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Is The Final Adios On The Horizon?

It has sat just a few feet south of the state line separating North Carolina and South Carolina since 1949: a garish, kitschy, tacky, tasteless neon throwback to the days when gas was cheap, colorful Mexican trinkets and tacos were a novelty to anyone traveling in the deep South, and cringeworthy puns telling you of its impending arrival began assaulting you on roadside billboards 250 miles before you actually got there.

South of the Border, that iconic conglomeration of Mexican-themed cultural insensitivity that travelers on Interstate 95 are forced to notice as they cross the state line in either direction, is still there 74 years after a businessman named Alan Schafer decided to capitalize on the thirst for beer among the residents of then-dry North Carolina living just north of the South Carolina border by building a beer stand just steps over the border called the South of the Border Beer Depot. Not surprisingly, business boomed. Over the years, Mr. Schafer decided to add Mexican knick-knacks to his offerings, bringing a couple of guys from Mexico up to help him run his expanding enterprise. Both of them were conveniently named "Pedro," their real names lost forever to history. Capitalizing yet again on the neighboring state's fun-killing prohibitions, Schafer soon thereafter opened a fireworks store as part of the South of the Border complex, and business exploded (sorry) once again.

I've driven past South of the Border perhaps a half dozen times over the last 30 years. Each time, I glance at the parking lots, which invariably look empty. I was never sure whether I was just seeing the backs of buildings, so on my most recent trip up I-95 a few days ago on my way back from Florida, I decided to pull off to take a closer look.

Some online research about the current status of South of the Border reveals a classic case of "it depends on who you talk to." The complex's general manager recently assured a local TV station that "we're here to stay" when they noticed some buildings being razed. But my visit told the story of an attraction that has seen its best days, and is struggling to adapt to new attitudes and travel patterns. It was a hot day, for sure ... about 95 degrees. Still, it is the height of the tourist season, and one would expect a successful business that caters to tourist traffic, especially along the extremely busy I-95 corridor, to be bustling at this time of year. But the scene I saw was stark: parking lots in front of every store and attraction were nearly empty, even though all were clearly marked as "open." In Mexico Shop West, South of the Border's main souvenir store, brightly colored T-shirts and knick-knacks beckoned to no one ... the aisles throughout the multi-roomed store were devoid of customers. The Kiddie Playground, where a variety of rides and bouncy houses stood ready to entertain, was deserted.

South of the Border has taken some steps to remove some of more blatantly stereotypical words and images used on their roadside billboards, but the pudgy, mustachioed, sombrero-donning cartoons of Pedro, South of the Border's lead spokesman and mascot, remain.

As American travel habits and cultural attitudes change, have kids and adults alike outgrown Pedro and other similar roadside oases? In the coming years as we pass by that freeway fiesta called South of The Border, will we say "Hasta la vista" (Spanish for "until we meet again"), or "Adios?"


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