TEXAS CANYON — When it comes to The Thing, there are more questions than answers.
This “thing” has been a roadside attraction off Interstate 10 between Benson and Willcox for decades.
Anyone who’s driven the interstate between Phoenix and El Paso has been subject to its marketing strategy, a series of bright yellow billboards inviting travelers to stop, fill up, grab a cone at the Dairy Queen and observe a “mystery of the desert.”
Up until 2018 The Thing experience was spectacularly peculiar, mysterious, dark and definitely quirky.
The darkness had to do with the poor lighting more than the vibe, in what can be described as an arrangement of random displays ending in the reveal of the object, The Thing.
Five years ago, the roadside attraction underwent a $3 million renovation, giving The Thing a new century look.
Gone are the hand-painted footsteps leading you through a dark shed, replaced by a slick production of intergalactic conflicts, conspiracy theories and alternative world histories.
Bits and pieces of the old displays can still be spotted but are now engulfed in a modern multicolor and sound production.
Why the change?
Bowlin Travel Centers, which owned The Thing, got the chance to purchase the property in 2008, creating an opportunity to make an investment in the attraction complex.
Working began on a renovation plan launching the expansion of the gift shop and museum in 2015.
“We always get good comments on it.” said Kit Johnson, director of operations at Bowlin Travel Centers. “It’s been a nice addition and having it climate controlled and going the whole nine yards has been a good investment.”
The museum starts off with a modern proposal that all human history has been altered by extraterrestrial visitors in an Aliens vs. Dinosaurs display of massive sculpted prehistoric creatures, battling reptilians and shooting space lasers.
There’s a rather scholarly display of alternative historical events with graphs and images, all giving you the sense you’re in a legit museum.
All the displays are interesting, professionally done and full of info, albeit not necessarily factual information.
The tour ends by entering what appears to be a tomb, an eerie, low-lit space, and at the center, The Thing.
Its origins, its composition, why it was collected and saved remain a mystery, but it’s created thousands of memories over the decades.
For locals the travel center has always been a great stop for a Dairy Queen treat, 24/7 gas pumps and a local source for year-round fireworks.
Some remember a 25-cent attraction, an instigator of child nightmares, and some have their own theories as to what it could be.
The Thing is more popular than ever according to Johnson, recording more than 300,000 visitors to the center each year and a third stopping at the museum.
Bowlin announced an event to honor Cochise County first responders and their families.
The event will take place on Saturday, April 29, 2023, during regular business hours. By showing their ID first responders in Cochise County will receive a free Dairy Queen single stack burger combo, a 25% Dairy Queen discount for their family members, a 10% discount in the store and free entry into the museum for their families.
There is a special surprise planned for their children 12 and younger.
“The first responders in Cochise County and throughout Arizona are absolutely remarkable,” Johnson said. “They are all incredible public servants doing a fabulous job taking care of all of us in the area. This planned event gives us a special and deliberate opportunity to say thank you.”
One month ago, an accident along I-10 created a brush fire near the travel center, a reminder of the constant threat fires pose and a reminder of those first responders that put out the flames and kept travelers safe.
Bowlin’s The Thing Travel Center is open 7 a.m to 7 p.m. and is located off I-10, exit 322.