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A Vacation in Quartzsite, Hidden America

The American dream is quietly alive in a small desert town. No, not Burma Shave, but Quartzsite.

Past the Coachella Valley, where the desert floor pushes the mountains out of sight, my grandfather levitates above a steamy I-10, alternately stiff-arming the grill and checking the coolant level of my eastbound station wagon. 

“You’re out of your mind!” he says, a plaid shirt and work pants hanging from his lanky frame.  “Either that or you’re a masochist.”

I tell him I need to think, and that everywhere else is full.

“But you hated it in the winter, and there’s nothing to do there in the summer,” he replies.  “No people, no junk.  And it’s 100 degrees every day!”

“If you can tell me why you went,” I say, “then I can tell you why I’m going.”

Our circular dialogue continues until I reach Blythe, where the fishtailing, kitsch-stickered trailers of Havasu enthusiasts demand that I focus on the road. 

I cross the Arizona state line twenty minutes later, and the only things I recognize are the jagged, barren mountains that enclose Quartzsite in a dark ring.  The skeleton of off-ramps and overpasses and collector roads has grown, but the flesh has shrunk. And besides the gas stations and fast-food restaurants that hug the intersection with Highway 95, nothing moves.  Boarded up businesses and empty RV parks line Main Street with “closed for summer” signs and rows of utility hookups.

I find JR’s RV Park a few miles north on 95, and I exit the car stiff, sweaty, and blinded by the sun-baked roads and aluminum siding.  The park is half-full of motor homes and trailers, but I don’t see any people.  The thermometer outside the office points to 115, and a white-haired woman comes out looking confused.

I tell her that I am writing an article about Quartzsite in the summer, and ask if she knew my grandfather.

“I’ve only been here a few years,” she says, “And this is my first summer.”

“Can I stay here?” I ask.

“Sure, but you’ll be the only one besides me and my husband.” She points to a sign next to the thermometer.  “Twenty-four dollars a night, Two hundred twenty a month.”

We talk about her background and the recession, and then I walk the park, admiring leftover gardens of succulents and rocks.  I circle the community center where I used to take showers and play ping-pong, and then I drag pebbles with my feet until I stumble upon my grandfather’s double-wide.

My grandmother died in 1980, and my recently retired grandfather moved to a small town in the Northwest where my family lived.  He stayed with us a few months before buying a house near the high school.  In his spare time, he repaired pocket watches and classic cars and dead technologies, but he was soon restless, and on a trip through Arizona found Quartzsite.

By the mid-1980s, we had moved to California, and my grandfather was splitting time between Seattle and Quartzsite with his second wife.  They would leave just before Christmas and stay until mid-March, first in a motor home and later a trailer, and I would visit them in the peak season of late January. 

My grandfather was a typical Quartzsite resident: white, working-class, 60s or older, and a “snowbird” fleeing from the elements of the Northwest, Midwest, and Canada.  In the 1980s, Quartzsite had a population of 2,000 during the summer and fall, but by late January, half a million people called it a temporary home, ostensibly to see the flea markets.  The RV parks inflated to over capacity, and the RVers dropped anchor anywhere they could, dry camping on raw BLM land or open space.

My grandfather and his wife would rise at dawn to read the paper and drink coffee, then cooked eggs and bacon with toast and margarine.  In the afternoon, they shopped.  My grandfather for tools and vintage electronics, his wife for gemstones and beads.  He’d come home to an adjacent shed to tinker with his purchases or do home improvements, and his wife smoked in the living room.  Occasionally they drove to Blythe to get groceries or day-tripped northwest to the Colorado River, south to Yuma, or east to Phoenix.  At sunset, sitting on plastic chairs and artificial turf under an RV awning, they shared their purchases with neighbors over drinks.  When conversation lagged, they talked about the weather. 

On the way back to town, I find the Chamber of Commerce trailer closed, but on the corkboard outside, I read the map, suggested hikes, and an advisory titled “Desert Survival Rules.”  Number 1: stick to your plan.  Number 2: drink water.  Number 3: keep an eye on the sky.  And number 12: a roadway is a sign of civilization…if you find a road, stay on it. 

