I left my cell phone back in Tucson, my favorite top in Barcelona, and my bathing suit in Boca Raton. My spare socks are in Durham, but the rest of my things (I hope) are with me in D.C. I’ve called five cities in four time zones home since 2009, and it’s meant leaving behind a whole lot of things, people, and places.
But in the midst of all of this traveling I’ve made one very dear friend. His name is Pedro, and he lives just south of the North Carolina border in Dillon, South Carolina. He has a thick moustache that I just wish he’d shave, but he’ll never listen to me. Standing 97 feet tall and donning an over-sized sombrero, Pedro isn’t really a friend so much as a landmark–the tallest free-standing sign east of the Mississippi in fact. And in spite of his steel frame and inability to breathe, Pedro manages to spark an undeniably warm feeling in my heart.
Because I find myself moving so often, the places I pass by are often as significant to me as the places I end up. South of the Border–the curious roadside attraction Pedro advertises–is one of those places. From 150 miles south, hundreds of billboards tell me that the distance between us is waning. The signs’ punch lines are completely outlandish, from “Too Much Tequila” written upside-down, to a 20-foot-long frank proclaiming, “You Never Sausage a Place (You’re Always a Weiner at Pedro’s!).” Pedro and I share an undeniably corny sense of humor.
Pedro was there when a car full of hangers and mini-appliances sent me off to college, as I drove from my hometown of Boca Raton, Florida up to North Carolina for the first time. We were mere strangers then, the 800 miles of highway an unfamiliar journey. With eight trips under my belt, I now find Pedro’s tricolor poncho as heartening as my dog’s slobbery kisses, and I can recite the billboard slogans like I can the Pledge of Allegiance. Featured on every South of the Border sign, Pedro appears mile after mile to tell me I’m headed home. Sometimes that means Boca Raton, and other times Durham; in either instance, I’m delighted to see him.
Three years later, Pedro has watched me escape to the beach, return from abroad, head home for the holidays, and go to Washington for an internship. He’s seen me at my worst, napping against the passenger window with my mouth hanging open, and at my best, dolled up for my first day back on campus. But as many times as I’ve driven past South of the Border, I’ve stopped off the exit to pay my dear friend a visit just once. It was around 10:30 at night, and it was only to use the bathroom. In what was surely the quickest visit in SOB history, we were back on the road in minutes.
To those who stop by South of the Border for a longer stay, the venue serves as a rest stop, a theme park, a gift shop, a fireworks stand, a shooting range, and, for some, a chapel-500 couples have tied the knot under Pedro’s monumental sombrero. I don’t think I’ll be one of them, even though I will always count Pedro, and the road he presides over, among my rites of passage.
Ashley Alman is an undergraduate student at Duke University and an intern at the New America Foundation.
*Photo courtesy of rvaphotodude.