Before we get started, a quick note for regular readers: Aside from a bit near the end that may well be worth getting to, this has almost nothing to do with comics.
On the stretch of highway between my house and Dr. K’s, there are a dozen billboards for a place called South of the Border that range from the bizarre to the outright racist. I’ve seen them before, but I’ve never been to the place itself, a strange, sprawling tourist trap just this side of the North Carolina state line, so when Dr. K asked if I’d be up for a road trip to check the place out, I was more than up for it.
Especially once he told me that when he’d been there four or five years ago, they’d had a large collection of vintage velvet painting erotica.
Sadly, the “Dirty Old Man” shop appears to have closed down over the summer, but there were plenty of other harrowing sights for me to document on our road trip. To start with, the (in)famous South of the Border billboards. As I said, they majority of them are incomprehensible, mostly built around terrible puns and almost all of which feature Pedro, the alarmingly stereotypical SOTB mascot:
The billboards represent the entirety of SOTB’s advertising, stretching from Orlando–the place was originally constructed in its current state in the ’50s to capitalize on traffic coming down the coast to Florida and flourished in the ’70s with the advent of Disney World–to, at one time, Philadelphia, and when I mentioned going to the place on Twitter, a bunch of people told me they remembered seeing the billboards on their own trips, a few of whom even copped to driving hours out of their way to see what the hell they were all about.
There’s one in particular that always sticks out to me, though. If Pedro wasn’t bad enough–although to be honest, he’s better than he used to be–there are several billboards that employ a written-out “Mexican Accent” to go along with him. When I told my friends I was going to the most racist place on Earth and they asked why I called it that, this was the one I told them about:
As a side-note, I originally assumed Pedro was just a goofy character to go along with the “South of the Border” motif, but according to the website–and yes, they do have a website that’s actually pretty well-designed, considering–the real origin is actually worse:
One may ask, “How did pedro come about?” Well, Mr. Schafer went to Mexico to establish import connections and met two young men. He helped them get admitted to the United States, and they went to work at the motel office as bellboys for several years. People started calling them Pedro and Pancho, and eventually just Pedro.
That’s right: Nobody could be bothered to remember the names of the Mexican bellhops, so they just called them “Pedro” and then hung the name on a racist caricature. Seriously, this place starts hammering away at morality even before you get there.
Dr. K Says: Also, the guy went to Mexico, and he brought back two Mexican boys. Who worked as “bellhops” at his “motel.”
There’s also a billboard where Pedro advises you to “put some junque een your trunque,” but as that’s on the North Carolina side, I didn’t get a picture.
Eventually, we ran out of billboards and got to the place itself, and were greeted by both the Welcome Sign…
…and the Sombrero Tower:
In the interest of not being entirely negative, I will say that if you strip it from the increasingly dismal context, I do really like this sort of bizarre fifties roadside ephemera a lot. Even if it does look like something that Cobra Commander was using to hide a space laser.
Once we were in the park proper–parked out in front of Fort Pedro, the giant fireworks retailer that probably accounts for most of SOTB’s profits thanks to its proximity to North Carolina, where anything stronger than a sparkler is illegal–we set about exploring. The place is huge, sprawling on both sides of the highway, with two restaurants, two hotels, an alleged amusement park (we’ll get to that in a second) and three gift shops, each more terrible than the last.
There are also statues, which–aside from the pervasive desolation and sense of decay that comes from a steady decades-long decline–are probably the first thing you’ll notice. There’s a thirty-foot gorilla at the t-shirt stand, an alligator with an M-80, and a Jackalope you could climb on, among others:
The real star, though–as you might expect–was Pedro. There were at least ten statues of him, not counting the acutally-pretty-cool marquee, and each was more perplexing than the last. There was the gigantic standard model, an “Uncle Sam” version, and even what I can only assume were its Player-2 and Player-3 repaints.
The strangest one, though, was this guy:
You know, I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking at these pictures, Pedro has feet like ROM Spaceknight’s hands.
Once we’d gotten a look at the grounds, we headed into the gift shops, which was about when things started to turn on us. When Dr. K had been there previously, one building had housed three separate shops–including “Hats Around The World,” a selection of novelty hats of both the racist and plain vanilla unfunny variety that I realized a few minutes too late were a bad idea to try on–but had since been remodeled into one football-field sized indoor flea market. Presumably this was done so that it could be run by a minimum amount of staff with a central checkout counter, but the fact that all but one of the doors in and out were locked gave it a sense of claustrophobia that complimented the soul-crushing depression of the merchandise pretty well.
The shop seemed stocked exclusively by items that averaged around 25 years old. I’m pretty sure this was the newest thing in there:
The big sellers, though, appeared to be novelty towels, which… Man, I don’t even know:
Of the four shops we went in, they all had the exact same array of merchandise, except for the “Myrtle Beach Store,” which included a fetid indoor waterfall, giant shark statue and impromptu musical performance. There had been a sign on the door advising customers that this was the store where SOTB stocked their more risque items, but a quick glance around just showed us the same crap that the other places had.
Until we took a closer look at the towels, and found an additional design added to the mix that featured a fisherman getting a blowjob from a trout.
