Route 66, A Town Called Nothing, & the Mysterious THING?!!!

We spent the night in Kingman, Arizona (contracting a thankfully brief bout of food poisoning at the local Crack Barrel), then continued along Historic Route 66 the next morning.

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When people think Road Trip, the first highway that comes to mind is invariably Route 66, and for good reason. Since it was established as a semi-continental route from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1926, Route 66 quickly became one of the most important highways in America, serving everyone from migrant families escaping the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s to hippies heading west in 1960’s. Sadly, America’s Interestate makeover was not kind to Route-66, and by the time it was decommissioned in 1985, much of it had vanished or been paved over.

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The problem I’ve always had with driving Route 66 is that it’s not an easy journey to retrace. In many sections, the Interstate was built right on top of 66, and you end up driving entire stretches without seeing a thing. In other instances, while the roads remain, you have to take significant detours just to cover them all. Still others are completely abandoned, and inaccessible to cars.

Then there are the glorious stretches that have remained untouched in towns like Kingman. It’s definitely a thrill to come across, say, the hotel below dating back to 1903 and think of just how many millions of cross-country travelers have passed by its arcaded doors over the past century for every reason imaginable – fame in Hollywood, a better life in the west, a family vacation to Chicago (and New York beyond), and so on.

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While I’m glad what remains of Route 66 is now being preserved by concerned historical groups, this has caused it to become a bit of an over-the-top tourist attraction. Nearly every building you pass has some sort of sign on it reminding you you’re on the crazy, (in)famous, historical, wild Route 66, which in the end takes away a lot of its charm. Then again, maybe it was always this way.

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Still, I’m definitely glad we got to drive along a portion of it, and I’m pretty sure Route 66 will be included in the next big road trip, whenever that happens (sponsors, anyone??).

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Quick recommendation: the Donut Depot Deli…

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…whose freshly made donuts were a glorious sight to behold:

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We continued driving along Old Route 66, passing some neat motels…

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The Hill Top:

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Incredibly, reader Julia of JuliasMexicoCity.com and SafetyGraphicFun.com wrote to say she took this exact picture a year ago, and it was in really bad shape. I’m amazed to see the excellent and really unexpected restoration:

The Route 66 Motel:

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And my favorite Chinese Restaurant sign of the trip: The ABC Restaurant:

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That’s a skewer, right?

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I also love when Chinese restaurants (or really any establishment, for that matter) advertise having a cocktail lounge, which seems to have been common at least through the 70’s:

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From here, we headed south toward Phoenix and Tucson…

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…and the desert landscape quickly began to change, as cactuses of all shapes and size rose into view:

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Closer view:

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We briefly passed through the former settlement of Nothing, Arizona (population: 4), whose town sign once read: “The staunch citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Believe in the work ethic. Through the years, these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.” Though abandoned by May ’05, Nothing now has a working pizza parlor, with hopes for future establishments.

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Fifty miles down the road, we ran through the town of Wickenburg, a bit larger at a population of 6,593. Once known as the Dude Ranch Capital of the World, you can definitely feel a bit of the old cowboy days as you walk the streets…

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The town has put up a bunch of amusing historical statues, like this miner:

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Downtown, enormous saguaro cacti line the old train station on the right:

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A woman waits for a train that will never come:

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I like to imagine this was an old hotel, but I really have no idea:

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One of several modern saloons in town:

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First cactus marqueed movie theater we’ve seen! The Saguaro Theater was first opened in 1948 and seats 600…and it’s only $5! For those outside of NYC, a ticket in the city costs about $13.50 these days with Fandango charges.

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Then we hit the sprawl that is Phoenix, Arizona.

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Our guide book warned us that Phoenix was essentially endless sprawl, but we had no idea how endless it was until we started getting close…and then it felt like we were never going to make it. Also, the entire route was going through construction, and at times, we were barely inching along. Meanwhile, the view out the window was this:

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There were a scant few sights of interest along the way, like this out-of-business motel:

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The neat old Crystal Motel sign – Refrigerated!

