only 12 stops, and most of them have 150 to 200 spots if you’re lucky. There are 80 in here, and no one uses them.”

South of the Border offers a little of everything wrapped in a Mexican theme.

The truckstop doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of other truckstops, he adds. “All they got is a soda machine inside.”

But what’s simple for one trucker is luxury for another. “They’ve got free coffee right inside the door,” Troxell says. “They’ve got scales and a TV room.”

The amenities offered in the little town can’t be beat, he says. “They even have a pharmacy in here. They’ve got any kind of cuisine that you want. The steak dinners they have across the street are out of this world. For the money you spend, this food’s great.”

Troxell is a regular at South of the Border. “I’ve been coming here since the 1970s,” he says. He drives for JB Hunt Inc., of Lowell, Ark.

He points to a huge building in front of Porky’s Truck Stop and Store. “That used to be a big bar with a casino inside,” he says. Now it’s an antique store. “They outlawed gambling in South Carolina about a year ago,” he explains.

“My wife used to love to come here,” Troxell says. “She used to go shopping. I like the donut shop. They used to have all kinds of little knickknacks that we’d buy for the grandkids, and we’d spend the night at the motel here. They cut a hole in the fence so truckers could take a shortcut to the motel. Sometimes we’d even come here in the car. We’d go across the street to the Peddler Steak House. I recommend the steaks there 100 percent.”

Rooms at the motel next to the truckstop are $29.95 per night, Pelt says. “Pedro’s 24-hour diner is located next door to Porky’s so that our trucker friends don’t have too far to go to eat or get coffee,” she adds.

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