The Quest for the Golden Sombrero

Is this Americana? “Si,” Pedro responds.

Winter vacation was not the blessing it was supposed to be. Two weeks divided between the anxiety of Christmas shopping and the dreary cycle of eating, sleeping, and watching television — would it be more appropriate to call this a holiday or a rut? Even New Year’s Eve was a complete bust. I spent it in front of a computer, writing a final exam for my ninth graders.

Naturally, this tragic misuse of free time was entirely my fault; I lack the skills necessary to plan for my own amusement, and I’m not all that impulsive. Can you sense a New Year’s resolution here?

On the Friday of the last weekend before school started up again, my boyfriend Matt came home from work with an interesting idea. One that didn’t really appeal to me.

“Pack up some clothes,” he said. “We’re going on a road trip.”

I, the sad lump on the couch, stared at him in disbelief.

“Not really,” I responded, turning back to a “Family Feud” rerun. Matt eventually managed to wrest the remote control out of my death grip. Then he presented his argument. He covered all the angles — how I needed to get some fresh air, how it was important to try new things, how he’d be mad if I didn’t do something he wanted to for once … I finally gave in. I shook some life back into my limbs and started to fill my book bag with the necessities.

We watered the plants, fed our pet rats, set booby traps for burglars (because I’m like that), and then we were on our way. Well, almost. Matt needed to change the oil in his van (a ’93 Chevy with 250,000 miles on it, perfect for traveling long distances) and then he forgot something back at the apartment.

At around 6:00, we were finally on I-95, the van pointed toward South Carolina and our destination — South of the Border. I had never been there before, so Matt talked it up, painting me a visual of the neon billboards, giant sombreros, and fireworks outlets.

I later learned that this little truck stop carnival, this pseudo-Mexican Shangri-la, is a place most tourists pass through on their way to bigger and more Disney-like things. Thankfully, given our time constraints, we had no great ache for novelty mouse ears. A minor adventure would do.

So, six hours on the road — D.C. to Virginia to North Carolina all in one night. Lots of wise folk — the Buddhists of the world among them — place more importance on the journey itself than its terminus. I suppose, between alphabet games (“A, my name is Annie, my boyfriend’s name is Adam…”) and a brief freak-out session over electrical appliances that may or may not have been left on, we had plenty of time to think.

I played deejay that night, keeping up a traveling leitmotif (namely The Magnetic Fields’ “The Charm of the Highway Strip” and Modest Mouse’s “This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About”). Matt manned the wheel and made occasional comments about the snowy stretches that were becoming more and more frequent along the roadway. (On a side note: Why did every state on the Eastern Seaboard get snow but Maryland?)

I mostly fretted over going back to work in two days. The idea of facing a classroom full of students again filled me with fear and I couldn’t figure out why. I had already managed to make it through four months of grading papers, writing lesson plans, and establishing some semblance of order among my lovable but hormonally-burdened minions. What was the problem?

I figured it out as we zipped through nameless, dimly-lit towns, past invisible mountains that were somehow still palpable, into the night: This was the first occasion since I had started teaching that I really had time to think, to realize the stress I had been under for so long. And, as in all situations when you finally confront your inner gremlins, the burden was lifted. I was starting to enjoy myself.

We spent Friday night at a Regency motel in Nowhere, NC. Despite the relatively desolate locale, rooms were in high demand. It was 1:00 in the morning, and the people in line behind us were fighting over who was more deserving of the lodging. The scene was just getting scary as we were handed the keys to room 264, a dingy hole with an unmade bed. Aside from a random knock at the door in the wee hours of the morning, though, things were pretty uneventful.

The next day, we woke up early, wolfed down some raspberry pastries, and set off to explore a nearby shopping center. Matt wanted to check out a much advertised cigar shop, so we did. What I learned from that experience: Cigars really do stink.

I ended up buying a curling iron (just for the sake of randomness) from the same retailer, and, at the check-out lane, the cashier asked, “Y’all from out of state?” Matt was infinitely amused. I tried to explain linguistic ethics to him but was myself charmed to at last be the one with the accent somewhere.

Soon we were on the road again. Good ole I-95 — nothing to distract you from the task of driving except trees and the innumerable gas-food-lodging signs. That is, until you get around to the one hundred mile marker, when the South of the Border advertisements start to make an appearance.

In each of these, Pedro, the giant smile- and sombrero-wearing mascot of the neon village, beckons with some corny slogan. If I recall correctly, one of them featured a gigantic red sausage and the words “You never sausage a place!” Get it? Ha ha.

The closer you get, the more frequent and elaborate the signs become, some with moving three-dimensional parts. All in all, they really do help to build up a sense of excitement. I was beginning to wonder how I had never heard of the place before.

We arrived in South Carolina a little after 11 a.m. The first thing I remember seeing, of course, was a colossal lemon-yellow sombrero. Pedro greeted us with his signature mustachioed grin as we pulled into the main parking lot.

Pedro greets all

Staring out the window, I felt like I had been deposited into a Francesca Lia Block novel — total sensory overload. The experience was not unpleasant, though.

We parked the van in front of an eye-singeing fluorescent pink ice cream shop and stepped out. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to take in my surroundings — the crazy animal statues, the zany arcades, the taco stands … everything swirling in turquoise, tangerine, lime green, and flaming red. Matt made a beeline for the nearest fireworks store, Rocket City, with me fast on his heels.

I think I missed the day in Biology when we were supposed to discuss the basic human need to blow things up. It obviously stands on equal grounds with eating, sleeping, and breathing. As Matt pulled various kinds of sizzlers, poppers, bombs, and firecrackers off shelves, I set myself on auto-repeat: “Put it back put it back put it back.”

Somehow, I managed to drag him away from possible pyrotechnical disaster and into a harmless souvenir shop. We loafed through three floors of useless junk that we just couldn’t wait to buy and walked out with four pins, five bumper stickers, a back scratcher, and a T-shirt.

Feeling like schmucky tourists, we took a nice walk over to the other end of the plaza. There an iced-over amusement park sat lonely and unenjoyed. Darn, I thought. I really wanted to test that Wild Mouse coaster.

Pedro’s Reality Ride, which was indoors, was still in operation, however. Matt and I spent three bucks and climbed into the simulator. The attendant shut us in the little car and the bumpy ride began, the screen in front of us tracing our voyage through an active volcano. The door slid open once and the screen flickered off and on, which was kind of funny. Matt got nauseous. That was funny, too.

Before we left, we rummaged through an international hat store, strolled through a concrete bazaar that was fashioned out of a miniature golf course, and won a tiny plastic dinosaur in a run-down arcade. All of this South of the Border fun was packed into three memorable hours.

It was really all we could take.

We loaded the van with our newly-purchased goods and headed home in a relatively straight shot — an adventure in itself, although one for another time and another medium. What I will say is that I was very happy to return to my own apartment, my own bed. There’s nothing like a journey into the absurd to make you appreciate the familiar.

We’re now two weeks back into school, the statewide assessments are taking place, and finals loom. The pressure is back on, but I feel like I’ve got a handle on my work. And, if things start to get a little crazy, summer vacation is always something to look forward to.

Article © 2002 by Sarah David