I park my car near the westerly freeway off-ramp and walk east along Main Street, stopping at the handful of businesses that are still open.  I start at T-Rocks, a large sand lot where chunks of tumbled stone line the fence, resting on oil barrels and wood tops cut in the shape of wagon wheels.  Under a tent at the back of the lot, the owner shows me pendants of amethyst, emeralds, and tourmaline, and I ask if she wants to buy some of my grandfather’s rocks.

“Maybe,” she says, “We buy all the time.”

“Who do you sell to in the summer?” I ask.

“People passing through,” she says, “travelers, energy workers on the way to Sedona, people who know we’re here.”

At Daniel’s Best Jerky, whose numerous billboards line the I-10, a seventy-ish clerk named Trish tells me she came here seven years ago for a man, trading in the humidity of Oklahoma for dry heat and bagging groceries until she landed at Daniel’s.

“There’s karaoke at the Yacht Club on Thursdays and Fridays,” she says, “And bingo at the senior center.  Sometimes you see four-wheelers on the weekends, and there’s a golf course in the desert a ways off.  Most of the time it’s hot like it is today, and you just stay indoors.”

The Beginning of Quartzsite

In the early twentieth century, the area around Quartzsite only boasted a few landholders.  Charles Tyson, the town’s most prominent early citizen, built the stage station for west-bound settlers in 1866, ran the post office in the late 1800s, and tried to attract the outside world’s attention.  Mining led to a mini-boom, but by the 1950s, only five families were left in town.

In the 1960s, small groups of retirees from the Northwest came to Quartzsite in pursuit of warm winters, clean air, and the untouched scenery of the Southwest desert.  The vendors followed, holding the first Quartzsite Pow Wow in 1967, where gemstones highlighted the event due to their local presence.  The sun-belt relocation and RV crazes of the ’70s and ’80s flooded Quartzsite with visitors, and eventually more than 4,000 vendors paid for space at gem shows and flea markets each year, selling everything from rare antiques to dollar-store items.

I peer through the windows of the Yacht Club, a restaurant with $10 chicken dinners and pictures of sailboats and lizards juxtaposed on its walls, and chat up the manager of the Yacht Club Motel.  Carol Cannon is a single mother in her twenties with four kids, and she moved here from Missouri six years ago to live with her mother.  She shows me one of the rooms, which are the only non-RV alternative to the Super 8: half of an old single-wide, dark and swamp-cooled with burgundy bedspreads and thin-paneled walls, for $53 a night. 

At the east end of town, I see a naked man walking in front of a bookshop.  Or almost naked, because only a straw hat, turquoise necklace, and turquoise-beaded genital pouch cover his lacquered body. The Reader’s Oasis is owned by Paul Winer, a nudist and former boogie-woogie musician.

“Came here twenty years ago with $30 in cash and a bunch of t-shirts to sell,” he says, “And now I got my own store.  Built it on a loan from the bank a few years back.”

The bookshop is one of the few wood and steel buildings in town, and it holds a large inventory of paperbacks, CDs, DVDs, and VHS tapes.  Next to a collection of rare books, a portable CD player shifts from the Zodiacs to the Five Satins, and they croon “shoo doop, shooby doo” into the stillness.

“It’s like family farming here,” Winer says, “because I’m not making big profits.  But after twenty years on the road, I found a place to settle and have a life that I could enjoy.”  Winer constantly walks around the store or moves in place, and through his long, scraggly hair, he says, “I’ll sell in five years, hopefully to another local, and go back to playing boogie-woogie on the road.”

I retrace my steps along Main Street, surveying buildings with names like “Bargain Barn” and “Addicted to Deals”, then stop under a plaid awning in the heart of “The Main Event”, Quartzsite’s primary outdoor market.  As a kid, I terrorized the vendors by screaming up and down the crowded dirt aisles and playing with their wares, then terrorized my grandfather by claiming incurable boredom and begging for the television.  Inside the maze of folding tables and tent poles, people bargained and bartered and told travel stories, and in its heyday, The Main Event had concerts, rodeos, and fireworks.  The grounds had the dusty, unkempt look of a grainy Western that I miss now, but at the time, I was more interested in a clean picture and science fiction narratives.

