Off the Road

Leo W. Banks last wrote for the magazine about a Catholic priest who broadcasts a radio show on the Navajos.

No one could invent Quartzsite, Ariz. It's a mile or so beyond imagining.

Picture a forlorn desert town of about 3,500 souls, a crossroads of trailers, dust, wind and a heartless summer sun blazing down at 110 degrees. With just a handful of tall trees, the only shade is under your hat. Now fast-forward past the cruel season into November and December, and watch as this southwest Arizona community--at the junction of Highway 95 and Interstate 10, 130 miles west of Phoenix--transforms into a temporary Shangri-La for retirees fleeing the northern cold. Most come in giant RVs to claim a spot at one of 73 RV parks or one of the sprawling Bureau of Land Management campgrounds. And what a sight these motorized Conestogas make, thousands and thousands of them sparkling in the sun for as far as you can see.

"Following the Weather Channel is everybody's favorite hobby," says Steve Hardies of Hardies Beads & Jewelry, a Main Street business. "When snow starts flying up north, we know they'll be here soon."

Suddenly, or so it seems, Quartzsite--on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago--has become the place to be, hip if you liked Ike, a kind of blue-collar Palm Springs with American flags flying everywhere and seniors hitting the bustling swap meets and dancing past 9 p.m. to the country songs of Conway Twitty and Dottie West. Their median age is 66.5.

"We're all old folks and just a little bit kinder and gentler," says Ken White, a former Oregon apple grower. "These are the good people of America here in Quartzsite."

How big is the winter surge? A conservative estimate puts the number of visitor nights--one visitor staying one night--at a little more than 2 million a year, according to Richard Kuczek, economic development director for the Western Arizona Economic Development District. The majority of visitor nights--1.5 million--come during the January-February peak. "Think of it this way," Kuczek says. "Sedona gets 4.5 million visitor nights a year, Quartzsite a little over 2 million. That's an awful lot for a small community. Usually you don't think of Sedona and Quartzsite in the same class, yet they both attract in the millions."

Five or so months after arriving, at the first whiff of 100-degree weather, the snowbirds start their engines and head back to Minnesota, Iowa, Canada and elsewhere, handing Quartzsite back to the scorpions and those brave enough to live here year-round.

Certainly nothing else in the state, and perhaps the West, matches this grand migration of white-haired wanderers, freed from life's usual constraints. Think of them as latter-day Jack Kerouacs, post-work, post-kids and still on the road, playing, discovering and getting their kicks while knocking around the desert in shorts and ball caps in the dead of winter. They drop out, a notion given full voice in Kerouac's classic 1957 novel, "On the Road." He wrote of beatniks, of course, not snowbirds, but if you add 50 years, some grandchildren and a Social Security check, most of the differences melt away. After all, they share the same way of being, of doing whatever the day brings.

While not necessarily intentional, their annual presence is a testament not only to the seductive madness of the desert, but also to the enduring values of graying Beat Generation America: the tireless pursuit of freedom, the profound respect for the individual and the knack for creating community--even if that community gathers for a few months a year in what, essentially, is a giant sun-scorched RV park.

This corner of the Mojave Desert, 880 feet above sea level, forms a tabletop that rolls out over miles of cactus, sage, sand and rock. Jagged mountains frame the horizons in modest glory. They're not overly tall, these peaks, but they're pretty in their way, especially when the winter sunset blankets them in heartbreaking lavender.

Hard as it is to imagine, settlers did come here. Charles Tyson, one of the first, built a fort in 1856 that became Tyson's Well, a stage station between Ehrenberg and Prescott, Ariz. The first post office was established at Tyson's Well in 1893, lasting three years. Another opened in 1896, when the settlement became Quartzsite.

The town experienced bouts of gold fever in the 1900s, although none of its mini-booms played for long. While gold has been the marquee mineral, the area grew up around abundant, lesser-known rocks--quartz crystals, agates, jaspers, rubies and others. Most peg modern Quartzsite's beginning to February 1967, when the Quartzsite Improvement Assn., a local nonprofit, held its first Pow Wow gem and mineral show. Eight exhibitors set up inside the school, with about 20 more selling from tailgates in the parking lot. They drew about 1,000 people during three days.

By the second show in 1968, with help from well-off donors, the improvement association had four acres of its own land and a building, says Ken White, the group's current president. Almost every show since then has been bigger than the one before. This year's Pow Wow, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday, will feature about 500 vendors, making it one of the largest rock and gem shows in one location in the U.S. But the Pow Wow is just one of nine major gem and mineral shows in Quartzsite, along with 15 swap meets selling everything imaginable, and some things that aren't. Antler carvings, anyone?

These events grew from folks throwing up tents and tables and saying, "Let's see if anybody shows up." Year after year, they did.

"Before that first show, our population was down to around 50, and a few prospectors in the mountains," says Colleen Gallus, a Quartzsite Historical Society docent. "It was the rock hounders that saved this town."

Quartzsite still has the soul of a western gold camp, and the characters to prove it. "Remember what Saddam Hussein looked like when he came out of that spider hole?" asks Ed Jaakola, the chief of police. "He could walk down Main Street looking like that and fit right in."