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This may be the creepiest sign we’ve seen on the trip:

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As for Phoenix? Honestly, I didn’t take another picture between the weird clown sign and Tucson, if that says anything. I’m sure there’s something to see, but stopping at the infinite number of strip mall intersection traffic lights ate up every last second of exploring time, so much so that when we finally arrived at the Biosphere just outside of Tucson…

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…it was closed for the day (unless you had a passcode – where’s Pauly Shore when you need him?).

We made a slight detour (turned out to be a bit more of a detour than I’d expected, actually) before hitting Tucson to see famed roadside attraction “The Thing?”.

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Driving along I-10, you cannot escape the advertisements for “The Thing?”. In fact, at times, you can see several at once:

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To me, the most curious thing about The Thing? is that question mark. Why a question mark? Why not “The Thing!”, or maybe just “The Thing.” We invented a “The Thing?” driving game, where, every time you see a new billboard, you have to say “The Thing?” with a different intonation.

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The billboards were quick to tell us we were getting closer…

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Finally, we arrived! In addition to The Thing? attraction…

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…there’s also a Dairy Queen…

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…and a gas station…

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…and an enormous gift shop:

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It doesn’t take much to realize “The Thing?” was created as a way to get people to stop for gas, burgers, ice cream, and kitschy gifts…but is this really a bad thing? Frankly, I wish more gas stations would be imaginative in trying to get me to pull over. And at only $1, The Thing? was the cheapest attraction we’d visited on the trip:

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After heading through the door, you find yourself on a path to an aluminum barn of sorts…

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…which houses a bunch of unexpected vehicles…

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…like this 1937 Rolls Royce, “believed to have once been used by Adolph Hitler”:

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There’s old Hitler peering out the back. The sign adds that this historical fact “can’t be proven,” giving you a sense of the historical authenticity of The Thing?’s attractions.

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A rifle, this sign, and no other explanation:

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Totally random, a display with engravings from Italy in 1841:

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After a few more exhibits, we finally came to “The Thing?” itself! Oddly, there’s not a single sign identifying it, which is strange when you consider the tremendous amount of billboards on the highway. We cautiously peered through the glass…

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What did “The Thing?” look like? Sorry kids, but some things are better left a mystery – at least, until you cough up a dollar.

We drove back to Tucson and had an awesome Mexican dinner at the Guadalajara Grill, where they make fresh salsa in front of you at your table. Highly recommended!

-SCOUT

Guadalajara Grill

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20 comments

  1. Here is some more explanation on The Thing!
    http://www.doney.net/aroundaz/thing.htm

  2. Nice, thanks. I’m from Germany. A dollar would not be sufficient for me to get there to see it ;)

    @nyscout: keep up the good work. I’m so excited evrytime I see an update on your website. And as much as I enjoy your report on your roadtrip, I’m really looking forward to see you back and reporting in NYC! Big greetings from Frankfurt,Germany!

  3. Unfortunately, Phoenix is a collection of suburbs looking for a center, as as you noticed, its also the land of unending construction, usually on the weekends. And you can drive from any spot on one side and get to a spot on the other side and you can’t tell the difference, its all the same strip malls, same chain restaurants, same eh. Tho there are some really interesting places: The Orpheum, for one, and some of the historic neighborhoods around Encanto Park. It is depressing, which is why I travel so much!

    Its been years since I’ve stopped in Kingman and Wickenberg – it was fun to see those shots again. And yeah, the Thing was always a crack up when we would drive down to UofA in Tucson – we’d imagine all sorts of things there but actually never went!

  4. A 3D movie is actually #17.50 + Fandango Charges at the Regal E-Walk Stadium. I am enjoying your vacation so much, I might take that drive one day to save $15 on a movie.

  5. First of all, LOVING your road trip posts! I’m pea green with envy and will save your posts for future trips east. (I’m in Los Angeles.)

