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the thing

Airstream roadtrip to The Thing, roadside attraction, I-10, Arizona


I had a choice to make upon leaving the Alumafiesta Airstream event in Tucson. Drive north an hour to the Biosphere research facility and educate myself about Earth systems planning and policy? Or slog east toward El Paso on the I-10 to Dragoon, Arizona?


No contest. I went to see The Thing


Every driver passing through the Southwest has seen the garish yellow billboards that command you to go to The Thing. As you near fabled Exit 322, they come fast and furious, dominating the scenery. “Mystery of the Desert” the signs proclaim. “Have You Seen It?” they tantalize. I can understand not veering hours off your planned route (as I did), but how could a visit to The Thing be avoided if you’re driving by anyway? So I’ve “seen it”. So should you.


Just follow the yellow signs. The building looks exactly like the billboards. The people at the counter who take your dollar are jolly. (That’s right. This attraction only sets you back a dollar.) The Thing itself is in the looming “third building” that the crudely painted footprints on the sidewalk will guide you to, past signage full of corny puns and stimulating, unlikey dioramas.


You’ll view old farm machinery, early model tractors, a 1949 model of a covered wagon, a 1932 Buick, a ‘37 Rolls Royce with creepy figures inside, and a “very special exhibit” depicting ancient methods of torture. Each of these pieces is carved from solid wood and “represents many thousands of dollars” (debatable) invested by Mr. Ralph Gallagher, artist and disturbed individual. One example of torture appears to be a hooded executioner giving a bad makeover to a screaming blonde. (I think he’s meant to be jabbing her with a hot poker.) 


Wow. And you’re not even near The Thing yet. Keep going through a hall of cases containing an eclectic mishmash of oddities and banalities, including fanciful creatures carved from twisted branches or possibly copal wood. (The fabulous Ralph Gallagher is responsible for these as well.)


At last, The Thing. It should be a huge let down, but somehow it’s a thrill. “Here Lies The Thing” announces a cheap banner above a glass coffin. “What is it? The Mystery of the Desert. It’s a Wonder.” The Wonder is a papier-mâché mummy, wearing a coolie hat on its genitals, lying posed in peaceful repose with a fake baby mummy. 


Other scenes of torture and mayhem and antique buggies and an old Persion rug and more weirdo wood carvings and rusty random crap accompany The Thing in the third and final building. This concludes your visit. Exit through the gift shop.


Is this worth pulling off the highway? YOU BET. There’s also clean bathrooms and a Dairy Queen.


“Okay,” I said to the husband and wife team behind the counter during the purchase of my souvenir yellow t-shirt and can koozie. “What’s the deal with The Thing.” The man launched happily into his spiel. “Legend has it,” he began, and repeated, with a wink in his voice, “Legend has it, it was found in the Grand Canyon. Then acquired by a side show. They had it for several years, then they got bored with it. We’ve had it for well over forty years. They say it roams the halls at night! The Navajo came in to see if it was tribal and did a DNA test on it. They found that it was part human and part animal!” He grinned as he handed me my change. “You get to decide what’s what.”


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