The traveler that is enticed to pull off Exit 322 on Interstate 10 between Benson and Willcox will be drawn into the entrance of The Thing shops as surely as a fly is drawn to carrion.  2-05.
The Thing billboards are identical except for the message at the bottom and a few that have the Dairy Queen logo emblazoned on the left.  2-05.

The THING billboards pop up along Interstate 10.  The first billboard pops up 4 miles north of Marana as the traveler heads east along Interstate 10 toward Tucson.  (If you are coming from the east, the first billboard is outside El Paso, TX.)  "THE THING" it announces in huge bright blue letters on a yellow background, followed by a scrawled question mark.  "MYSTERY OF THE DESERT" it explains in small black letters at the bottom of the billboard.

As things go, "the thing" has not received popular attention since the 1950's when radiation spawned a host of supernatural super-sized creatures.  James Arness, who would later become Marshall Dillon in CBS TV's long run western Gunsmoke, was "the thing" in the 1951 creature feature The Thing From Another World.  The Arness creature wasn't created by nuclear fallout although he might have been radioactive.  He was the alien pilot of a spacecraft that crashed in the Arctic and was frozen.  Scientists made the unfortunate mistake of thawing him out.  Only the lead actors survived as the thing ravaged the explorers' station.

For a mere dollar, the curious may pass through the cave like entrance to view The Thing.  2-05.

As the traveler heads east from Tucson, more billboards appear.  Attraction billboards pop up faster and faster just like the clicks on a Geiger counter become more frequent as the sensor is brought closer to the radioactive source.  When the Interstate passes Benson the billboards appear in pairs...and then in pairs of pairs.  "Mystery of the Desert" is replaced by other tourist enticements: Southwestern rugs, eagle figurines, dream catchers, colorful agate bookends, belts, buckles, earrings, chicken basket meal, fresh hot coffee, and the desert dessert pièce de résistance, Dairy Queen Brazier with its pecan mudslide.  It becomes apparent that this thing is out to devour the tourist dollar.

Exit 322.  And then, there it is, Exit 322. A traveler would have to lack any stirrings of curiosity to pass this exit.  What could The Thing be?  Arizona is sandwiched between New Mexico where the world's first nuclear bomb explosion took place, and Nevada which was the site of many nuclear bomb tests in the 50's.  Radioactive fallout could have drifted causing all sorts of havoc.  Then there's Area 54, renown for alien life forms, which is not all that far from the attraction.  Who knows what mutant creature could have been unearthed?

Inside the roadside shop housing The Thing, one finds that his or her curiosity may be satisfied for a mere dollar.  A dollar!  As mysteries go, this must be the bargain of the century.

Various artifacts populate the first shed as the curious follow the yellow footprints leading to The Thing.  2-05.

To get to the thing, the clerk instructs visitors to proceed through the cave-like entrance and follow the yellow footprints.  The footprints lead the curious down a sidewalk and through three sheds, each filled with artifacts of questionable merit. The first shed features modes of transportation--a 1921 Graham Page (made by the then largest truck manufacturer and later acquired by the Dodge brothers), a predecessor to today's recreation vehicles (an 1849 Conestoga wagon), and a 1937 Rolls Royce which is proclaimed to be Hitler's...maybe.

The displays turn gruesome as the yellow footsteps pass a torture chamber filled with figures carved out of wood. In the next shed there are more carvings.  Credit for the wooden figures is given to an artist who is clearly more prolific than talented.

The Thing resides in a coffin protected by a glass topped concrete block case, and looked after by a bizarre two legged horse like creature wearing a crown.  2-05.

Face to face with The Thing.  Finally, the yellow footprints lead to the third shed where, just inside the door, one comes face to face with The Thing.  It is laid to rest in a coffin sitting inside a glass topped concrete block case.

The Thing is side-show creepy.  It appears to be the mummified remains of something.  Standing, or rather, lying at around five feet and clutching a baby thing, The Thing has the patina of a real mummy.  A couple of ribs are even exposed where the chest wall appears to have been eroded.

A sign above The Thing's final resting place asks, "What is it?"  A good question.  The more one looks at The Thing, the less it resembles the much hoped for alien or radioactive mutant, and the more it suggests papier-mâché.

Face to face with The Thing.  2-05.

Investigative reporter exposes The Thing.  Phoenix National Public Radio station KJZZ did an exposé of sorts on The Thing.  Reporter Rene Gutel interviewed Phoenix resident Shad Kvetko who claims to know exactly what The Thing is and from whence it came.  He says that it was the creation of one Homer Tate.  Mr. Kvetko should know.  His father was married to Mr. Tate's granddaughter.

Mr. Tate, whose family came to Arizona in the 1890's, worked as a miner and a farmer until, in the 1940's, he discovered there was a market for his talent of creating quite curious objects.  These objects included things like shrunken heads and mummies fashioned from papier-mâché and dead animal parts scrounged from the desert.  He opened Tate's Curiosity Shop on East Van Buren in Phoenix.  A flyer promoting the establishment proudly announces, "The world's best manufactured shrunken heads--a wonderful window attraction to make your mother-in-law want to go home."

A lawyer returns The Thing to Arizona.  Around the time that Mr. Tate was making his papier-mâché mummies for his Van Buren store, Thomas Binkley Prince was becoming bored with the practice of law.  In the 1950's Mr. Prince, a graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law Class of 1940, opened a roadside curio stand east of Barstow.  The Thing is said to have been included as one of its attractions, and Mr. Kvetko is certain that it was a Homer Tate creation.  When the Interstate displaced the Barstow attraction, Mr. Prince moved the enterprise to Arizona.  In 1965 he opened his roadside museum of oddities at Johnson Road between Willcox and Benson, and gave The Thing top billing.

Mr. Prince died in 1969 and his widow, Janet Prince, ran the enterprise for a while.  Later, she left The Thing in the hands of Bolin Travel Centers and headed east.  Mrs. Prince continued to contribute some of the income from lease of The Thing to the Binkley Prince Scholarship at the University of Arizona Law School in honor of her late husband.

The curious traveler should be proud to know that some tiny portion of the dollar spent to satisfy his or her curiosity finds its way to support some needy college student.


Sources:

__________, "The Thing From Another World," Internet Movie Database (IMDb), http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0044121/,  accessed 2-17-05.

__________, "Book review: The Graham Legacy: Graham-Paige to 1932 by Michael E. Keller," Cruise-IN.com [Celebrating Indiana automotive history] http://www.cruise-in.com/resource/cisbk08.htm, accessed 2-19-05.

__________, "College of Law," The University of Arizona Graduate College, http://grad.admin.arizona.edu/gcfinaid/alumni/law96.htm, accessed 2-19-05.

Scott Craven, "The Thing \ Creature feature tourist trap?" http://www.azcentral.com/travel/arizona/oddballaz/thing.html, accessed 2-17-05.

Tom Fenton, "A letter from the editor," El Paso Inc., http://www.elpasoinc.com/Archive/02_01_06/publish.html, accessed 2-19-05.

Rene Gutel, "Mystery of The Thing Unwrapped," KJZZ 91.5 FM, broadcast February 15, 2005, http://kjzz.org/news/arizona/archives/200502/thething, accessed 2-17-05.

 

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