Maybe that's not surprising for a town with a bookstore remarkable mostly for the nudity of its owner. Reader's Oasis owner Paul Winer goes about his year-round business wearing a thong, matching socks, turquoise jewelry and a Western hat. Customers come and go from his 80,000-title shop, the main portion consisting of a cement slab covered with a tent. First-timers are easy to spot. They do a Jackie Gleason double take, then either beat it back to their cars or elbow their spouse and stick around, often having their pictures taken beside Winer. He poses for about 2,800 a year.

As he puffs his morning pipe, the well-tanned bookseller explains that 80% of his clientele is on wheels, many of them truckers who consider Reader's Oasis their local bookstore. They pull off the freeway to buy gas, usually cheaper in Quartzsite than in California, then snag an armload of books. "Truckers are big readers, especially thrillers and Westerns," Winer says. "Some are into a lot of unusual political stuff, too." Puff, puff. "You get a lot of oddballs off the highway."

Wide-open living has long been part of Quartzsite's allure. For retired Pennsylvania dairy farmer Jeanelle McKuhn and pal Cathy Wilson, a retired quality engineer from Torrance, that means rising at the first suspicion of dawn and digging for gold in the washes of the Dome Rock Mountains. They've gotten good at scaring up nuggets. But luck helps.

"I got one the first year I went out," McKuhn says. "I had a metal detector in one hand and a book on how to use it in the other, and the darn thing went off. I found three nuggets that day."

Their camp--side-by-side trailers with a dropcloth and chairs in between for visiting--sits against a dry wash at La Posa West campground. It hardly seems a wild place, although McKuhn recently found a rattlesnake under her camper stairs. It had a lump in its belly, probably an undigested mouse, so it had no mind to fight. She trapped it in a pail and turned it loose.

When not herding venomous critters and hunting gold, the women relish the desert stillness, content to let modern life howl on without them. Oklahoman Delphia Carson understands that. She loves taking long walks in the desert and reading books, and when she hungers for human sound, she attends music jams, a popular town pastime. At her campground they're held every Tuesday afternoon. Residents gather at a place dubbed "retirement cove" to play guitars, accordions and spoons. "I love to sing, but couldn't carry a tune with a bucket," Carson says. "But it doesn't matter. I've made friends from all over the country."

At the moment, she's volunteering at La Posa South, one of four long-term campgrounds, which together total 11,500 acres. It's a slow morning, giving Carson and fellow volunteer Carolyn Wilber time to talk--about Wilber's arthritis, much better now that she's in the desert, and Carson's medications. Like many snowbirds, Carson sometimes travels to Algodones, Mexico, about 80 miles southwest, to get her medications.

But usually they talk about their RVs. "We're boondockers," says Wilber, of Stanwood, Mich. "That means we live in the desert. [But] our RV is self-contained--water, power, the works."

The former custodian boards her ATV and, with her hair flying, zooms along a desert trail to her campsite. Husband Jack arrives in a dune buggy a moment later. No Boy Scout pup-tenter would recognize this winter camp. The Wilbers live in a 37-foot camper pulled by an RV hauler, the power coming primarily from a dozen 64-watt solar panels. If the wind blows, they get an added boost from a 35-foot wind tower, and a gas generator helps keep 110-volt power flowing to the camper at all times. They have TV, a microwave and satellite Internet.

There are two 100-gallon tanks, and their fill-up cost is usually more than $400. As Carolyn explains, however, once they reach Quartzsite they hardly move the camper, using their ATV to dump sewage and resupply with water and fuel. To hold to their budget, they buy gas in installments, a little each month. "By the time we're ready to leave in April," Carolyn says, "the tanks are full again." With the sun setting and the coyotes starting their nightly wailing, bearded, barrel-chested Jack throws his arms out at the camp he has created and says, "You can't beat this. Everything we had back home is right here. Now home is where we stop."

Typically, someone might be living underneath a simple camper shell, or even in a tent just a few spaces away. The latter are called "bush bunnies." "Nobody pays attention to what you have," says Minnesotan Jan Waytashek. "In a tent or a $500,000 RV, they're both happy."

Waytashek and her husband often build bonfires at night. The blaze throws a yellow glow over the desert, and it becomes a beacon. Before long, footsteps sound and through the brush comes one neighbor carrying a chair, then others, and pretty soon the night is alive with voices. No radio, no TV. Just folks talking.

Visitors still strut around Quartzsite in cowboy hats, sometimes with hog knives on their belts. But when Jean Barney, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, talks of Quartzsite as a frontier, she's referring mainly to the lack of amenities, such as a pharmacy or hospital--big problems in a community that has more senior residents than most.

Quartzsite has three medical centers, but two stay open only part of the year, roughly October through March. The third, La Paz Medical Center, staffed by physician's assistants and run by the La Paz Regional Hospital in Parker, Ariz., is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, including summer. But they're all essentially doctors' offices, without emergency rooms or surgical facilities.

