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:
@body:Four buildings compose The Thing. The main structure contains a gift shop; the other three buildings are sheds linked by a sidewalk.
Your visit begins and ends inside the big gift shop full of bows and arrows, turquoise jewelry and ball caps. You enter the tour portion of the famed roadside attraction by passing the moccasin-sales display, which is not far from the transition area into the Dairy Queen.
The cavelike ceremonial entrance to The Thing is topped by a painted sign that displays tour prices. You open the door and walk out into the open air. Yellow footprints guide the tourist along the concrete, through the first two sheds and to climactic Building Three, wherein lies the actual Thing.
The first item displayed in Building One is an old, red tractor. The sign beside it reads, "Really The Thing for replacing four-legged horse power."
Next comes a couple of old cars, an "1849 Covered Wagon" and two carved wooden Indians. The vehicles are displayed behind a short, wire fence along one long wall of the shed. At the bottom of the opposite wall--a half-wall, actually, that exposes the room to the elements--is a display of twisted pieces of driftwood or tree roots. Someone has painted eyes, lips and other facial features on some of the wood pieces, whose splayed limbs evidently were once imagined to resemble arms and legs.
About halfway through the building is displayed a 1937 Rolls-Royce, or so the sign reads. A dummy has been propped up behind the driver's seat. Cobwebs stretch from the hard, rubber tires to the concrete floor. "This antique car was believed to have been used by Adolph [sic] Hitler," says a sign. "The Thing is, it can't be proved."
(Craig Jackson, an expert on Hitler's cars, says of the Rolls: "It's a joke. It would've been a total slap in the face of the Aryan race for Hitler to drive a British car." Jackson, whose father founded the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction held annually in the Valley, adds that legitimate Hitler cars, usually bulletproof Mercedes models, are hot commodities on the classic-car market, and that each of Hitler's vehicles has been well-documented.)
Meanwhile, the ever-present wind slaps a tree branch onto the wall outside the shed. Scraps of paper blow into and out of the building. Adolph's Rolls is parked beside a large cage that contains half a dozen wooden figures, which are frozen in a dungeon tableau.
"This very special exhibit depicting ancient methods of torture is the only one of its kind in the world," reads the sign. "Each piece is carved from solid wood and represents an investment of many thousand dollars." At the bottom of the sign appears the name Ralph Gallagher, whose occupation--artist"--is identified in parentheses. @rule:
@body:Though he practiced law off and on, Binkley Prince considered the profession "stuffy," says Janet Prince, his widow. He was a somewhat restless fellow, she says, an iconoclast with entrepreneurial leanings.
His daughter, Michelle, a writer in Baltimore, says, "My father was an independent sort. He didn't particularly fit the part of working for someone else, particularly in a government setting. He preferred to be self-employed.
"He was kind of a temperamental, moody person," Michelle adds in a telephone interview. "Things set him off, and you wouldn't really know what it would be. He was a very good businessman, and he was always there when you needed him."
Janet Prince was 55 when her husband died. Now she's 78. She ran The Thing by herself for a while, but now leases the land and buildings to Bowlin's Inc. After leaving The Thing, she settled in Sierra Vista, where she worked for several years in a restaurant office. When the restaurant burned down, Michelle, who had settled in Baltimore, convinced her mom to move east. For the past 12 years, Janet Prince has worked in the office of a nursing home, where her specialty is accounts payable. Over the telephone, Janet Prince sounds frail. But after more than a decade in Maryland, she says, "I'm still really an old Arizona woman with sand in my toes."
Although the rambler Binkley was her "first and only love," life with him couldn't have been easy for Janet. Yet she has no regrets.
The couple struggled to make ends meet during his law-school days at the UofA. She supported them by working in a clothing store for 35 cents an hour; he frequently pawned his typewriter to pay for food. Later would come the various attempts to work at ill-fitting legal jobs, the frequent relocations and, finally, The Thing. The family lived on-site at both Thing attractions, "roughing it," Janet Prince says, first in the scalding desert near Death Valley, later in a trailer behind the Arizona store.
