Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, January 30, 2009
      ( 1/30/2009 04:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"AS SEEN ON WHO ASKED FOR IT!" The up side of being a sucker: ever since I was a kid, I've been hooked on creepy tourist traps. I remember several summer road trips with the fam and the times both my sister and I spent pleading with my father whenever we saw a particularly evocative billboard. ("Dad! The Mystery Spot!!!") Those say-nothing/evoke-plenty road signs lured us into plenty a junky exhibition back then. And they still can lure me today.

Here in Southeastern Arizona, a few miles east of Texas Canyon and outside of Dragoon, lies a trap that it took me a year to enter. On I-10 is "The Thing?," a sterling display for those who don't mind having a dollar bill flagrantly lifted from their pocket. You'll see billboards for this "Mystery of the Desert" all along the AZ. interstate: big yellow background, oozy blue lettering. It'd look pretty scary if it weren't for the Dairy Queen brazier logo on the billboard.

I was in the area Tuesday, so I decided to check The Thing? out over lunch. The place is situated on a hill off the interstate, and, none-too-surprisingly, the outer store was crammed with Southwestern souvenir "collectibles." The exhibit itself is blocked off with an ominous looking black metal door imbedded into faux rocks: when I paid my dollar entry fee, I was told by the middle-aged cashier in a cowboy hat to "follow the yellow footprints."

Once I stepped through the entrance, I immediately saw what he meant. The concrete sidewalk ahead of me had huge yellow paw prints painted on 'em. Instead of the darkened room I was expecting, though, I was outside. ("This Way to the Egress!" I couldn't help thinking.) The prints -- was I being taken to see the Arizona version of Bigfoot? -- led to an open shed, however, so I quickly followed 'em.

The building contained a display of antique cars (including "Hitler's Rolls Royce"), tractors and buggies, plus a cage with a set of primitively painted life-sized wooden sculptures depicting three hooded torturers and their victims. The connection between the Inquisition and automotive history is tenuous, though the second reminds us what we're really here to see by repeating "the thing" in its description of the displays. When we're shown Hitler's alleged Rolls, for instance, the sign above it notes, "The Thing is it can't be proven."

Behind me, a group of college kids entered and immediately began making fun of the exhibition. If this were a Rob Zombie flick, one of the wooden figures would've turned and leapt out of the cage, brandishing his red-hot poker in front of the misbegotten collegians. Instead, we all moved on into another building filled with smaller wooden dolls done by the same artist (Ralph Gallagher), bowls and rusted rifles. This was followed by a third stroll outside to what is obviously the employees' living area: several RVs, two barking dogs –- as if we were in the backyard of a traveling carnival.

We followed the painted prints into the next shed and finally came upon The Thing? It turned out to be a display case holding what appear to be two mummified figures (to say more would give too much away). "It's paper mache!" one of the college students scoffed, though it looked believable enough for me. I can still imagine the original proprietors coming upon The Thing? in the middle of the desert, setting it into the rumble seat of their new roadster, then putting it on display for the edification of the public.

The rest of the exhibit proved to be primarily devoted to a surrey and buggy display, though the upper half of a statue that we're told is from 1759 Italy futilely attempts to resurrect the torture theme. Showing just the figure's head and shoulders, it purports to depict a torture victims in the throes of torment. But from the look on his face, I couldn't tell whether he's being tortured or fellated.

From there, it was once more into the gift shop where you can purchase tee-shirts and shot glasses with "The Thing?" logo on 'em. I headed over to DQ for lunch and pondered the mysteries of The Thing? over my burger and vanilla malt. Was it real or fabricated? Who cares? I'm still grateful for the opportunity to view this roadside wonder -- even though I suspect the desert has deeper, darker mysteries than the one displayed outside Dragoon, Arizona.

UPDATE: If you must have the mystery of The Thing? spoiled for you on the Internet, Wikipedia has an entry which contains a picture. It also includes a link to Homer Tate, an artist responsible for a variety of sculpted roadside and sideshow gaffs, who may have been the creator of The Thing?


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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