The Thing

Gaye Brown

We were barreling east on Interstate 10 from Tucson, headed to Fort Worth, with me at the wheel and my son riding shotgun, his cell phone at the ready, to navigate traffic snarls and espresso wastelands. That’s how we always traveled, be it to family gatherings, graduate school, or—this trip—his new job.

Arizona was in a drought that May. In fact, Lee was monitoring wind speeds because a roadside farm had recently been plowed for conversion to an almond orchard, causing dust blackouts and highway shutdowns. “If we don’t pass it in time,” he warned, “we’re looking at a two- to three-hour detour.”

I was unfazed. I loved road trips: exploring new territory with my son, as I’d once done with my late husband, Chris. The day before, Lee had shown me Mount Lemmon in the Coronado National Forest. The view was as uplifting as the previous one was dismal, for as we’d breakfasted at a bagel shop, he pointed out the window to a grocery store and, like a guide at Ford’s Theatre, said, “That’s where Gabby Giffords was shot.”

A detour? That meant we’d see something unexpected. In my tour book, all sites were meaningful. Even if they’d never rate “worth a trip.”

Take Amsterdam’s raunchy Sex Museum, which I mistook for the more well-reviewed Museum of Prostitution. Call it a Freudian slip. The children were adults; we toured it anyway. From the photographs of historical erotica and Mata Hari’s haunting execution to the Art Nouveau toilet and animatronic flasher, the exhibits proved as, well, memorable as those of the Rijksmuseum.

Or, take Joplin. On a trek from Maine to Oklahoma, where Lee was starting graduate school in meteorology, we took a turnoff in southwest Missouri where an EF-5 tornado had struck on 22 May 2011, leaving 160 dead, 1,000 injured, and nearly $3 billion in damages—the costliest and seventh deadliest in U.S. history.

The detour was brief, the sights stark, the lessons indelible. At 200 miles-per-hour, the tornado had all but clear-cut its alley, like a bowler with a “ten bagger.” Three years on, the former hospital was still a concrete hulk. Beyond the casualties, untold lives were damaged by psychological and financial trauma. In 38 minutes of extreme weather.

As Lee was wrapping up grad school two years later, with a job waiting in Tucson, my daughter, Julia, and I flew to Arizona to find him an apartment. When we landed, I saw the light, the inimitable Southwest light. The painter Maxfield Parrish hadn’t committed Art Nouveau artifice: the mauve mountains were real! (As was the heat: plastic cups left in the rental car melted down to saucers.)

Now, Lee was moving again—to Texas, once considered the entrance to “tornado alley,” until tornadic activity spread throughout the South and beyond.

Halfway through Arizona, on a stretch of desert grassland, a tourist trap stood on a rise, sporting an enormous sign: The Thing?I swerved off the highway. “We have to stop.”

Lee checked the National Weather Service app. “The police could put up barriers any time.”

“We’ll be quick.”

Without a word of protest, he followed me into the gift shop.

*

Lee wasn’t always as compliant. In fact, he used to be his own dust storm.

One morning, I stepped out onto the patio, and he locked the glass door behind me. When I insisted that he let me in, he laughed; when I ran to the side door, he beat me there, ensuring it was locked, too. He was four years old.

Chris and I had adopted Lee, and later Julia, from South Korea. Although I felt compassion for his birthmother, not to mention gratitude—for her heartbreaking gift—Lee didn’t. He felt betrayed. So he constantly tested her proxy to see if I’d also renege on maternal obligations. Our home was a virtual proving ground until the day I called him out on the trials.

“You can make our lives as miserable as you want, but I’m not leaving. I’m your mother, and I’m always going to be here!” It was like avowing love as a threat.

By then, Lee was old enough to hear me and believe me. He not only stopped shutting me out, he let me in.

When I drove him home from his freshman year in college, though, we hadn’t yet settled into our road roles. He put me off when I asked for help navigating Harrisburg’s rat’s nest of highways—too busy watching Family Guy on his computer. The missed exit cost us an hour-plus, which he regretted as much as I did.

En route to his sophomore year at Cornell, much had changed. As I drove the Capital Beltway at morning rush hour, with Julia dozing under headphones in the back seat, Lee asked, out of nowhere, about his dad’s death. “So, what happened, Mom?”

He’d been young—too young to fully remember, let alone understand. I told him what I knew. Even I had yet to grasp how a kidney transplant that went so well suddenly went so wrong.