Water was a problem at both locations. "There was no water out there," says Janet Prince of the Arizona Thing site. "We had to go down and haul a big tankful of water for our use."
Roughing it was not the life for their daughter, Michelle. Once she left for college at Stanford, she was reluctant to return to roadside mercantile living. "I spent very little time there," she says.
"Michelle was quite turned off by the whole thing," says her mother. "You can imagine her viewpoint of our activity. We would try to get her to come and work in the summer, but she would have no part of it. She even chose to go way down into the wilds of Mexico one summer, because she was not going to work at The Thing. No way."
Janet adds, "I guess we were kind of weird in our time."
@body:Binkley Prince probably borrowed the name for his attraction from the 1951 sci-fi film The Thing (From Another World). Prince's mystery object looked nothing like the cinematic Thing--actually, actor James Arness wearing a salad suit--but customers wouldn't know that until after they stopped and paid their money. Considering the creepy movie's lasting appeal (it was remade in 1982), Prince's instincts were true.
According to old-timers living east of Barstow, the first Thing manifestation was similar to the later version. Prince had the mysterious object on display, a soda fountain, souvenirs and signs, signs, signs in every direction. The most vivid memories of the place for many locals involve its collection of live animals, mostly snakes and other desert reptiles.
Auto travel in those days was slow, hot and boring. Locals say service stations or soda-pop stands sprung up every few miles along old Highway 91, the precursor to Interstate 15.
Some area residents recall a parallel amusement, located south of The Thing on old Route 66. "The Beast of Barstow" was advertised by splashy signs for many miles, just like The Thing. Suckers paid to learn that the "Beast" was a mere burro, kept in a small pen beside the souvenir shack. In this part of the country, The Thing was just another act in a stationary road show. When Highway 91 was widened into Interstate 15, the Princes were forced to move.
Binkley made certain that wouldn't happen again. When he put down roots in Arizona, it was after State Route 86 east of Benson had been widened into Interstate 10.
Janet Prince says her husband started building his new Thing enclosure near Benson before he was even sure he could lease the land. But he had already moved the family from California and had become enchanted with the Texas Canyon location. The boulder-strewn canyon the attraction borders is one of the few legitimately scenic spots on all of I-10 in Arizona. From there, Binkley Prince knew he could pull in traffic. "It was up on a hill, and tourists could see it from both directions," remembers Janet Prince. "He knew that people would want to stop and rest and snoop around. It was just an ideal location.
"Before we opened, Binkley got some cars from a junkyard and put em out front so people would think, 'Oh, they stopped there, so we'll stop, too.'"
@body:Today, visitors still find cars parked in front of the main building, but they're not decoys. These cars belong to real souvenir hounds and curious travelers.
The attraction they find, however, differs little from Prince's original vision. The Thing itself (which Prince had first successfully displayed at his location near Death Valley) was the top-of-the-marquee tourist magnet back in the mid-1960s, of course, but the main building's huge inventory of trinkets, souvenirs and whatnots also had considerable consumer appeal. The Princes never could have survived on Thing admission fees alone.
For a time, the Arizona Thing also featured some of the live-animal menagerie that had been displayed in California. And Prince made sure that hungry or thirsty travelers also had an excuse to stop. "We had food and lemonade and soft ice cream and a bar for a while," says Janet Prince, adding that in the early days, bar patrons could play real slot machines. "That was pretty good for a while, until the law came and told us we had to remove them. That was quite a draw.
"The day that place opened, the people started stopping. We had a bunch of crazy souvenirs, real wild stuff . . . back-scratchers and things with crazy sayings on em and stuff."
Binkley Prince personally picked the inventory for the souvenir bins. He traveled to Los Angeles regularly to visit the gewgaw wholesalers. His wife also remembers her husband standing on a tall ladder, erecting his trademark billboards. He designed the signs and had painters execute his plan. "He just knew what he wanted and how to tell someone how it should look," she says. "He had no formal artistic training or anything."