An Inconvenient Lifestyle

Statues of a bear and Native Americans served as markers for The Main Event, and I find them in front of the Trading Post, a store selling Indian jewelry and artifacts.  A bronzed clerk named Cherie Watson restocks $10 beaded necklaces next to a giant fan that blows hot air. 

She moves behind the counter and says, “I drove truck, and now I sell ice cream.  But it’s too hot to sell ice cream, so I work here in the summer.”

She has medical bills stemming from an ailing knee, but speaks crisply and looks fit for 68.  She wishes the town’s infrastructure would grow so they weren’t so winter-dependent.

“I love it, but it’s an inconvenient lifestyle,” she says.  “You have to drive for groceries, to do things, and there’s no sense of community.”

“What do you do in the summer after work?” I ask.

“I’m tired, so I go home and watch TV.  You have to get up early, because it’s already 90 degrees outside, and you only have an hour or two before the real heat pushes you inside.  In the winter, the only thing I have time to do is open the shop, work, and close it.  I have to work.”

“What happens to the people you meet in the winter?” I ask.  “It seemed like my grandfather had the same friends each year, but they didn’t see each other beyond that.”

“They don’t.  Maybe an email or two, but they show up in the same spot each year and pick up again.” She pauses, then smiles at me.  “Listen son, people come here in the winter because it’s easy.  You camp with no yard, no snow, no responsibilities.  The temperature is 70 degrees, and the air is clean.  It’s the same thing with socializing.”

A few customers walk in at the other side of the store, as does her boss, all of them sunburned and wearing tank tops. 

“Making us some money today Cherie?” her boss asks.

“Just a second,” she says, then looks back at me.  “People are either alive or dead when they get here, and it’s all in their mind.” 

She puts her hands on mine to stop me from writing.  “As you get older, you’re obsessed with your own mortality,” she says.  “Every day you get up is a blessing, but the cycles of health and sickness chew your mind up.  So how do you deal?  How do you stop yourself from thinking that way?”

Her boss calls to her again, but she’s still looking at me, waiting for an answer.  “I don’t know,” I say.

“You have to keep moving.  Making plans, having interests, whatever they are,” she says.  “As long as you feel good, it is good.” 

Her boss comes by and we talk moccasins and the semi-precious stones in the rows behind me.  I walk around the shop, inspecting the leather and prints of Native American pastorals.  The customers leave, and Cherie and I talk about computers and the internet for a few minutes.  I buy postcards with aerial views of Quartzsite’s change through the seasons.

I drive around town, walking through the empty spaces where vendors and RVers will be in six months.  There are hundreds of storage sheds and vehicles strewn across the desert, and although I search desperately for a place to take pictures, it is too flat to get perspective on anything.  When I reach the mountains on the south side of town, the trailers and storage sheds have faded, as has the sun.  I tape the postcards to the dash and head back to town.

I cross the Easterly overpass and see the naked bookseller biking home with a three-wheeled dingy in tow.  He told me five years, as did Cherie and Carol.  They would be out in five years or less.  The Wal-Mart would open a half hour away in Parker the next week, but jobs and owning a home would still be tough for full-time residents.  They would miss the summer solitude and the winter excitement, but they would have to leave.

I stop at a community park on the east side of town, where kids play basketball in the dusky frame of two decommissioned fighter jets.  I try unsuccessfully to determine the kids’ ethnicity, then stare at the sand and sky beyond.  Mesquite trees and a sprinkling of black and amber rocks foreground the last flickers of a crimson glaze with magenta accents. 

At some point, life becomes about space.  Controlling it, negotiating it, with others and yourself.  I thought that’s why my grandfather came here, and I assumed that if I could encounter that space on its own, I could grasp it.  Like a school or a ski lodge in the summer, I wanted to walk through vast, echoing chambers and build a personal relationship with the landscape.  But Quartzsite’s winter grid of white rectangles, neatly plotted along a crossroads, reveals a random succession of atomized clusters in the summer.  Like many Southwestern cities, its sprawling, indeterminate borders leave inhabitants drifting between points on a map.  And in the summer, the desert cannot be owned or stripped to its roots, for that is when it’s most alive. 

