The billboards advertising The Thing begin about 40 miles outside of Tucson, Arizona. Sometimes they are so hidden by desert broom bushes and palo verde trees that you can barely see them as you barrel eastward on I-10. Other times, the signs come in clusters, an unavoidable swath of yellow in the otherwise barren landscape of the Sonoran desert.
As soon as you think there can’t possibly be another billboard, there’s another billboard. For all I know, the people responsible for these advertisements have circumnavigated the globe with billboards. They’ve hired a translator to phrase the questions in Russian, Spanish, Chinese. They’ve put a billboard at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and are currently in talks with Elon Musk to put a billboard on the moon.
Perhaps you think this is hyperbole. It’s not.
This nonsense goes on from Phoenix, Arizona to El Paso, Texas, stretching 430 miles of interstate.
What is The Thing?
What is The freaking Thing?!
By the time you reach the tiny town of Texas Canyon, Arizona—home of The Thing—the question will have driven you mad. And even then, you won’t be much closer to understanding The Thing. Instead, you’ll find yourself parked in front of a gas station and a bright yellow building promising souvenirs, T-shirts, jewelry, gifts, and a museum; The Thing, it suggests, is buried somewhere inside.
Before you can gain access to The Thing, you have to pay the attendant one American dollar. This is non-negotiable. When you do so, the attendant will tell you to enjoy the museum.
Aha, you might think, The Thing is a museum. But this is a mistake. The museum is a thing, certainly, but not The Thing.
The first shed is long and poorly ventilated. It houses some of the attraction’s larger exhibits, such as a Rolls Royce supposedly used by Adolf Hitler. How the Hitlermobile wound up in Texas Canyon, Arizona, is not disclosed to the visitor. As if to assure the visitor that Hitler’s ass once sat on the leather seats of the vehicle, there is a cracked, plaster version of the Führer partially leaning out the back window.
Farther down the shed, there is a still-life arrangement featuring a disfigured wooden mannequin staring at the roof, in a gesture that appears to be looking for God. Behind the mannequin is a four-poster bed outfitted with two dusty and sheet-less mattresses, and beside the bed is a chifforobe and an upright piano. There is a Persian rug on the ground, and the rug is littered with pennies tossed there by previous visitors to the museum. The scene, presented without context, is unsettling.
The second shed is about 50 feet from the first shed and much smaller. A sign next to the entrance warns visitors to be wary of Gila monsters, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and other venomous animals that often used the shed to escape the heat, which can easily surpass 100 degrees in the summer.
Here, the walls are lined with small display cases, each containing an assortment of seemingly random things: Dozens of pieces of driftwood with painted-on eyes, mouths, and hooves. A Toledo cream separator surrounded by Hopi Kachina figures and Navajo pottery. A phonograph juxtaposed with a shattered mammoth bone. Old photos and paintings of England, France, and Italy. One sign describes its object as an “ancient churn made in Kentucky in the 1700s.”
Another case displays 17th-century rifles from Spain and Constantinople. One of the rifles is identified as a matchlock from 1654, which wears a sign that says: “This is one of the rarest pieces on Earth and is the only one in the world. THIS IS BEYOND PRICE.”
As you enter the final shed, a large, orange banner will announce that at long last you have made it to The Thing. Underneath the banner is a waist-high display case made of cinderblocks, and in the display case is The Thing.
At the risk of seeming anticlimactic: The Thing is a mummified mother and her child. Their wrappings are in tatters, and it is possible to see bones where the flesh and wrappings have decayed.
The only thing is, The Thing is none of those things. The Thing doesn’t exist, and the questions have no answers. It is a simulacrum pointing to a nonexistent reality. It is not even The Thing, but one of many Things.
The Thing housed in a cinderblock sarcophagus in Texas Canyon, Arizona, was made by a man named Homer Tate, a jack-of-all-trades who got into the business of making mermaids, mummies, and shrunken heads from mud and bones in the 1940s. He would tote these around as roadside attractions, and sometime around 1950, a lawyer named Thomas Binkley Prince purchased The Thing for $50 and developed it into a permanent attraction.
Prince died in 1969, but before he was laid to rest, he had managed to accumulate all of the things that inhabit the museum today. Indeed, these historical items seemed to have no purpose other than serving as alibis for The Thing’s authenticity.
The property was maintained by Prince’s wife, Janet, for a number of years after his passing, but she eventually sold the Thing to a company called Bowlin, Inc. and moved to Baltimore. Based in Albuquerque, Bowlin specializes in keeping the Western myth alive and owns pretty much every themed trading post in the Southwest. It is the perfect corporate proprietor of The Thing.
The Thing doesn’t get too many visitors. The gas station outside is regularly busy, but few of its patrons care to come inside. Perhaps they’re afraid to discover what The Thing really is, or worse, to discover that The Thing doesn’t exist at all. When people do come in, they’re usually not from Arizona. Instead, they’re headed out West in search of their own Thing: a relaxing vacation, an adventure, a better job.
Once you remove the hundreds of miles of advertisements, the promises that The Thing exists, the notion that The Thing can be obtained if you just pay the fee—once you toss all that out, you find that there was no Thing there to begin with. All you’re left with is a pile of mud and bones to remind you of your origin and destination.