Robeson County NC does not get much good press. It is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. Wikipedia describes its population as one third white, one third black, and one third Lumbee American Indian. The state of North Carolina recognizes the Lumbees as an official Native American tribe, although the federal government offers only limited recognition.
I had remembered all the press coverage Robeson County got back in 1988, when two Lumbee Indians took over a newspaper office at gunpoint, to protest local corruption. One was Eddie Hatcher. After he was imprisoned many radicals considered him a political prisoner. He had a very complex story, broke the law in other ways, and was in and out of jail. He died in the state penitentiary in 2009.
I knew Robeson County has had economic setbacks. Until 2001 most of the world’s supply of Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball shoes were made here. I really did not know anything else about the place, except the land would be flat.
The county seat and largest town in Robeson County is Lumberton, population 22,000. It is 125 miles south of my home in Chapel Hill, on I-95 near the South Carolina line. I parked our car in the Walmart on the far north side of Lumberton at eleven on a Tuesday morning and pulled my Surley bicycle out of the trunk.
I hatched a plan in the car on the way down. I decided to ride south towards Dillon, South Carolina, maybe seeing the tourist trap South of the Border. Ultimately the route came out like this:
The north side of Lumberton was much more prosperous than I expected. It was a beautiful day.
The American dream; perfect lawn, a pickup truck, and a front porch with American flag pillows.
The older parts of Lumberton
Downtown Lumberton was pleasant, but the only building that seemed full of people was the courthouse. While it looks brand new, I learn it is a 1975 renovation of an older building, with a new facade in 2005. The building looks depressing, like it is celebrating its power to imprison its citizens.
Other parts of downtown were attractive but mostly unoccupied.
There is this nice modernist building. It used to be a bank but apparently is now empty.
After I bicycled across the Lumber River there were miles of poorer African-American neighborhoods. After that, the landscape opened up.
Trailers across the landscape.
The office of a religious radio station was this nice piece of modernism, sitting alongside the highway.
The highway passed across the occasional swamp.
Twelve miles south of Lumberton is the town of Fairmont. Over on I-95 (on another trip) I had seen a sign “HISTORIC DOWNTOWN FAIRMONT, NEXT EXIT”
I wanted to see what the commotion was about. Despite the sign, Fairmont, population 2600, did not look like anything special.
This semi-abandoned house must have been attractive in its day.
South Carolina was just a little further down the highway.
When you enter South Carolina annoying rumble strips appear on the side of the road.
I got to Dillon, South Carolina in time for a late lunch at a restaurant with an unusual name, especially for rural South Carolina.
My steak and cheese sandwich was quite good. I asked my server about the restaurant’s name; she said the owner, who is from the country of Jordan, had first moved to Massachusetts, then to here.
After lunch I bicycled around Dillon, population 6,600. One of Dillon’s claims to fame is that it is the hometown of former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke. He played in the Dillon High School band before becoming class valedictorian and going off to Harvard. While at Harvard, he came home summers to work at South of the Border.
There was no decent place to stay right in town so I found a room at the Quality Inn out near the I-95 interchange. I still wanted to bike a little more so I cruised around on the farm roads outside of town.
BC Steak & BBQ is one of those Southern places with a big buffet of greasy meat and vegetables. I got mine To Go and ate in my motel room next door, so I could have my dinner with the wine that I had bought at the Food Lion.
The next morning I woke up and watched Morning Joe, then packed up and pushed out. I had always associated South of the Border with Dillon SC, but SOTB is not really in Dillon, it is six miles north of Dillon on the North Carolina border.
South Carolina has a libertarian streak that attracts North Carolinians: motorcycle riders are not required to wear a helmet, it is faster to get married here, and most fireworks are legal. I am not sure why someone built and then closed down all these tittie bars. These places were north of Dillon and just south of South of the Border.
Topless Reflexxions Bar
I thought everybody knew about South of the Border, but my friend Lyman, who is from Louisiana and Texas, was clueless. It is probably the East Coast’s most famous tourist trap, begun in 1950 as a place to buy fireworks and beer, when neither was available in adjoining Robeson County, North Carolina. Its now politically incorrect signs of a “Mexican” named Pedro appear nearly every mile for over a hundred miles in either direction on I-95, preying on the New York-Florida car traffic. For over sixty years it has included restaurants, motels, and an amusement park, among other stuff. I think most of it now looks dated, built at a time when there was NOT a McDonald’s at every I-95 interchange. Maybe today it can be considered folk art. Approaching it by bicycle on two lane route US-301, one gets a different perspective from than from I-95. The signs start many miles away.
Then I stumbled onto the real thing.
I only slowed down to take pictures and kept pedaling. Continuing up US-301 just beyond SOTB there is the very small town of Rowland NC. It reminded me of something my late father told me, that US-1 was the original north/south highway from the Northeast to Virginia to Florida, replaced later by US-301. That was replaced by I-95. Each highway has motels that reflect the era in which they were built. Rowland NC, on US-301, has several motels from the nineteen fifties. I somehow doubt that now many long distance travelers stay in these places.
Did they put up this fence so the locals don’t know who is sleeping with whom?
Earlier in the day, just north of Dillon, I had seen other motels.
North of Rowland NC I pedaled up US-301. This road closely parallels I-95. For a U.S. highway, there was hardly any traffic, a car every five minutes or so.
How many songs talk about a crossroads? Robert Johnson channeled by Eric Clapton of Cream: I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.
For the last few miles into Lumberton, even though there still was no traffic on US301, the road closely followed I-95 and I could watch the truck traffic. It was a gentle peaceful ride, in a noisy sort of way.
There is a levee that surrounds central Lumberton, so I could finish the ride into Lumberton on a bike path.