We've been down this road before: the full-throttle emptiness of I-10 between Deming, New Mexico, and Mountain View, Arizona. The best way to keep awake is to keep track of the billboards -- 247 over a range of about 200 miles -- exhorting you in bold shades of red, yellow, and blue to see, "The Mystery of the Desert."
"The Thing," they announce. "What is It?"
It's been over 20 years since we last visited The Thing. The dry climate and extreme lack of neighbors have left this attraction almost unchanged in all of that time (the admission price has risen from 75 cents to a dollar). Manager Jerry Bone, who supplied the billboard tally (augmented by an animated electronic sign looming near the exit ramp), told us that The Thing has been a tourist attraction since 1950 and in this same spot since 1965. "A lot of places come and go in over 50 years," he said, "but we've been steady as she goes."
Those who choose to unravel the Mystery of the Desert pay their dollar in the gift shop, get buzzed through a solid steel door, and find themselves in an open courtyard leading to the first of three long, open-ended steel sheds. Yellow Bigfoot-style footprints are painted on the concrete walkway to direct you forward. We urge visitors to savor the unusual -- and evidently permanent -- displays in these first buildings, and not to rush to Shed 3 just to see The Thing.
Several of the exhibits in the first building are labeled with bad "The Thing" puns ("Early model tractor was really The Thing for replacing four-legged horsepower").
Highlights in Shed 1 include a 1937 Rolls Royce claimed to have been used by Hitler and a large steel cage filled with wood carvings of people being tortured, "the only one of its kind in the world." A hooded man with a hook for a hand and a branding iron in the other menaces a screaming blonde woman tied to a post; another screaming woman, strapped to a crossbar, has her bare back flailed bloody by a guy with greenish skin and a drooping moustache. The tableau is credited to "Ralph Gallagher, artist." Hostel and Saw thank you, Mr. Gallagher.
The second building is filled with plywood cubicles holding allegedly valuable exhibits, each behind glass and cushioned on a faded square of 1960s-era polyester carpet. We remember these boxes as dusty and filled with desiccated bugs 20 years ago, and the decades have added intriguing layers to the debris.
In one cube, a pot labeled "cream separator" sits next to a model of a cannon and an old Toledo grocery scale. Another, "Ancient churn, made in Kentucky 1700s," redefines the word "ancient." A third, "Piece of Mammoth's front leg," displays nothing of the sort, and instead exhibits a small sculpture of a bull humping a cow, a papier mache sculpture of a young couple in love, and some carefully arranged, unidentified brown lumps.
Atop the cabinets are more examples of Ralph Gallagher art (A sign explains: "Wood carving completely carved from solid wood"). Dozens of weathered tree roots have been transformed into freakish creatures by Ralph, who used what appears to be poster paint to add an eyeball here, a horn there, and a spiky-toothed mouth over there. It's the same technique that was employed to create the Rhinelapus in Wisconsin, and knobby folk art creatures we've seen in other regions, though not in this sloppy quantity.
The yellow footprints end at the third building, where The Thing rests just inside the doorway. It is actually two Things -- and what appears to be a Chinese conical hat as well -- inside a box of white cinder block, topped by a glass lid. A sign fastened to the wall behind it asks, one last time, "The Thing. What Is It?"
We asked Jerry Bone to explain the meaning of this enigmatic question. "For a dollar," he answered, "you tell ME what is it. For five dollars, I'll tell you."
Back in the gift shop, we noted with satisfaction that the merchandise assortment has expanded since our last visit; there are now Thing caps, shot glasses, t-shirts, beer mugs, and bumper stickers. One refrigerated display case next to the front door holds nothing but plastic bottles of Thing-branded water, although we were disappointed to learn the water had not flowed over or through The Thing.
We asked Bob Hope, who owns The Thing, how he felt about his timeless attraction. He told us that he was planning "lots of improvements" in the next few years -- Bob, no! The Thing is only getting better with age. Please leave it be.