Now, I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded dude. The work of Jim Balent excepted, I don’t really scandalize that easily. But that’s a bestiality themed hand towel, and I just cannot get my head around why anyone would make, let alone buy it.
South of the Border is a mysterious place.
A little-known fact about Dr. K and me is that we are sportsmen of the highest caliber, so after we’d had the experience of shopping, we decided to walk to SOTB’s mini-golf course, which had been advertised as “#1 in the Nation.” Incidentally, there were two golf courses, one outdoors and one indoors. The indoor one, for reasons that elude me, was closed for the winter.
The outdoor course was situated in Pedroland, an “amusement park” area that boasted a litany of attractions…
…very few of which appeared to actually exist. There was indeed a ferris wheel, but it was the kind you see at the county fair that’s clearly meant to be collapsed and transported on a flatbed truck, but it had been mounted on concrete blocks and given a permanent home. Also featured was a rickety-looking rollercoaster that had become the residence of an extremely ominous, Hitchcockean flock of birds that perched on its every surface. There were also bumper cars that we saw working at one point, but it looked like there was only one attendant for the entirety of Pedroland, and with every other attraction that we saw completely overgrown, the place had the feeling of something halfway between an episode of Scooby Doo and a Rob Zombie flick. If an old man had staggered out from behind the bumper cars and accosted us for meddling, I would not have been at all surprised.
To get there, we had to walk past an abandoned and dilapidated “Convention Center,” and it was during this walk that I saw the most awesome and creepiest thing about the entire trip:
The giant head of Pedro. I never found out what the “Reality Ride” was, and I don’t want to know.
Eventually we got to the mini-golf course, which offered 36 holes for six bucks each, which is not a bad deal…
…except that the golf course had been maintained roughly never. Even discounting my duct tape-wrapped club, it was unquestionably the most depressing round of mini-golf I have ever played.
And that’s not an exaggeration: Like the rest of the park, the course was overgrown, but with the added bonus of the stagnant water feature (half of which wasn’t working) drawing swarms of bugs that hovered over the 11th hole that no amount of club-waving could disperse. And as the icing on the cake, every hole gave both of us an electric shock every time we retrieved our golf balls. That could’ve been static electricity and a run of bad luck, but seriously: Every hole. Both of us. Every time.
The best/worst thing about it, though, was the Frog Hazard:
Somehow, a frog had died on the course and become both petrified and rooted to the fake turf, to the point where it–no joke–it blocked Dr. K’s shot and gave me a two-stroke lead.
After we’d had our death-march of bug bites and electric shocks through the first 18 holes, we quit and returned our clubs, opting not to play the back half.
With golf out of the question, our other option for entertainment was video games. There was an arcade at the base of Sombrero Tower, so we hit that one up. There was a glass elevator that ran to the top for a buck, but given the state of decay that the rest of the place existed in, we opted on the side of “hell no.” The arcade itself did offer up some fun finds, though, including a basketball game that could be played for free as the balls were underinflated enough to slip beneath the gate, a rack of ancient Skee-Ball machines with broken displays…
…and a coin-op of Konami’s side-scrolling Simpsons beat-’em-up:
I have fond memories of the Simpsons game from my own childhood, and despite the busted marquee and chipped console, it actually worked. Or at least, the Homer and Lisa sections did. This gave me high hopes for later on in the day, when we went into Pedro’s Ice Cream Fiesta and discovered two other coin-ops: RoboCop and the late-80s Superman:
Unfortunately, neither of these had held up quite well: Player 1 on Superman had a busted joystick so that you couldn’t move up, and while Player 2’s joystick worked, the buttons weren’t functional. RoboCop was about the same way, you could move but not attack. None of this would’ve particularly bothered me–crapped-out video games were pretty much par for the course by this point–except that as we’d gotten to the Ice Cream Fiesta a little later in the day, I’d made sure to ask the woman working there if she was closing up and let her know that I was only there to play the games. On the way out, I mentioned to her that some of the buttons were busted, and she told me that yeah, they’d been that way since they put them in the shop. Well, thanks for letting me find out on my own, lady.
By this point we were pretty wound down, so we decided to grab something to eat, settling on the Sombrero Room, which, oddly enough, was not the building shaped like a sombrero. Instead, it was the only restaurant that I’ve ever been in that didn’t smell like food, and after a quick look around and a check of the menu, which offered three tacos for eleven bucks, we decided to get some dessert and take a few pictures to commemorate the occasion.
Here’s Dr. K after a day of fun:
And here’s me enjoying my Fried Ice Cream:
It was all worth it, though, to get a shot of the painting that was decorating the restaurant:
After that, it was time to head out, but before we left, we swung by SOTB’s last shop, a place that specialized in headache medication and bongs. While we were there, I noticed that they had an actual spinner-rack of comics, which–considering the rest of the place–was surprisingly current. It even had this year’s Treehouse of Horror, which was doubly out of place for the fact that it was all the indie comics guys.
The best thing, though, was this:
Every issue of Matt Fraction’s Iron Fist: Seven Capital Cities of Heaven, right next to the Fox Magazine All-Anal Special, featuring Gapes Galore.
And that about sums it all up.
All told, I took around a hundred photographs on the trip, so if you’re not tired of reading about it yet, feel free to bop over to the Flickr set for more images with commentary.