Before Quartzsite, my grandfather took few vacations, but when he did, he worked.  A survivor of the Depression, he went on vacation to see someone, to do something.  And during a Quartzsite winter, everyone was always doing something.  Moving to it or from it.  Touching, buying, using an infinite number of products, leaving little time for anything else.  The town and some of its vendors had an artistic background, and my grandfather’s third wife fashioned herself as a beadmaker and crotchetier (in the 1990s, another story), but creativity was never essential to their identity.  It was an accoutrement, a flattery, but the primary ethic was still work.

Idealised Travel

I wake up in my car to a full moon, lighting the backboards and jets into a 3-D trapezoid.  I walk outside to take pictures of the stars, but my camera’s batteries are dead.  I smell the air, but I can’t distinguish one element from another.  I think about going to Burning Man, and what I’ve heard about the art, the free love, and the archetypal transformation through ritualized self-expression.  And then I think about going to Vegas, checking in under a fake name, and spending the same amount of money on a hooker and a room with VH1 Classic.  And then my mind spins.  I wonder what the purpose of travel is, and if it has an ethic.  The intense, printless stimulation of a Burning Man; the easy, collapsible community of a Quartzsite; the restorative alt-reality of an island massage: what do I get from it, and what’s the difference?

In December 2003, my grandfather was arrested in Arizona for driving on the wrong side of I-10.  It was 3 a.m., and he had two loaded pistols under the front seat.  My family sold the trailer and drove him back to the Northwest, where he struggled with increasing dementia and heart problems.  His wife left him, and he moved back in with family before passing away in November 2004.

When I was younger, traveling and writing used to be heroic, idealized pursuits that led to a teleological end, but as I get older, they are primarily a vehicle to let my mind wander.  To collect images and sensations and reflect on them, occasionally thinking up something new, without the demands to make sense of it all.  I don’t know that my grandfather came here to negotiate space, nor to cope with his mortality.  That sounds more like me.  Maybe he just liked the weather, or maybe he just liked being around people his own age.  Beyond that, I’m trying too hard to resolve him, which is the last thing I want.  Because whatever joy comes from what passes as illumination, from piecing together a life or a world, also comes with a dose of terror.  And in the desert, or at least in Quartzsite, the only palliative is motion.

When it’s light out, I drive to a gas station and load up on potato chips, donuts, and candy bars.  A group of tweaking teens stare at me with pink eyes, and a man with a cane strikes up a political conversation.  He criticizes the president, then praises him, all the time trying to fish out an opinion from me.  After a few casts, I realize he doesn’t care about politics, and we grab a bench together.  We talk about Quartzsite, his past, and the weather.

As I wolf down my second maple bar, I daydream about Indian Fry Bread.  A flat, deep-fried disc that was made from scratch at the large swap meets in Quartzsite, my grandfather would buy me a plate every afternoon.  Crisp on the rim and doughy in the middle, it was soft enough to tear with your fingers.  I piled it high with powdered sugar and honey, and then cajoled another family member into buying me two or three more before a gorging that inevitably knotted my stomach.

An hour later, as the temperature nears 100, the man with the cane asks, “Have you been here in the winter?”

“Yes,” I say, “a few times.”

“There’s nothing like it,” he says, “Nothing on earth.”  He puts on his hat and makes bold movements to indicate he is going somewhere.  “But the summer, it’s not so great.” 

“It’s tragic,” I whisper.  Then a little louder, “I love it.”

“Well in that case, you should go hiking,” he says.  “Go see some of these old mines around here.  Just bring lots of water.”

“No, not this time,” I say.  “One day of this heat is enough for now.” 

We shake hands, and I drive up the overpass and down the on-ramp.  I catch one last glimpse out the window, remove the postcards from the dash, and fiddle with the radio.

Ben Hill