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Just What the Heck is The Thing?

With seemingly endless desert miles separating Arizona's roadside businesses from ready consumerism, the key to economic survival is advertising. More specifically, billboards. As many as one can raise.

Extending innumerably to the horizon, highway signboards advertise things the average person wouldn't normally buy had they not been billed in eight-foot type.

Rattlesnake eggs… moccasins… opal jewelry… Apache Tears…

The messages bombard motorists relentlessly, tunneling through the daze of highway hypnotism and comforting city folk with reminders of civilization. Their numbing repetition entrances motorists into steering toward a particular exit. The less easily charmed are needled into doing so by the younger, backseat passengers captivated by the signs' garish colors.

The least subtle of these shoulder campaigns, stretching all the way from California to Texas, is the bright-yellow series of billboards calling attention to The Thing. Their furtive delivery teases drivers with the unknown like a sideshow barker:

The Thing? A Wonder of the Desert… The Thing? Mystery of Arizona …The Thing? Have You Seen It?… The Thing? Don't Miss It!

Shameless taunting it may be, but the I-know-something-you-don't-know tactic works. Every day, hundreds of visitors passing between Benson and Willcox give in and take Exit 322 to discover just what this enigmatic Thing really is.

It only takes a dollar to find out. (Seventy-five cents if you're under 19.) Just pay the cashier, then step through the mysterious doorway and follow the yellow footprints.

Within a handful of sheds, you'll discover a farrago of unrelated crap—old cash registers, bear traps, and disturbing driftwood sculptures. Over there, something labeled "piece of mammoth's front leg." Up front, a Rolls Royce "believed to have been used by Adolph Hitler," though admittedly "it can't be proved." As implied by the big blue question mark in the attraction's logo, indeterminate credibility is part of the gimmick.

Finally—past hand-carved figures both miniature and life-size, past gold-dust scales and cracked pottery—you see it. Encased in cinder blocks and guarded by what can only be described as Emperor Bigfoot Horsehead, lies the end to your anticipation. The mystifying…the remarkable…the unknowable…THING. What is it? Is it real? Where did it come from?

For a moment, you ponder the mystery of the object before you and wonder whether a dollar was an appropriate admission price.

On your way out, as you pass a few more driftwood sculptures and an anticlimax of antique surreys, you contemplate what you've seen. Your curiosity has been allayed, but you feel less than satisfied, left with what some refer to as Dorito Syndrome—you've consumed an entire bag of cheesy goodness, but feel strangely unsated. Thankfully, a trunk full of Thing shot glasses, Thing magnets, and Thing brand bottled water help to fill the void.

True satisfaction, however, is soon to come. You realize that knowledge of The Thing brings the empowering ability to irritate your friends, to withhold its secret until you can goad them into an unwitting road trip.

Mystery of the Desert…Solved?

It's difficult to discuss the origin of The Thing without giving at least some idea what it is, so if you want to preserve your uncertainty, skip ahead. Otherwise, we'll try not to reveal too much.

Sometime in the 1950s an Arizona lawyer named Thomas Binkley Prince opened a curio shop outside Barstow, California. He had reportedly become bored with law, finding the profession "stuffy," so he moved his family to the Mojave Desert to jazz things up a bit. There, he established his business and fashioned it into a gallery of oddities.

Around the same time, a man named Homer Tate was running his own curiosity museum in Phoenix. His exhibits consisted of shrunken heads and various beasties like those he termed the "wolf boy" and the "bamboozle bat," all of which Tate had fabricated himself. Fashioned from papier-mâché, human hair and the hides of dead animals, Tate's bizarre creations were produced mostly for exhibition as sideshow gaffs.

Meanwhile, back in California, infrastructure was metastasizing. By 1965, expansion of the U.S. Interstate system had displaced Prince and his establishment, prompting him to move things back to Arizona. He reopened his attraction just east of Benson, right alongside Interstate 10, and placed The Thing at the top of the bill.

Now, it's unclear at what point Prince acquired The Thing, but it's very likely the item originated in Homer Tate's workshop. Not only do the timing and placement coincide, but experts on the subject—and they do exist—will attest that the quality of The Thing matches that of Tate's other work. It's hard to say exactly by what means it came into Prince's possession, but as Tate distributed his creatures worldwide via mail order, it's likely Prince had simply ordered it from a catalog.

Thomas Prince passed away in 1969, leaving his wife, Janet, to run things. Janet has since moved away and leased The Thing to Bowlin Travel Centers. Today, a portion of the money brought in by The Thing goes to a University of Arizona College of Law scholarship in Prince's name.

When I saw the first billboard for The Thing, I blew it off. With the second one, I began to wonder. After the third one, I started to obsess. What was The Thing? What was it doing in Arizona? And what was the quickest route there? Whoever crafted the path to The Thing at its rural gas-station location was a master of suspense.

The old cars on display were filled with cobwebs...and doom. I walked farther down the passageway and began to sweat as I spied ancient firearms and bizarre art. Finally, I reached the container of The Thing. After taking a moment to steel myself against the unknown, I looked inside.

Hmm. How about that. Well, that sure is…some Thing. —Craig Robertson

Weird Arizona


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