Harold and Marge Wertz had seen blizzards before. But not like this.
The snow was swirling about so thick that Harold — “Hubby” to those who knew him — could barely see the road. Back home in Pennsylvania, they were used to snow. Even used to the occasional blizzard. But this was one of the worst storms they’d ever seen.
And the Carolinas were simply not equipped to handle it.
Afraid to pull off the road — and possibly get stuck, or even buried — they pushed on. If they could make it a little further, they could find sanctuary from the storm. After all, the place they intended to stop at was just ahead.
That place was called South of the Border. Famous for its endless string of billboards up and down I-95, the Wertz couple had been stopping there for years. It had become part of their annual tradition as they traveled from Pennsylvania to Florida and then back again. Some years, Hubby would even trade with them: selling his Indian goods on the way south and gators on the trip north.
But on this particular day, no one could see the famous billboards. And Hubby wasn’t interested in trading. All he and Marge cared about was taking shelter and surviving the unexpected storm.
Then, to their relief, they saw lights up ahead.
It was South of the Border. The motel was open, but it was like nothing they’d ever seen before.
Staff members were out diverting motorists off the unsafe roads. South of the Border had thrown open its doors to all the scared, bewildered travelers who could find their way in from the storm. They even helped guide them to safety. And that was only the beginning.
Every room the motel owned was soon filled. Hubby and Marge had reservations already. But today, reservations didn’t matter.
The public areas were crammed with cots and mattresses. Marge even recalls seeing someone sleeping on a ping-pong table. Then the staff started making rounds, asking guests like Hubby and Marge to share their rooms with other stranded families. They, of course, agreed.
Throughout that night, South of the Border accepted and provided shelter to anyone who asked. They opened their kitchens and provided as much hot food and coffee as they could.
And they didn’t charge a dime.
Afterwards, that storm was referred to as the Blizzard of ’73. Three feet of snow fell along the North/South Carolina border that night. The next day, the National Guard was dispatched to rescue hundreds of travelers stranded in the snow.
And for many thankful people, South of the Border became not just a roadside lodge, but a friend.
Reading that story, it’s clear that South of the Border must have lost a ton of money that night. Offering free rooms and food is not your typical hotel strategy. In fact, many hotels would jack up their rates in a situation like that. (I’m pretty sure I stayed at a hotel in Canada that did exactly that, once.)
But what it gained that night was far more important than what it lost in revenue.