I don’t know if I can consider myself a “well-seasoned” traveler, at least compared to my Facebook friends who always seem to be jetting to some exotic locale and posting pictures of themselves in a bar or on a beach that’s thousands of miles away from my kitchen table. I’ve only been out of the country a few times myself, and my travels throughout the United States haven’t been too extensive. So why do I think that I’m a halfway decently traveled person Well, because I have done quite a bit of traveling in my day and that “travel” has meant driving up and down Interstate 95.
This past weekend, my wife and I drove from our home in Charlottesville to Savannah, Georgia. She was graduating with her MBA from Georgia Southern University, and while some of our trip involved what I guess William Least Heat-Moon would have termed “Blue Highways,” most of it was downt he main road of the east coast, a road that is not prestigious enough to be called a “mother” road; in fact, I’m sure “motherfucker of a road” would be more appropriate.
Anyway, with this particular trip, I have more or less traversed I-95 all the way from the interchange with I-91 in Connecticut to right around the South Carolina/Georgia border. This particular trip was my first time through the Carolinas by car and I have to say that I-95 surprised me. To me, I-95 is a motherfucker. It’s a sprawling beast of a mega-highway that spans as many as eight lanes across and is often riddled with traffic jams and construction zones. I-95 is the world’s biggest parking lot in Northern Virginia and it is the definition of time suck in Maryland. A trip up to my parents’ house on Long Island can sometimes be an epic schlep if not timed correctly, and I have beamed with pride whenever I have been able to take a minimum amount of time getting there.
But the Carolinas were just so … desolate. We entered North Carolina around 9:00 a.m. and by then the highway had shrunken from what you’d expect from an interstate to a four-lane highway with two lanes on each side that looked like they hadn’t been maintained since I was a toddler (though, funny enough, the signs had been updated because the font used was obviously Calibri and not Helvetica). Further adding to the oddity was the copious amount of billboards for adult shops and gentlemen’s clubs. For a region so devoted to conservative politics, they sure advertised a lot of skin.
I had heard of South of the Border years ago, through friends of mine who had driven to places like Disney World (a trip from Long Island that is a solid two days’ worth of driving). They way they put it, South of the border was some sort of monumental destination. Their usual description was, “You start seeing signs for it, like 100 miles before you get there. Then there is another sign, and another one, and another one. And then, it’s just huge and everyone stops there.” It had been built up in my mind to be a sort of Vegas in the Carolinas.
Of course, as it is with many things in life that hyped, South of the Border was less Las Vegas and more Radiator Springs. We wound up stopping soon not because we wanted to, but because that is where we happened to need gas. The place was a living instagram photograph, once was a thriving civilization. In fact, it was a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s with its eat-in restaurants and travel motels. The convenience stores and souvenier shops still had signs and paneling that pre-dated my conception and it seemed like some of the products themselves were originally stocked in the 1960s. On our second trip to South of the Border (returning to Charlottesville), I had a splitting headache and went looking for Advil while my wife went to a restroom that could best be described as something out of hte money scene from a serial killer movie. I couldn’t find it anywhere. There was candy that only existed in that particular time warp, entire loaves of white bread, cartons of Epsom salts, and Benadryl that no drivers would ever use unless they had working meth labs in their trunks, but no Advil. I asked the cashier–a woman whose excessive makeup, false eyelashes, and five-packs-a-day voice suggested that this is where the woman who used to work in the gentlemen’s clubs advertised on those billboards go to finish their careers–if they had any Tylenol or Advil and she said, “Behind the counter. Just the single dose.”
Finding it odd that meth-level Benadryl was right on the shelf next to me not too far from a bevvy of porno magazines and enough fireworks to blow up all of South of the Border yet Advil was behind the counter, I paid three bucks for four Advil that were contained in two packets that you’d normally buy for about a buck from a machine in a restroom that also sold condoms. It was probably way too much but I was desperate. Within an hour or so, I was feeling better and had settled back into the trip, but not without wondering aloud about where I had just been. I mean, this was a place, established in the 1950s that still had a mascot that reminded me of all of those old-time racist cereal mascots that were somehow acceptable back in the day and that was the rest stop equivalent of a Chuck-E-Cheese where you spend way too much money on useless crap. It was also so deserted that I think you could film a post-apocalyptic movie there and not have to even do any set re-decorating.
And in a way, South of the Border really is that remnant of a lost civilization, that of the car culture of the mid-20th Century where people actually did hit the road and found places like this entertaining, fun, and even a destination of sorts. I’m sure it even thrived at one point (you have to trive to be that huge). But now it’s more of a piece of pop curiosity that simply exists.
Oh, and after we passed into Virginia, we stopped again for gas at exit 33. And let me tell you, at no point in my life have I been happier to get coffee at Starbucks.