The Thing.
Winston Churchill and his space alien chauffeur.

The Thing

Field review by the editors.

Dragoon, Arizona

Thomas Binkley Prince brought The Thing from California to Arizona in 1965, setting up shop on a patch of sagebrush off an I-10 exit ramp about an hour east of Tucson. He charged 25 cents a peek. Within a couple of years, he'd built an outdoor shed museum around The Thing, raised his price to 50 cents, and displayed relics such as a piece of a woolly mammoth's front leg, a 1937 Rolls-Royce transporting a dummy Hitler, and, in the last shed, The Thing itself.

The Thing.
Alien scouting party casts an otherworldly glow on prehistoric earth.

Prince died in 1969, and Bowlin Travel Centers eventually assumed stewardship of The Thing. It was mostly left alone, freed from the forces of change by The Thing's lack of competitors and the full-throttle emptiness of southeastern Arizona. Generations of tourists stopped and paid a buck to see The Thing, lured by Bowlin's barrage of I-10 billboards crying, "The Thing: Mystery of the Desert!," and, "The Thing: What is it?"

That sleepy stasis ended on Labor Day weekend, 2018, when a remodeled and revamped Thing was officially unveiled to an unsuspecting world.

The new Thing was the vision of Bowlin managers Kit Johnson and Myles Erwin. Both men recalled a three-hour drive from Las Cruces to Albuquerque in 2017 when the idea came together. "I told Myles, 'We gotta do something with dinosaurs,'" said Kit, who had wanted to update The Thing for years. He was also intrigued by the idea of aliens. Myles responded, "Why don't we do dinosaurs and aliens?"

The Thing.
The Thing's home has become more elaborate, but The Thing is still the original.

The result is an elaborate backstory for The Thing that is part science fiction, part paranoia, and part pandering to the public's unquenchable thirst for aliens and dinosaurs. It was built at a cost of several million dollars, an amount that would have staggered Thomas Binkley Prince.

The attraction, now completely enclosed in a temperature-friendly building, takes tourists from the Cretaceous Period to the present day, threading through a series of exhibits that follow two factions of space aliens as they battle for control of Earth. "What if the dinosaurs were enslaved? What if aliens controlled our minds? What if human history is a lie?" asked Kit, reading the open-ended questions that appear on large banners throughout the attraction. A Conspiracy Wall -- linking the aliens to everything from Stonehenge to JFK's assassination -- evokes memories (at least in us) of the long-gone Conspiracy Museum in Dallas. Kit and Myles said that the Wall was designed with extra space to to add even more conspiracies.

The Thing.
Egyptian hieroglyphics reveal meeting between alien and pharaoh.

And all of it -- dinosaurs, aliens, Stonehenge -- leads to The Thing.

Care was taken to preserve and reuse many of Thomas Binkley Prince's original relics. "One of my first tasks was to take a picture and document everything that was in the old museum," said Myles. "We wanted to incorporate as much of the original attraction as possible." Dummy Hitler didn't make the cut, for example, but the Rolls-Royce did. "We thought about bringing Hitler back," said Myles, "but then we said, 'It's a Rolls-Royce, why not make it Winston Churchill? That works even better.'" The piece of Mammoth leg, too, found a place in the new attraction, although Myles now believes that it isn't a leg, or even a fossil, and may in fact just be an imaginatively labeled piece of driftwood.

The Thing.
Dinosaurs, conspiracies, an asteroid crash -- all lead to The Thing, which remains as mysterious as ever.

All options, said Kit and Myles, were considered during brainstorming sessions between themselves and other members of the Bowlin staff, including -- briefly -- replacing The Thing with an entirely new Thing. That idea didn't get very far. "We were pretty adamant about keeping The Thing," said Kit. "People all over the world know about it, more people than I can even imagine. We didn't want to destroy that link."

Although it's easy to be frustrated when a classic attraction vanishes into Roadside Valhalla, it's also a relief that The Thing -- which, honestly, was getting crumbly -- underwent a metamorphosis rather than a crushing oblivion at the bad end of a backhoe. It's not a buck any more, but five bucks ain't bad. And Kit and Myles repeatedly stressed that they'd wanted to respect The Thing, and that they'd made sure that it remained the focus of the attraction and the last thing that people would see before they walked out the door.

"I think we captured it," said Myles of The Thing's new surroundings. "Man, it looks really, really good," said Kit. "We feel like we've done right by The Thing."

Also see: The Thing: 1965-2018

The Thing

Address:
2631 N. Johnson Rd, Dragoon, AZ
Directions:
I-10 exit 322, south side.
Hours:
Daily 7am - 6:30pm (Call to verify)
Phone:
520-586-2581
Admission:
Adults $5. Entire family $10.
RA Rates:
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