The Thing? Mystery of the Arizona Desert

Lisa Fritscher July 10, 2011 No Comments

Arizona Interstate 10

Counting billboards breaks up the monotony

My love affair with travel began as a small child. Dad was in the Navy, so Mom and I frequently made the journey between Norfolk, Virginia and her parents’ home in Lakeland, Florida. When I was nine, Dad got a civilian job with the Department of Defense. Whenever we could, Mom and I accompanied him on business trips around the country. Still, our trips were mostly “vacations,” or in Dad’s case “working vacations.” We packed up the car, drove to a nice hotel in our destination city, and went to see the major tourist attractions. In 1992, the year I turned 16, I picked up a book that would totally change my perspective on travel forever: The New Roadside America.

Packed full of snarky descriptions of the oddest places in America, from giant concrete turnips to tiny dime museums, The New Roadside America made me realize that by sticking to the interstates and the major cities, we were missing out on a whole world of kitschy fun. I devoured the book in one session, ironically enough while sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car on the way back from Washington, DC.

The Thing, Arizona Gas Station

It's at a gas station

One attraction in particular caught my eye, probably because the description was so vivid yet lacking in a resolution: The Thing? Mystery of the Arizona Desert. The book gave fantastic details about the entire attraction, but stopped just short of revealing what The Thing actually is. I resolved to see it for myself someday, but for some reason I could never seem to get there. Until this year, my life has been firmly planted in the eastern half of the United States (except for one trip to Alaska in 2009).

When Dad and I decided to see the Southwest this year, I knew I had to see The Thing. On the drive from Deming, NM to Tombstone, AZ, I finally had my chance.

The Thing?

Interstate 10 Arizona

The scenery's beautiful, but the road is desolate

Like South of the Border on the South Carolina-North Carolina border, and Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, The Thing announces its presence with a plethora of billboards. We saw the first one shortly after we got onto Interstate 10 in New Mexico. That portion of I-10 is an interesting blend of spectacular scenery and utter monotony. Other than the occasional tiny stopover town, there are few signs of life. By the second hour on the road, The Thing is rather enticing. Anything to get off the road and stretch your legs for a few minutes!

The Thing was the brainchild of Thomas Binkley Prince and his wife Janet, who apparently obtained their signature item from a traveling salesman in 1950 and opened the roadside attraction along Highway 91. But when the interstate came through in 1965, the attraction moved to its current location. Thomas Prince passed away in 1969, and today The Thing is operated by a conglomerate, but it remains unchanged from its humble beginnings, a quaint reminder of a simpler past.

Having looked forward to this for so long, I was an odd mix of excited and nervous. I knew it would be cheesy, but I had to know what The Thing actually was. I had waited nearly 20 years for the opportunity, and it was finally here!

The Thing Arizona Admission

With an admission fee this low, who can resist?

Suddenly there it was, at Exit 322, right off the interstate. Just a Shell gas station with an attached Dairy Queen, a rather large gift shop and a sign advertising The Thing? Dad was nervous about maneuvering the RV into the parking lot, but the place actually has an incredibly convenient RV and truck route. We parked and went inside.

As of 2011, admission to The Thing is $1 for adults, 75 cents for kids aged 6 to 18, and free for those under 6. Pay the cashier at the gift shop and then step through a door at the back.

The Experience

Hitler's car Arizona

Was this Hitler's car? Who knows?

On the other side of the door, we found ourselves outside, staring at painted yellow “Bigfoot prints.” We followed the prints to the first of three large metal sheds. Inside was a bizarre collection of antique vehicles, including a 1937 Rolls Royce complete with a mannequin representation of Adolf Hitler. The sign above informed us that the car might have belonged to Hitler but “The Thing is, it can’t be proved.” Other exhibits offered similar Thing puns. Just past the vehicles is the torture display–a collection of people being tortured on medieval devices, all carved from wood and hand painted. If you can get past the “ick” factor, the artist was actually quite talented. You’ll see his more fanciful and less disturbing creations, various woodland creatures, in the next shed.

The Thing Exhibit

A bear trap and meat grinder. Yummy.

Moving on to Shed #2, we were amazed at the sheer randomness of the collection. One glass case showcased both an antique and a “modern” (circa 1950) telephone. Others held antique tools, kitchen equipment and weapons. The juxtaposition of bear trap and grinder created a mental image I didn’t necessarily want! Most items were labeled, a few were not, and others were obviously mislabeled.

The Thing Rotting Exhibits

Some of these things have seen better days

Finally, in Shed #3, we reached The Thing. Oddly, the big reveal occurred at the entrance to the shed, leaving a number of other displays for afterwards. I suggest you skip The Thing and see everything else in the shed first, including a rotting Persian rug from the 1600s (who thought it was a good idea to leave an antique rug unprotected on the floor of a non-climate controlled shed for 60 years?), a broken Chinese mirror and some Old West wagons. Circle back around for the big reveal. Otherwise the rest of the shed seems anticlimactic.

The Thing Revealed

The Thing? What Is It?

So there we were–standing in front of a white concrete block case with a glass top. A large sign hung on the wall, taunting us one last time. “The Thing? What Is It?” We stepped forward, approached the case, and peered inside. At last, the answer to the mystery that had plagued me for nearly 20 years! So what exactly is The Thing? In the tradition of my beloved New Roadside America, I will not reveal the Mystery of the Desert. I will just say this. Next time you find yourself traveling Interstate 10 through Arizona, you just might want to stop and see it for yourself!

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

Tags: Sharing Experiences, Travel Excursions

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