As for The Thing's collection of offbeat historical curiosities, Janet Prince says, "Anything that was real unusual appealed to Binkley. He wanted it, and he wanted other people to see it."
Binkley Prince continued to dabble in law in Cochise County, but The Thing took most of his time. By 1969, he had designed and began to build a home in nearby Sonoita. But he died before its completion, and was buried in Sierra Vista's Memory Gardens cemetery.
After her husband's death, Janet Prince bought the land he had been leasing and operated The Thing alone for a time. At the end of each day, she carried the cash pouch in one hand and a pistol in the other from the shop to her mobile home. The Thing was never robbed during the Princes' ownership, but Janet was wary of living alone beside the thoroughfare.
"I lived in a trailer all alone," she says. "Any deserted area out there is unsafe. Binkley carried a gun whenever he had money, and I kept his gun after he died." It wasn't long before Janet sold the business enterprise to Bowlin's Inc.
"Bowlin's made an offer," she says. "I thought, 'Gee, this is a godsend. I can't live out here carrying this gun around by myself forever.'"
She hasn't seen The Thing in ages, but still receives lease payments from Bowlin's. Part of the profits go to support Janet, her daughter and her daughter's two adopted children. Part goes to support five $1,000 scholarships Janet Prince funds in her husband's name every year at the UofA law school.
@body:Following the yellow footprints down another outdoor sidewalk, where the trailers (and satellite dish) of The Thing's current management team can be scrutinized, you enter Building Two. Here, a collection of arguably historic detritus is displayed in glass cases which line the walls of the rectangular shed. Reading the cards and signs that explain the display, you see a railroad lantern from 1840, old books, an ore scale, a small-scale Old West saloon diorama (also carved by Ralph Gallagher, artist), guns labeled "rare," "priceless" and "beyond price," an old copper moonshine still and two motley, stuffed spiders entombed in a dark terrarium.
Displayed near this shed's exit are what appear to be fossils (one of which is described as a "piece of mammoth's front leg") and an old crank telephone. "Ma Bell has come a long way," the sign reads. @rule:
@body:Mike Bowlin, who now manages The Thing, says it is one of the more popular stores of the dozens he runs.
The Bowlin company has upgraded the attraction considerably since taking it over more than 20 years ago. Gas pumps were added (locals say The Thing's fuel prices are usually a couple of cents lower than the going rate), as well as a Dairy Queen franchise. Bowlin, whose father started the family trading-post business early this century, says the Ralph Gallagher torture carvings and the "wooden fantasy" collection of painted driftwood were added after his company took over. The origins of both oddball collections are now all but forgotten, he says, though he seems to remember that the driftwood was bought from a collector in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Bowlin has no recollection of Ralph Gallagher, artist.
He doesn't know for sure, but guesses that "a good number" of those who visit pay to step back outside and see The Thing. "Twenty to 30 percent of the visitors are people who travel in some fashion for a living," he says. "Lots are truckers. The rest are travelers and tourists. We get a lot of country-and-western singers who come through here on tour. I can't remember who they all are, but they do stop in." @rule:
@body:The yellow footprints lead no farther than the very first display in Building Three.
Here, finally, is The Thing.
The large sign overhead reads, "The Thing--What is it?" It appears to be a mummified human, dirt brown, partially wrapped in crumbling fabric. It is displayed, prone, in a short, glass-topped, cinder-block case. Its legs are disproportionately long and thin. Its lap is covered by a straw basket. A few of its ribs have been exposed. It holds what appears to be a mummified infant or, more likely, a doll. Displayed elsewhere in this building are a fringe-topped surrey, an old sewing machine, an iron pot, some old tables, a mismatched bedroom set, more painted driftwood, a few saddles and a partial dummy of a man in some sort of terrible agony. "This statue showing a man being tortured was located in Italy," says the sign.
The sidewalk outside leads back to the main building. To the right as you reenter are restrooms and a sales display of velvet paintings (including portraits of Jesus, landscapes and, until recently, a painting of Stevie Wonder); to the left is the curio sales area, where, among other things, miniature liquor bottles are sold, the last remnants of the structure's roadhouse legacy. The sign on the door as you exit into the parking lot says, "Anyone caught shoplifting will be cheerfully scalped."