Before my husband and I became parents, we loved traveling the world. When Chris died, Lee was fourteen, Julia was twelve. Then, I hardly dared drive a few miles from home lest an accident leave them orphaned. Staying alive felt onerous.

Traveling with the kids didn’t. Three years later, when Julia expressed interest in seeing Korea, I didn’t hesitate to book a Homeland Tour. Well, I hesitated—long enough to ask Lee. “If my birth father hadn’t given me away,” he’d lamented, “I never would have lost Dad.” Yet he quickly signed on, too.

At Dulles International Airport, we boarded a Korean Air flight with a dozen other adoptees and their families for the trip of a lifetime. From Seoul to Busan, traveling highways and railways, we visited cultural sites, the DMZ, shopping districts, a small-town high school, and a home for unwed mothers. At the latter, several young women spoke about their hopes for their children; one cried throughout the presentation. When we were invited to ask questions, Lee stood up.

“For a long time, I’ve been angry with my birth mother,” he confessed. “But now, after meeting all of you, I hope I can someday find her.”

His world was no longer flat. He’d discovered a new land: his birth land.

*

After a quick round of the souvenir shop, its shelves laden with Southwest kitsch—Native-American style jewelry made in China, T-shirts and mugs with Arizona logos—we paid a dollar and exited through the back door to see the ballyhooed Thing.

The museum comprised three dilapidated sheds housing exhibits, some strange, some ghoulish, all laden with grime. Think tableau vivant, with actors decidedly not. The sign on one iron-barred cell proclaimed: “This Very Special Exhibit depicting ancient methods of torture is the only one of its kind in the world. Each piece is carved from solid wood and represents an investment of many thousand dollars. Ralph Gallagher (artist).”

One of Ralph’s creations was being put to the rack, hairy underarms and all; another, in a red gown with a thigh-exposing slit, stood shackled, awaiting the flogging underway on another female victim. Meanwhile, in a nearby cell, a dummy Hitler and colleagues were riding in his purported Rolls-Royce, which looked like a clown car.

The main draw was near the exit. Here Lies . . . The Thing? Mystery of the Desert! We peered inside a cinderblock sarcophagus topped with plexiglass at what looked like a papier-mâché mummy, a rice hat resting on its abdomen.

“How’d ya like it?” asked the cashier when we re-emerged. His wife stood beside him, grinning with delight.

“It was something.” I laughed, and they nodded complicitly.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, Lee checked his phone. “Ah! They just shut down the road.”

“Uh-oh.” I braced for a heat burst, but he kept cool. A mile later, we joined a slow-motion parade of cars and 18-wheelers snaking through 25-mile-per-hour towns—to skirt ten dusty minutes of highway. Not once did Lee question my decision to stop or audibly sigh. For hours, we inched along, yet it didn’t matter: He had arrived.

No mother intends to favor one child over another, yet children keep score. Julia, now a librarian, asked at a recent family gathering whom I loved more—as if posing a classic family joke, for she’d asked the question before. I decided to take the bait.

“I love you more when it comes to books. I mean, Lee was stumped by “the light” at the end of Gatsby, yet you never miss a thematic beat.” Even Lee laughed. “But I love him more on road trips because he helps navigate and is interested in seeing new things. He doesn’t curl up in the backseat under headphones.” On that point, Julia conceded.

As much as I’ve cherished my travels with Lee, I hope they end. For time keeps barreling on, too. One day I’ll take my ultimate trip, solo. My son deserves a younger, yet equally devoted, driver to share his curiosity while they navigate roadblocks and roadside attractions to come.

The sooner, the better. Take The Thing. The site has since been modernized into a climate-controlled, alien-dinosaur-conspiracy museum. What’s not to like? Actually, to my mind, the upgrade is a downgrade of its status as Americana. Hell, fake Führer even surrendered his Rolls—now washed and waxed—to Winston Churchill. Seriously.

Thankfully, Lee and I took the time, at the time. Lee and I shared the real thing.


About the Author

Gaye Brown’s work has appeared in the Washington Review, Georgetown Review, Months to Years, and Adoptive Families magazine, among other periodicals. She received a gold award in the category Travel and Healing, with publication in The Best Travel Writing 2010 (Solas House); in 2020 and 2016, her essays “Deck Chairs on the ICU” and “The Twilight War” were finalists for a Maine Literary Award in short non-fiction. Formerly, Gaye directed the publishing programs of the Smithsonian’s American Indian and American Art museums and later was a writer-researcher for Time-Life Books.