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A North Carolina highway exit that doesn't actually exist
Another big-time television show played hard and fast with geography, and depicts a place that couldn't possibly be real. The actual location? An economically cursed place with exploding shrimp.
Before we get into this: Please note that I did not personally solve this particular mystery. Full credit goes to the fine folks who inhabit the North Carolina subreddit, a place that also alerted me to the existence of the great Walmart Alligator of Havelock.
And yet, there it is. What we have here is a still from Season 2, Episode 4 of The Righteous Gemstones, an HBO show from UNC School of the Arts alum Danny McBride. The series follows a dysfunctional family of televangelists, and features Walton Goggins as Baby Billy Freeman, who is one of the most amazing-looking characters on television.
In season 2, episode 4 of the show, Baby Billy leaves his family, gets into his BMW convertible and drives north into North Carolina. Hence, that very beautiful screengrab above. Folks, if the Ferry to Chapel Hill made your North Carolina OCD flare up, then this shot also probably has your Spidey Sense tingling.
Just to recap, here’s how the area around I-95 north at the state line is depicted in the show:
And for reference, here’s a Google Street View image of what I-95 north actually looks like when you’re heading into North Carolina:
It’s a little bit different! No marshes. Plenty of pine trees. A fairly boring-looking border marker. It’s wholly uninspiring. If you, friend, were leaving for greener pastures here in the superior Carolina, this is not a Thomas Kinkade-style foreshadowing of what is to come.
So, let’s break down the screengrab:
First off, there are not a lot of “Now Leaving South Carolina” signs out there, if any. And I’m almost 100% sure that none of them would be hastily bolted underneath overhead highway signs. (Side note, a company that makes those big green signs has a TikTok account. It’s tremendous content, according to me, a big green sign enthusiast.) With a few exceptions, road signs tell you what state you’re entering, not the one you’re leaving. A sign like the one above might only be useful if it’s posted on, say, Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
At first glance, Exit 296B implies that I-95 runs exactly 296 miles across South Carolina, since exit numbers roughly match up with interstate mile markers. But there are two things wrong here: First, I-95 only runs 199 miles across the state, so there’s no possible way there’d be an exit 296. Second: If Baby Billy was truly crossing into North Carolina, he’d be passing Exit 1, since odd-numbered north-south interstates like 95 start at mile 0 at their northern ends. There is an exit on I-95 right at the North Carolina border. It’s Exit 1.
However, the preceding paragraph is entirely moot, since the depiction shows Baby Billy on an on-ramp to I-95, and not actually traveling on the highway itself. So, here’s another Google Street View of what it’s like to get onto I-95 North at that particular spot:
This may have already dawned on you, but take a look at the stuff on the right of this image. A large woman’s shoe. Signs for Polanco’s Bar and Bargain Ben’s Big Bargain Outlet. A sombrero. Yes, my friends, you know what this place is. Google, please take this image, flip it and reverse it.
That’s right. If you were getting on to I-95 North at the state line, you’d have passed right through the heart of South of the Border, a very large tourist trap and amusement park that’ll have you diplomatically saying “Well, it was from a different time,” when someone asks you how a place like this still exists in 2023. Counterpoint: A former South of the Border employee went on to win the Nobel Prize, so they must be doing something right.
Anyhow, if there’s any scene that should be rightfully depicted here, it should be a bunch of garish billboards that contain writings about “Pedro” in cartoonishly Mexican fonts. But nope! What we got here is a marsh:
This is a shot that practically screams LOWCOUNTRY in all caps. This makes sense. Much like Netflix’s Outer Banks of “Ferry to Chapel Hill” fame, The Righteous Gemstones is filmed in and around Charleston, South Carolina. (For context, North Carolina’s since-repealed Bathroom Bill, House Bill 2, caused a lot of production companies to avoid our state.) But here’s the thing: There are a lot of bridges over marshes around Charleston. Where’s this one?
As North and South Carolina redditors pointed out across several posts, this is actually the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which crosses a marshy area on the Ashley River side of Charleston. As you might imagine, any bridge that earns that moniker is going to have quite the backstory. First off, the bridge doesn’t have an official name, but if you type in that nickname on Google Maps, it comes up. Here’s what it actually looks like, without the highway sign that The Righteous Gemstones added digitally:
The property on the other side of this bridge was, for years, home to fertilizer plants and lumber treatment facilities that pumped toxic chemicals into the ground and water nearby. The pollution was so bad that, in 1992, a man who went shrimping nearby on the Ashley River put his catch into a cooler, WHICH THEN SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTED.
In 2003, though, the City of Charleston and developers thought they could turn that 182-acre Superfund site into a mixture of shops, offices, and thousands of homes. To help move things along, the city built a $10 million bridge to help people get to it. Problem was, they started to construct it in 2008, right as the housing crisis started to crush banks and developers, and the whole project went bankrupt. The bridge itself was finished, and at the far end it connects to… well, a dirt field. There’s some talk that the project will start anew, but whoever wants to develop it still has tens of millions of dollars worth of cleanup ahead.
(Because we’ve been spending a lot of time in the inferior Carolina here, I want to point out that North Carolina once had its own Bridge to Nowhere in the small town of Eden. It also has a Road To Nowhere in Bryson City, where a roadway tunnel into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ends with only a hiking trail on the other side. We’re not immune to this Something to Nowhere stuff.)
So, just to sum things up: The Righteous Gemstones showed a scene at the North Carolina border where a character is driving toward, ahem, Fayetteville in search of a better days. In real life, though, he’s driving across a useless bridge in South Carolina that ends at a Superfund site. Take that how you will.
Bonus Assignment! Point out other useless pieces of North Carolina infrastructure in the comments.