By Chuck Woodbury
I am camped about four miles north of Quartzsite, Arizona, on government land where camping is free. A few dozen other RVs are scattered about, but none within a stone’s throw.
To get my campsite, I turned off the road into the Hi Jolly Short Term Visitation Area and drove around until I found a plot of dusty earth that suited me. I can stay here for up to two weeks for $40, and then I must move away to another spot, or go up the road and pay the government $180 and stay for up to 7 months. Or if you want, just drive a few miles and drop your anchor and stay for free for two weeks on wide-open, no-frills government land!
For months now, I have been dreaming of Quartzsite. Those of you who know this place must think that I’m off my rocker, for Quartzsite is hardly a top tourist destination. Even though 3,000 folks live here year round, there is hardly a blade of grass in sight and no apparent building codes. Instead, there are small homes and mobile homes, and official and unofficial flea markets everywhere offering new and used merchandise of all kinds. A new housing development, chain motel and giant gas/station mini-mart are latecomers and probably a sign of more growth to come.
Quartzsite is famous for its mild winter temperatures, when it’s the scene of giant gem and mineral shows, flea markets galore and, in January, a huge RV show. Literally hundreds of thousands of people show up in January and February, most “boondocking” on public lands. In town, about 50 RV parks offer full hookup sites for half price what you’d pay in Yuma or Phoenix. Retirees, many living on Social Security, hole up until it gets too hot, and then move on, to return next year.
In prime time, Quartzsite is Ground Zero for winter snowbirds, who come to soak up sun (and lots of dust in the process), hunt for bargains at the flea markets, search for precious rocks and gems in the desert, and mingle with more RVers that you will ever see gathered in one place at one time anywhere else in America.
I like Quartzsite because it is so different from where in live near Seattle. There, it’s perpetual green. Here, it’s perpetual brown. That might sound ugly, but to me it’s a wonderful change of scenery.
But, boy, is it fun to visit Quartzsite and just roam around. You can stay a week and not see everything. With its tacky, circus-like atmosphere, Quartzsite is a visual smorgasbord of people, places and things. ATV folks can roam the countryside. Many do it with friends and have a great time.
My dream of coming to Quartzsite and Arizona, itself, is to be in the magnificent Mojave and Sonoran deserts with the dry air, warm winter days and abundant sunshine. And it is all here, and for this reason alone, I am happy to be in Quartzsite, where in the front yard of one home a sign proclaims Welcome to Camelot.
And I suppose it is Camelot to a lot of folks. In an annual tourist guide, a visiting snowbird couple wrote, “Friends told us we’d love Quartzsite and they were more than right. We told other friends, they told others, and now there are 16 of us who come down to meet here and camp together for the winter. This is more fun than anyone could expect anywhere.”
Yesterday evening in the dark and lonely desert, a couple in a spacious fifth wheel trailer about 40 yards from me sat by their campfire under a star-drenched sky, talking quietly and enjoying the warm air and the solitude — not a bad life, I thought.
I suppose to a lot of people that’s what Quartzsite is all about.