    2nd — We were in Kingman last year and took pictures of the same sign at the Hill Top Motel. Clearly in the last year they found some money to rehab the sign. Look how different it was:
    http://juliasmexicocity.typepad.com/julias_mexico_city/2009/04/road-trip-photo-of-the-day-419.html

    Can’t wait to read more — safe travels!

  6. Oh and since we couldn’t read the sign so well, the best we came up with was “Best Stew in Kingman.” “View” didn’t occur to us because a) we didn’t pay attention to the name of the Motel (“Hill Top”), b) It isn’t much of a hill, and c) there isn’t much of a view!

  7. First off, I giggled when I saw Julia’s comments above, she’s a great blogger from the LA area that I follow :D Small world.

    Second, I wanted to share that your roadtrip blog has been awesome and I think you’d enjoy the folks over at Vintage Roadside (http://vintageroadside.com/) They research some of those long lost roadside attractions and make cool reproduction T-shirts with portions of the proceeds going to The National Trust for Historic Preservation. They roadtrip alot and blog about it too!

  8. I can’t believe I’m 24 years old, I’ve lived in El Paso my whole life, and I’ve NEVER seen The Thing! You start seeing signs for it about 15 minutes going North outside of town, and every road trip I’ve ever taken has been peppered with my desperate pleas to stop and see it. I love the pictures of the gift shop, though – shit like that is all over the Southwest.
    Next time I have to drive to Tuscon (hopefully soon, as I’m applying to grad school there), I will make it a point to fulfill my childhood dream and finally find out what The Thing is.

  9. 1) I want a donut right now. They look so fresh and tasty.

    2) Great sign pics!

    3) You can get a $6 movie ticket any day before noon at both of the theaters near Lincoln Center.

    4) You’re a Thing-tease…

  10. The Thing must be related to Wall Drug in South Dakota and South of the Border in South Carolina. Signs for miles and then tourist nirvana. As my favorite bunny put it “what a maroon.” Ya gotta be to stop in these places.

  11. I’ve been following your trip, but this is the first time I’ve commented. My parents live in St. Louis so it was fun to send them the link to your blog when you drove threw there. They lived in Tucson in the late ’90s so I’ll be sending them the link to this entry too.

    I will have to tell you that NYC isn’t the sole owner of the expensive movie ticket. Even here in Florida we have similar crazy prices at our local theaters. And we only live in a college town.

    I’m really, really digging your road trip. I grew up on the roads of the East Coast between the south and Pennsylvania. I’m all too familiar with South of the Boarder and “See Rock City” and the Blue Ridge Parkway; but I’ve never driven west of St. Louis. This has been quite a fun adventure for me.

  12. You are a good example of why Americans hate assholes from “NYC”. Just stay home.

  13. i lived in tucson for 20 years (moved away in 2005), and i don’t think i ever stopped at the thing! of course, most of the driving trips i went on were with my parents, so it was totally their decision – what party poopers!

  14. @jak: if Americans hate us assholes from NYC, why is my city always so full of people from out-of-town?

  15. jak = Caretaker of Biosphere and the 4 corners monument.

  16. Have you been to Houston? There’s some sprawl there, boy-howdy.

    Seriously, great post, though. Was looking forward to Route 66.

  17. I was just watching old X Files episodes (procrastinating!) and I am pretty sure that creepy resto sign was used in one of the episodes that featured a fast food joint!

  18. Hi first of all loved this, second sorry bout the food poisioning I live in Kingman and am surprised you didnt include Train Park in your pictures its right across from Mr. D’s. Also the Brunswick hotel you showed is haunted and has an excelent resturant. We have an annual festival called Andy Devine days on 66 that you should come back for. Donut Depo is really good lol thanks for stopping in see ya round.

  19. Actually that skewer in the ABC Chinese Restaurant sign in Kingman, AZ was a sword on the original sign in the 60’s when I was a kid growing up there. It was called the King’s Arms Restaurant until about 1990ish. :-)

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