Town officials also bemoan the area's lack of a trauma center. Police Chief Jaakola cites an average of one I-10 rollover per day between the California border and milepost 30, sometimes requiring injured motorists to be helicoptered out to hospitals in Blythe, Calif., and Parker or a Level One trauma center in Phoenix. "If you have a rollover or a heart attack here, your chances of making it aren't that good," Jaakola says. "They talk about the 'golden hour' to receive treatment, but it's hard to do."

The winter population boom creates other problems. During January and February, Quartzsite's B-10 Business Loop, or Main Street, gets so clogged that it can take more than an hour to go two miles. It's being widened now, from two to five lanes, with curbs and sidewalks on both sides. But long lines--at restaurants, gas stations and elsewhere--have become a Quartzsite tradition. As one wag cracks, "Think of the Super Bowl with one outhouse." Postmaster Diane Torres says the mail volume peaked in late December 2003, when her small staff sorted 191,000 pieces of mail by hand in one week.

As for law enforcement, Jaakola says Quartzsite also attracts drifters who live in the desert and steal, panhandle and sometimes cook methamphetamine. At any time in the winter, the department's 10 officers (including Jaakola) might be policing 100,000 people. "I'm terrified one of my people is going to get hurt," the chief says. "We're almost in survival mode here."

Problems in Quartzsite and the outlying desert areas often show up after the snowbirds depart. Some leave behind tires, car batteries, even couches; they illegally use vegetation for firewood, and dump black water, or sewage, from their RVs in the desert, according to Mark Lowans, outdoor recreation team lead for the Bureau of Land Management's Yuma Field Office. "Ninety-nine percent of people play by the rules, but in our business we talk about the one-percenters," Lowans says. "During the rock and gem and mineral shows there are lots of one-percenters, because there are so many people."

But Quartzsite is working hard to move away from its image as "a town on wheels," as Mayor Verlyn Michel calls it. He says incorporating in 1989 was the first step, allowing the formation of fire and school districts. With its own police, the town no longer relies on the La Paz County Sheriff's Office, headquartered in Parker 35 miles away, and the city is installing a sewer system, more than half complete. The town also is negotiating with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire land on both sides of Highway 95, which could eventually double its size to 72 square miles. Michel says this will allow Quartzsite to tap into the Colorado River aquifer, supplementing water now drawn from two town wells. A third well is being drilled.

Too much growth? "Not until we run out of desert," says businessman Steve Hardies, who likes the newly paved roads and other signs of stability.

Adds Michel: "If we didn't grow we'd still be sitting on tailgates selling rocks."

The tailgate image is apt, because that was how folks here got their kicks back then. They're still doing it, but in different ways, in different places. Barney calls it finding your passion, a quest that helped her pull through a difficult period after her children left home. She'd lost the thing that moved her every day--caring for them--and kept asking, "What now?"

She envied her youngest son, a musician, for having an activity that filled him up. That changed when she came to Quartzsite and began making jewelry. "That's what people have always done here, find their passion," she says. "It's a wonderful thing. We even have a Quartzsite Clowns club, where some members grew up wanting to be a clown, and now they're doing it."

The power of that idea, passion writ large, comes alive twice a week when Gil and Erma Prier, the Westernaires, perform old-fashioned country songs at the Quartzsite Improvement Assn.'s 13,000-square-foot dance hall. On this particular Wednesday, Erma promises something special. "You're not going to believe this," says the veteran performer, who began singing in California in the late 1940s. "Some of these people are 90 years old and they dance every dance. It doesn't matter what we play, even jitterbugs."

The sign on the wall--"Dance At Your Own Risk"--doesn't exactly promise excitement, but when the Westernaires break into song--Gil strumming the fiddle, Erma working the keyboard--the crowd bounces to its feet. The energy hits Barbara and Darwin Burnett of Bozeman, Mont., both 75, like a potion. "Once in a while you feel ho-hum, then the music starts and lifts your spirits," Barbara says. "There's so much electricity in the room I just get up and go. It makes me feel young, like when I was dancing in college. I like that feeling."

There's another feeling in Quartzsite, hard to define, but everyone recognizes it--the sense that this place frees them from the constraints of day-to-day life, and there's a better-than-even shot that they will do things they never would back home. Which explains the allure of the Red Hat Society for women, a national fad that has mushroomed in Quartzsite. Members ride buses to casinos in Nevada or gather for long lunches wearing over-the-top red hats, tacky beads from a local swap meet and maybe white gloves to go with their purple shirts. None of it matches, but that's the point. It's pure silliness, says Betty Jaques, a 64-year-old Oklahoman, co-founder of a local Red Hat chapter. But its real significance is more profound.

"For me and a lot of these ladies, we've been caretakers all our lives, looking after kids, grandparents and parents," says Jaques, who married at 15 and had four children. "And you know what? Now it's our turn to step out and have fun. Like most of us, my family is back home, so there's no one to embarrass if I do something a little off."

Like showering in the desert, say? After a sweaty morning spent digging for gold, McKuhn and Wilson sometimes fetch 1-gallon water jugs from their pickup and bathe, right there under the big, blue sky.

It's a kick Kerouac would surely understand.

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