We exit Interstate 95 at Florence, South Carolina and join U.S. Route 501 for the 70-mile journey south to Myrtle Beach. Despite a dense pack of vehicles, many of them sporting license plates from neighboring states and likely hurrying toward an autumn weekend getaway, traffic moves steadily at the posted speed limit.
I expect to follow a route littered with super-sized souvenir shops, pottery warehouses, craft stores and maybe a few 12-foot alligators on display in rickety roadside cages. And I spot one such place, a gaudy behemoth of a fruit and souvenir stand, painted red and yellow, and reminiscent of Florida’s back roads. Otherwise, the route follows a series of small-towns with predictable occupants, like Hardees, Walgreens and Sleep Inn, except for the “official” Myrtle Beach welcome centers. I count six of the welcome centers, each of them official, each of them offering discount tickets to the local attractions, and each of them promising the cleanest washrooms. Five billboards, each one with a bold arrow pointing toward the entrance, flank one of the official welcome centers.
I remember little since my last visit to Myrtle Beach nearly 30 years ago. I can recall driving north on Ocean Boulevard, past a wall of high-rise hotels that prohibited any view of the Atlantic Ocean, and I remember the abundance of restaurants and golf courses. Back then, we simply drove through the town, stopping only at a beachfront Holiday Inn for a peek at the ocean.
Today, as Highway 501 merges into Kings Highway (U.S. 17) at the heart of Myrtle Beach, a hodgepodge of souvenir shops, restaurants and amusement arcades collide. Here, miniature golf meets seafood restaurant, meets tee shirt emporium, meets pancake house, meets tattoo parlor.
Across from the beach, a wooden roller coaster and a Ferris wheel soar five stories into the air. Long-faced employees with arms folded lean against the doorways of the souvenir shops that rub elbows for blocks along Ocean Boulevard. They wait as tourists stroll past, many of them showing little interest in the merchandise. The hotels are packed so tightly along Ocean Boulevard that, through the car’s windshield, I have trouble deciphering their signs or addresses. However, I happen to locate the aptly named Carnival Motor Inn, a six-story motel about a mile south of the central hodgepodge, but in an area no less crowded.