You may have seen it. Way out in the Southern Sonoran Desert in Arizona on your way to New Mexico and Texas. The Thing! What is The Thing in Arizona? How do you get there? Allow us to demystify the mystery and answer these questions for you. You may actually leave with more questions than you came in with.
Where is The Thing?
This mysterious roadside attraction known as The Thing is in Dragoon, Arizona. This is just a few miles north of Tombstone. If you’ve ever been driving I-10 near El Paso, Tucson, or Phoenix, then we would bet money that you’ve seen a billboard that looks something like this.
How can we be so sure? BECAUSE THERE ARE 247 OF THESE BILLBOARDS. Seriously. One legend states that the billboards stretch from New Orleans to Los Angeles, which isn’t accurate, but holy cow is there a lot of them.
Their technique is clearly working, though, because The Thing has been a popular tourist attraction since 1950. (Really, though, what steely individual passes 247 intriguing billboards and doesn’t stop?)
The Thing is Known as the Mystery of the Desert
The Thing has been in the same spot since 1965 according to manager Jerry Bone. Referred to on many of the billboards as the “Mystery of the Desert,” the allure of The Thing has always been the unknown. However, the origin of The Thing can be traced back to Homer Tate’s sideshow exhibits. Tate was a creative artist who toured the country showing off his imaginative sideshow creations. He was also a big part of the Freak Show circuit that was very popular in the early 20th century.
Who Owns The Thing?
The Thing was purchased by attorney Thomas Binkley Prince, and he and his wife, Janet, moved from Phoenix to the Mojave Desert to create the first Thing roadside attraction. Unfortunately, they were forced to move as the highway expanded. They found a new location in Dragoon, Arizona, and The Thing has been there ever since. Prince oversaw the establishment until his death in 1969 when his wife took over for several years before ultimately moving to Baltimore. Today, The Thing is owned by Bowlin Travel Centers, Inc., who own several other roadside destinations.
So, if you want to excitedly count billboards as you enter Arizona and have The Thing be a surprise when you finally reach it, here is where you should stop reading!
Still here? Awesome. Suspense is overrated anyway, right?
What is at The Thing in Arizona?
When you finally make it to The Thing, you’ll find that the going entry fee is an affordable $2 for adults. And, you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck, because the titular Thing isn’t all that there is to see. In fact, once you’re buzzed through the solid steel door, you’ll find yourself in a courtyard faced with three steel sheds. What lies ahead is a rather… eclectic collection of things.
If you follow the yellow monster footprints, the curiosities begin. For the most part, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to these unusual exhibits. A highlight of the first shed is a 1937 Rolls Royce that was supposedly once used by Hitler.
Next is a slightly unsettling display of torture. “The only one of its kind in the world.” Inside a steel cage, carved wooden people are arranged in various gruesome positions. One woman appears to be screaming as she is attacked by a hooded man with a hook hand and a branding iron, another woman is tied to a crossbar being flailed. These lovely creations are all courtesy of artist Ralph Gallagher.
The second shed is perhaps less unsettling, but no less weird. There are plywood cubicles full of all sorts of supposedly valuable items, many of them that don’t seem to match their labels. There are cream separators, cannons, rifles, a covered wagon, lithographs, old guns, long-dead tarantulas, as well as ancient churns.
One cubicle is labeled “piece of mammoth’s front leg.” But instead, it just features a paper mache couple in love, a sculpture of a bull humping a cow, and what one visitor described as “carefully arranged, unidentifiable brown lumps.” However, the real find in this shed is another Ralph Gallagher art collection, this time an array of bizarre creatures carved from weathered tree roots. The creatures, with out-of-place horns, eyeballs, and teeth-filled mouths are also accompanied by a sign that reads “wood carving completely carved from solid wood.”
What is The Thing in Arizona?
The Thing has the third shed all to itself. Entering the shed, you’ll see it alone, in a white cinder block box covered with a glass lid. The mysterious Thing that you’ve waited for miles and miles to see is… a mummified mother and child. No signs or labels offer any information about this strange and somewhat sad display. Manager Jerry Bone has been quoted as saying, “For two dollars, you tell me what it is. For five dollars, I’ll tell you.” Of course, questionable credibility and authenticity seem to be part of the marketing for this attraction. But you shouldn’t look at it like that. Instead, you should embrace the mysteries of the unknown. And if you’re with close friends or family, you can explore each other’s dreams and imaginations. The Thing is actually quite special if you look at it through an optimistic lens.
What Does The Thing Mean?
The Thing means a lot of things. It’s an exercise in subjectivity and post-modernist perceptions. It’s also an imagination stimulator. It asks for the traveler to dream of the unknown and what mysteries lie there. The Thing in Arizona, asks us to explore our own creativity as well as embrace the creativity of others. The Thing is marvelous!
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