@body:So what is The Thing? Where did it come from? Visitors to The Thing in years past report seeing a sign explaining that it lived 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and was discovered in the Benson-Willcox area. The sign is gone, but the display otherwise remains exactly as it appeared when Binkley Prince last saw it. "We've never opened the case since we've had it," says Mike Bowlin.
Prince's widow isn't sure how her husband came to own The Thing, only that he first displayed it in his store near Death Valley. "How he came into possession of that, I really don't know," she says. "I'm pretty sure that it was found out there in the desert, somewhere around Death Valley. Somebody dug that up or found it somewhere. A very unique piece. He knew that it was of general interest, and that people would want to look at it."
Michelle Prince says she remembers the mummy being described as Native American in origin. Carol Rector, curator of the San Bernardino County Museum's Department of Anthropology, says that particular part of Southern California was inhabited by Native Americans as long as 12,000 years ago, but that they never practiced mummification. Archaeologists have found lots of old burial sites, she says, and bones and other artifacts are usually fairly well preserved because of the dry climate. "But I'm not aware of any mummies being found in that area," she says.
Syndicated newspaper columnist Stan Delaplane, who wrote about a visit to the Princes' stand near Barstow in a 1956 column, described The Thing as an "Indian lady." (According to Delaplane, the California Thing was touted on billboards as the "World's Most Horrible Spectacle.")
And Delaplane quoted Janet Prince on The Thing's origin. "Man came through here about six years ago," she told the roving reporter. "He had three of them he got somewhere. He was selling them for $50." The withered column, part of Janet Prince's memorabilia collection, also claims that the Princes once named their mystery object "Susie." Mike Bowlin has different memories of The Thing. He claims he saw it while traveling the trading-post circuit with his dad. "The first time I saw it, I was a young kid, 10 years old," he says. "It was up on the Navajo Reservation. It was in some old, famous trading post, kept in a special room. It was in a glass box. I remember my dad said, 'Come back here and look at this thing.'"
@body:Contemporary road-weary travelers, their much-anticipated tour complete and now facing the prospect of more hours on the highway, leave The Thing tour area wearing alternating expressions of bemusement and blankness. It wasn't much, almost all of them say, but the price was about right.
"It didn't look real to me" is a representative quote, uttered in this case by Brenda Barton, half of a husband-and-wife trucking team out of Logan, Ohio, hauling a load from Los Angeles to Dallas. The couple had driven past The Thing countless times, and had even stopped before without taking the tour. On this trip, Brenda wanted a milkshake, and years of pent-up curiosity won out.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Brenda's husband, Dennis, adds that the 75-cent admission price was "reasonable," considering it included--in addition to a peek at The Thing--the collection of old cars, guns and carvings. "I always thought The Thing was going to be some big reptile," he says.
"Everybody has an opinion," says Mike Bowlin. "That's why we don't make any claims. What it is, we can't say for sure. We're not trying to misrepresent; we're just trying to say that opinions are always welcome. And we get a lot of em."
Dr. Walter Birkby, forensic anthropologist at the University of Arizona, has seen The Thing and has an opinion. "If I remember correctly, myself and some of my students were going someplace on a trip and stopped for coffee, and we said, 'What the hell, we've been driving past this all these years, let's take a look.' "Of course, you can't get in to get a good look at it. There's that heavy plate glass on the surface, so the only thing to do is go by its appearances."
Birkby says that parts of The Thing appear to be fashioned out of papier-mch. "The general consensus was that it's fake," he says.
@body:Back on the highway, headed east toward El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Baton Rouge, Tallahassee or Jacksonville, the cluster of Thing buildings has not yet disappeared from your rearview mirror when one last billboard comes into view. It's a final polite appeal to the strong-willed traveler who didn't fall for the lure of old-fashioned roadside advertising, a postscript to the story told by the preceding 100 miles of signs. "If you missed The Thing," the sign reads, "have a great trip anyway and come back.