THE THING: Exploring Arizona's Weird, Dumb Roadside Museum

Hundreds of desert billboards lead to "The Thing."
THE THING: Exploring Arizona's Weird, Dumb Roadside Museum

The road from El Paso, Texas to Tucson, Arizona is surrounded by literally hundreds of bright yellow billboards. Some of them have dinosaurs, some have aliens, some have dinosaurs AND aliens, and all of them have “THE THING” in big blue font. What is The Thing? The billboards won’t tell you. You have to look for yourself to find out.

Like a clickbait article IRL, it’s impossible to ignore the advertisements while driving through I-10, but most people avoid actually finding out the answer to the questions asked by the roadside signs. What is The Thing, though? Is it something that enlightens those who do see it? Does it shake the foundation of existence to the extent that justifies so much wasted space in the desert?

It’s a fake mummy holding a smaller fake mummy.

Thadrd28/Wiki Commons

Yep, truly the mystery of the desert right here.

For a hyper-abridged history of The Thing, Thomas Binkley Prince, a former lawyer, established the roadside attraction in 1965. He likely acquired the “mummies” from a man named Homer Tate, who is known as the “King of Gaffes.” Tate lived from 1884 to 1975 and was responsible for making all sorts of fake shrunken heads and other “creepy” paraphernalia. 

Okay, well, the “mystery of the desert” has been solved, but what else is The Thing? Surely there can’t be that many billboards for just that, right? Well, no. Along with The Thing, there is a museum, which contains an assortment of other things in addition to The Thing. This museum received a massive renovation in 2018, meaning that we essentially have two different The Things to talk about. Don’t worry, though, because the fake mummy is still the main attraction.

The pre-2018 museum was a collection of three sheds with a color scheme as nauseatingly bright as the billboards. Before the renovation, the cost of admission was $1. Once inside, a pair of yellow monster footprints guided visitors to what will surely be the ultimate revelation of the universe. But, before getting to The Thing, there was a lot of other random stuff to justify that price. In the first shed, there were some random old cars as well as replicas of farm vehicles and covered wagons. Well, random cars may not be fully accurate. 

One of their artifacts was a 1937 Rolls-Royce with a… familiar mannequin sitting in the back. A sign behind the classic car states that it was “believed to have been used” by Adolf Hitler. Now, why the leader of the Nazis would be riding in a British car is not stated.

CGP Grey/Wiki Commons

Is this supposed to be like a good thing?

Anyways, more unrelated objects eventually took visitors to the main attraction, the reason for every billboard along I-10, the real The Thing. Back in the day, The Thing was kept in a sort of enclosure made from cinder blocks, an underwhelming sarcophagus for an underwhelming attraction.

Oh well. At least visitors could find something interesting at the gift shop or gas up at The Thing’s fuel pumps. 

But in 2018, The Thing experienced a major glow-up. Millions of dollars were poured into the facility to make this a true themed attraction. The result is still The Thing, but now there is actually a theme! 

Contemporary The Thing is what would happen if an eight-year-old wrote for Ancient Aliens. The story that connects everything is that warring alien factions have been involved in affairs on Earth for millions of years. They had the technology to enslave dinosaurs, but eventually, the dinosaurs rebelled. Evil aliens then sent the asteroid to kill off the dinos. 

Once the dinosaurs were gone, aliens eventually interfered with human affairs. Once it gets to this point, the story is all standard alien theory shenanigans. Did the aliens build the pyramids? Are aliens in the government? All that good stuff. 

What makes this part of the museum funny, though, is that it still makes use of some of the museum’s old artifacts. The farm equipment that was once presented without context is now… well, presented without context again. The Rolls-Royce that was ridden by Hitler is now, more appropriately, ridden by Winston Churchill. Oh, and an alien is driving him, naturally. 

All of this builds up to The Thing, the centerpiece that still holds this entire affair together. Don’t worry, The Thing is still just fake mummies. Now it is housed in an exhibit that’s more than just haphazard cinder blocks, though, so that’s nice.

The real story of The Thing, though, isn’t about aliens or mummies or dinosaurs. The Thing feels like it is dislodged in time. It’s a sideshow attraction that feels like it should be from the early 20th century, but instead, it opened in 1965, and now it’s still going strong today. It might mostly just exist to be made fun of today, but there is something to admire about it in a kitschy way. I-10 would be worse without it.

Top Image: Bowlin Travel Centers/Wiki Commons

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