How many millions of automobile travelers have wondered, while making their way through Arizona on Interstate 10: "What the heck is The Thing?"

And how many of those travelers ask, after pulling over to see it: "Why the heck did I ever stop at The Thing?"

The Thing experience, housed in a complex of large sheds on a hilltop between Benson and Willcox near Texas Canyon, is a downbeat tour of dusty junk and painted driftwood that leads to The Thing mystery object itself, which rests beneath glass in a cinder-block sarcophagus. The cost is 75 cents for adults, 50 cents for kids under 13. After the tour, souvenirs are available.

Built in 1965 and essentially unchanged since opening day, The Thing is one of our state's most intriguing tourist attractions. It has been featured in a Jane Pauley special on NBC-TV and in the popular, trash-culture travel guide Roadside America.

It is advertised at least as thoroughly and twice as effectively as any of our other tourist traps, including the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater and Biosphere 2. Surely you've seen the billboards, 17 of which can be counted in the 100 miles of I-10 between Picacho Peak and The Thing.

"The Thing," the billboards read, in giant blue letters against a yellow background. The lettering appears to be a Flintstones typographical style, all rounded corners and tapered arms and legs. The letters increase in size, starting below the roof of the T, up through the G and into a question mark. The question mark isn't included on every billboard, but is included often enough to prompt some Thing chroniclers to include the punctuation and make every reference one big, clumsy package: "From outside, The Thing? looks like any other interstate gas station. . . ." And so forth.

(Most of the same chroniclers also politely avoid describing The Thing, opting instead to "play along" with the "gag." Readers are warned: In this article, The Thing will be described, and theories on its origin will be discussed. Lovers of carny hype and side-show oddities might want to stop reading after page 30.)

Each Thing billboard also carries at least one tantalizing underline, in red type, such as "We Expect You," "Mystery of the Desert," "Mysteries of the Past," "Rattlesnake Eggs" and "T shirts, T shirts, T shirts."

The Thing's billboards don't read in sequence, but do their work at random, nagging intervals, in the tradition of the almost 300 Wall Drug signs that dot the upper Midwest; the now-fading Merrimac Caverns signs that were once painted on every other barn roof along Route 66; and the more than 60 signs in six states that advertise the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, which promises every customer a free, Texas-size slab of beef if it can be eaten in an hour.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many billboards advertise The Thing. Billboards are regulated, but Arizona Department of Transportation records reflect only a board-owner's name, not the "legend" material printed on it. Bowlin's Inc., the Albuquerque-based company that now owns and operates The Thing and other roadside trading posts in the Southwest, owns some of The Thing's billboards, but also leases many others. The leased boards, registered under countless names, are impossible to trace.

Highway old-timers say there are fewer Thing billboards today than there once were. Contrary to legend, the signs do not stretch from New Orleans to Los Angeles. "I would realistically say that the signs start around El Paso to the east and somewhere on I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson to the west," says owner Mike Bowlin. "They're an integral part of the attraction."

Back in the days before price wars between bankrupt carriers made air travel so handy, signs like The Thing's were the family-sedan version of in-flight movies. The Thing's signs gnaw on a road-weary driver's brain, or, worse, at kids' brains, until the family excursion must come to a screeching detour at Exit 322.

What the family finds there, inside the blue-, yellow- and red-painted buildings, is the creation of one Thomas Binkley Prince--husband, father, attorney at law and roadside visionary. It was Prince who built the cinder-block shrine around the enigmatic Thing. He's the one who stocked the building's shelves with curios and bought the old cars, guns and objets d'art that fill out The Thing tour experience. T. Binkley Prince is the one who designed and planted all those billboards. Prince, born in Texas and raised in California, attended Arizona State University and the University of Arizona College of Law. He worked for a time at a general law practice in the Security Building in downtown Phoenix, and later served briefly as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. He also worked for a law firm in Seattle during World War II and, on the side, ran a pool hall. In the 1950s, Prince and his family settled in the Mojave Desert on Highway 91 between Barstow and Baker, where he built his first roadhouse/curio stand/Thing emporium. Prince lost his building when the road was widened into an interstate highway. The family--and The Thing--moved to the hilltop near Benson in 1965.

Prince died in 1969 of heart trouble and a series of strokes. He was 56. Prince's widow, Janet, now resides in Baltimore. "He was a very entertaining and energetic man, and all our life together, I was never bored," she says today. "Binkley did what he set out to do." @rule:

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