When you live in West Texas and have grandparents in Southern California, you make plenty of journeys along Interstate 10.
Over the years, I came to know the Western stretch of it pretty well…the hole in the mountain by Deming, N.M. and the aptly graffitied “Fraggle Rock,” formation, that miserable empty desert space in Eastern California where there was always at least one ill-prepared driver’s over-heated car on the side of the road, and just outside the beautiful jutting granite boulders of Texas Canyon in Arizona, one of the most famous roadside oddities of the West…The Thing?
Anyone who has passed through New Mexico or Arizona along this southern interstate has seen the numerous yellow and blue signs inviting people to come and see “The Thing? The Mystery of the Desert,” and pop in for a nice Dairy Queen shake and some turquoise jewelry while they’re at it.
On our way back home from California, we would stop at this roadside travel center often, but I only remember actually paying the $1 entrance fee to learn the secrets of this roadside mystery twice; once when I was about four in the 1970s and once in the early 1980s when I was a teenager.
It was everything you would expect from the roadside attraction venture. It was ramshackle, dusty, and faded. It was potentially nightmare inducing for younger visitors in a freak show sort of way. There were weird little creatures made from painted, gnarled wood, an old Rolls Royce that “May have been Hitler’s” (complete with a creepy mannequin of Hitler in the back seat) and if memory serves a handcrafted wooden display of ancient torture methods, because what kids wouldn't like that kind of thing?
"What if..." everything we knew about history was wrong? Stop by this favorite Arizona roadside attraction and find out.
I warned my family not to expect too much, and to wear close-toed shoes, as you followed the painted foot prints along the little outdoor paths and through creaky metal barns covered with chipped paint in what used to be bright primary colors.
The final barn held what was the payoff of the walk, as it was where "The Thing" laid in state.
So, what exactly is The Thing? What is this “Mystery of the Desert” that teases travelers in billboard after billboard from California to Texas?
(Spoiler warning ahead, if you haven't already seen it, or are planning to in the future.)
The Thing a really wonderful and ugly piece of sideshow prop-making, that resembles the mummified remains of an ancient race, complete with a baby and tow and a strategically placed hat to keep things “family friendly,” I assume. Although The Thing asks visitors not to give away its secrets, images and video of travelers visiting it are pretty much everywhere, thanks to social media. That didn't stop visitors from coming, and peering down in her bricked in glass coffin to get a closer peek.
This “Thing,” around which the whole attraction is built, was likely the most well-known creation of the “King of Gaffes,” exhibit creator Homer Tate, whose other “creatures” included faux shrunken heads and mummified mermaids. Tate was born in Texas and later lived in Arizona where he scoured the desert for animal bones, hair, and other items to create his plaster and paper mache critters and creatures. The attraction itself was opened by a man named Thomas Binkley Prince in the 1950s, but it now owned by the New Mexico-based chain of Bowlin’s Travel Centers today.
However, even visitors who have stopped by in the past have reason to visit once again, as “The Thing: Mystery of the Desert” got a mega-makeover in 2018, with fully-developed comic book style “What if…” scenario: Dinosaurs vs. Aliens!
Aliens riding dinosaur slaves? As it says in the attraction's own merchandise, "Now I've seen it all."
What if… everything we know about the history of the world was wrong. What if… there have always been extraterrestrial aliens among us? What if…. aliens enslaved the dinosaurs, helped Hitler, and were the reason behind many modern day conspiracies? What if… there were some relics left behind even though they did their best to erase any trace of there being here?
Gone is the dust and outside paths, replaced with sleek museum quality signage and statues. Gone is the wooden torture methods, although some of the gnarled wood critters are mixed in with the newer displays. Gone is the $1 a pop entrance fee. It is now $5 a person, or $10 a family.
Not gone is "The Thing." She's still the grande finale.
At the end of the tour, there’s the same familiar “Thing” in all her splendor. Same eerily wide grin and baby nestled in her arm, Her modesty still intact with that big straw hat. Yet she is given a much nicer final resting place, with faux mountainside around her and with a coiled taxidermy rattler at her feet as a bodyguard.
She no longer has to offend cultural sensibilities, as she is now possibly, if you choose to believe, a remnant of those extraterrestrial visitors who have been controlling our fate throughout history. (Cue the theremin music)
This is the beauty of roadside America, a likely paper mache project by the prop makers’ answer to P.T. Barnum has gotten her own upgrade, happily exploiting tired car travelers with that tempting need to travel down the rabbit hole of curiosity..and see for themselves: what The Thing is.
After seeing The Thing I can affirm that although it isn’t The Thing it used to be, it still is The Thing I always remember. Even as The Thing has gone from rundown to renovated, it is good to know that in this ever-changing world of uncertainty, The Thing is still just hanging out in a roadside travel center still doing The Thing it does best…giving us all something to laugh and talk about. And, she’s been doing so for more than 50 years.
That certainly is a heck of a Thing, now, isn’t it?