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Eating I-95

Preston-Schlebusch Authors, Ted Lee (front) and Matt hit South of the Border, just off I-95.

Photo: Preston-Schlebusch

We were ravenous by this point (and one of us—not the driver—was perhaps a little aglow from the strawberry wine), so we sped on, to Lumberton, North Carolina, another 1½ hours away. Some barbecue joints are content to deliver only the shredded, sauced pig, but Fuller and Delora Locklear's buffet line at Fuller's Old Fashioned BBQ is a veritable grand tour of Southern dishes. Yes, they have a deliciously smoky pulled pork chopped up very finely and spiked, North Carolina–style, with red-chile vinegar, but they also serve everything else, from oxtails and chicken 'n' dumplings to butter beans and creamed corn. Their braised chitlins—free of funkiness and deliciously peppery—are the ones to try if it's your first time, and a few dishes, like the flat, crisp, buttery corn cakes, are exclusive to the Lumbee tribe, native to this corner of the South.

For a tonic digestif, we hustled on for 20 miles to South of the Border, a Mexican-themed tourist trap and fireworks emporium on the North Carolina–South Carolina border. There's an enormous statue of the place's mascot, Pedro, presiding over the parking lot. The restrooms are less than clean and we'd be inclined to drive on by, except that the commissary sells the truly gingery and spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale by the case. The soda is bottled nearby and comes in only three flavors: Diet, Hot, and Not As Hot. It makes terrific cocktails mixed with bourbon, and we often stop in to replenish our supply.

Just a half-hour down the highway is the city of Florence, South Carolina, home to the Ambrias Garden Manor. We hit the reliable Pee Dee State Farmers Market for some boiled peanuts (sample them first to make sure they're not too salty), a potted plant for Mom, and local honey. Then we rumbled up to the Manor, our peanut shells spilling out of the opened car door, and were greeted by two icons of composure, Ella Frazier and her husband, David, who opened this B&B three years ago.

They led us around the dogwood and camellia arbor, and then we set on the porch a spell, drew deep breaths, and felt Southern again. This is a familiar feeling for the Fraziers, who grew up in South Carolina, about 50 miles apart from each other, but moved to New York shortly after high school. They didn't meet until 1981, when David, a Harlem haberdasher, sold a few dresses to Ella. In 2003, they moved back to South Carolina, restored the Arts and Crafts–era mansion, and decorated its rooms in bright, grandmotherly chintzes.

Sixty miles south of Florence, the long, low bridge that carries I-95 across Lake Marion near Summerton is the sign we're almost home. In the hottest days of the summer, the water can look like a malarial swamp, but when the temperature drops, it's a lake again, ringed with cypresses and dotted with fishermen. This trip we decided we'd join them, and booked a boat at Jack's Creek Marina just two miles from Exit 102.

The morning was perfect for fishing, judging by the ospreys circling overhead. Alas, we caught not a crappie, bass, or catfish, but being adrift, in the shade of the trees that rise from the shallows, was victory enough. There is no better antidote to 80-mph vertigo than an hour's worth of casting.

Out on the water, we worked up an appetite for barbecue again, and Sweatman's, about a half-hour south, is a rare style of barbecue joint. Sweatman's does pork pulled from whole hogs, offers a few perfunctory sides, and not much else. But it's renowned among barbecue aficionados for the care they give to their hardwood-smoked meat. It's so much work that they're open only Friday and Saturday, and their hours of operation are etched in the memories of fans like us.

So it seemed some kind of cruel joke when we rolled up to Sweatman's and found a hand-lettered sign: CLOSED FOR FAMILY WEDDING. No matter. Charleston was less than 45 minutes away, and when we at last screeched to a halt it was in time for a lunch of shrimp and grits with Mom at one of our local favorites, the Hominy Grill. We never fail to finish off a long road trip with a celebratory feast, as an exclamation point, a toast to a job safely done and a reminder of how far we've come.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W. W. Norton) will be out in October.

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