What destination attracts more than 1 million recreation vehicle owners to the desert like lemmings to the sea? Quartzsite, Ariz.
Farm Forum reported that they go for the endless flea markets, gem and crafts fairs, the Big Tent RV show, mild temperatures, dazzling mountain vistas, and cheap rent.
Over the past four decades, Quartzsite — a former gold mining town in the Mohave Desert — has evolved into the unofficial RV snowbird capital of the southwest. It sits at the crossroads of Interstate 10 and U.S. 95, about 125 miles west of Phoenix and 17 miles east of the Colorado River.
During the winter months Quartzsite, with a little over 3,000 souls, swells temporarily to the third largest city in Arizona when tens of thousands of RVers roll into the area and camp at local RV parks or in adjacent Bureau of Land Management long-term visitor areas.
“People around town estimate there are about one million winter visitors,” said Kym Scott, president of Tyson Wells Enterprises. “The surge of RVers is a very welcomed sight because snowbirds account for 80% of the town’s business.”
Scott calculates that during January, more than 300,000 visitors shop the 860 stalls at the Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama. Shoppers can find jewelry, gems, tools, animal hides, clothing, furniture, art, crafts, antiques, and an amazing diversity of rocks and minerals at bargain prices.
According to Farm Forum, another major draw each year is the Big Tent Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV Show that takes place each January. The RV show, billed as “the largest gathering of its kind in the world,” showcases hundreds of recreation vehicles, features more than 300 RV-related vendors, and boasts an estimated 150,000 potential buyers.
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Every winter, vendors descend on Quartzsite, Ariz., located in a remote patch of western Arizona desert. Right behind is a flock of RVs filled with retirees looking for a warm winter and good deals.
For the past few years the selling and buying has been a little subdued because of the down economy.
But Mayor Ed Foster said this year, with the Great Recession officially over, the town is seeing a reversal, the Sierra Vista Herald reported.
“All the early indicators are that we are ahead this season,” Foster said.
Roughly 400,000 winter visitors come to camp around Quartzite, and around a million will pass through to shop at its dozen swap meets, Foster said.
By February, RVs will cover the desert for 10 miles in every direction — filled with customers for what’s billed as the world’s largest swap meet.
So far this fall, street traffic, vendor and visitor permits and event attendance have been high — all positive signs for the winter to come, Foster said.
First-time vendor Jean Allen said she’s optimistic that snowbirds will flock here in even larger numbers this year, buying her booth’s art, decorative boxes and homemade hula hoops.
“It makes me nervous; I have no idea what to expect with the economy,” Allen said, “But we were going to come anyway.”
Before making the trip, Allen said she received advice saying that having a variety of products and the right pricing are key to good business at the swap meets.
Larry Muhlhauser, a vendor who has come to sell his wares every winter for a decade, said he expects a good season, but mainly from knowing what to provide cash-strapped customers rather than a rebounding economy.
Muhlhauser once sold gold, but dropped it and gravitated toward lower-dollar items such as key chains and earrings because that’s where the market shifted.
“We have to reinvent ourselves as vendors and try to meet what they can afford,” he said.
Since the majority of his customers are retired vacationers, Muhlhauser said expensive and big-ticket items no longer sell. In past years, he said, vendors tried to sell imported stained glass and jukeboxes, but had little success with people living out of their RVs, he said.
Muhlhauser said vendors will be fine even if this year’s crowd isn’t as large as hoped.
“It’s kind of a hit and miss — a dance,” he said, “You know, if you miss it this year, you look forward to next year.”
Editor’s Note: Jonathan Thompson, editor of High Country News, filed this editorial today (March 15) about articles in the current issue of the magazine, written “for people who care about the West.”
At High Country News, we think a lot about that overused but still relevant term, “a sense of place.” I don’t know exactly what it means, either. But I think it involves knowing that we’re here, rather than, well, over there. And that we understand at least some of the characteristics that make this place — the West — different from other places.
John Daniel’s well-wrought essay in this issue cuts right to the heart of the sense-of-place matter. Daniel talks of the almost primordial pull of the West — a pull that comes from particular elements of the region, its plants, its soil, its rocks and rivers and overarching skies. Whatever it is, we’ve all felt it.
Then there’s Nate Berg’s cover story. He, too, writes about place — Quartzsite, Ariz. — a barren spot in the Southwestern desert that has become a mecca for RVers. An estimated 1 million or more RVs stop in Quartzsite each winter, with 10,000 or more staying a few months or longer. Many park in the desert, on a vast expanse of federal ground that was long ago trampled flat. There, they form a sort of community. Actually, it’s more like a small city, albeit one without infrastructure or an elected local government.
The force that draws people to Quartzsite is as strong as the one that drew John Daniel out West. The RVers return, year after year, with the intense loyalty of homeward-bound geese, driving hundreds, even thousands, of miles and spending bundles on gas. But rather than being drawn to Arizona by the ocotillos or the lizards or the way the light falls on a particular rocky crag, this giant, temporary city appears to be pulled together by the prospect of swap meets and a cheap place to camp, dump sewage and get water. That, and the impromptu community the RVers create.
In other words, they are not drawn by anything particular about this place, except for its sunny winters and the flatness that makes it perfect for parking RVs. Sure, there’s an illusion of place — the chance to live in a desert diorama, with jagged mountains in the distance, yes, but also with TVs conveniently on hand to transport you away, if you get bored. Really, this is the opposite of a sense of place — a sort of blank slate on which all these folks can create something new.
There’s something inspiring about all these strangers coming together peacefully, year after year. At Quartzsite, you don’t need to dig roots to enjoy them; if the “community” doesn’t suit you, just gas up and go. But it’s also a bit creepy, this idea that place really doesn’t matter.
Berg talks about an academic who flies over Quartzsite’s “boondocks” and sees the mirror image of a real city. More and more, we mirror the RVers societally, as well. We specialize in living without commitment: “Hooking up” has many connotations. We live in cities and towns that may have been settled in a particular place for a reason — good water, good soil, a coal or mineral seam nearby. But in many cases, those original reasons were long ago paved over or sucked dry or just forgotten. Our chain stores and strip malls could be anywhere. We revel in our placelessness, working on Wall Street from a home office on the outskirts of Aspen. We are at home everywhere now. Everywhere, that is, except for where we are — where the trees take root, the rivers flow, the sun hits the earth in that certain way.
Editor’s Note: The following story was taken from RVing Quartzsite, a blog writeen by Russ and Tina De Maris from Quartzsite, Ariz, a popular winter destination for winter RVers and site of a major RV industry show each January.
An unprecedented winter storm smashed its way through Quartzsite Monday night (Dec. 7), leaving a mass of twisted metal – and for some – broken dreams.
While winds during the afternoon had been gusty, a little after 8 p.m., the strong wind took on a new vengeance as a storm cell moved into the area, bringing thunder, lightening, rain, hail, and high winds from the due south. While the rain did close a few low-lying roads, the real damage visited came from the terrific gusts. At this writing, official Weather Service figures are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence would suggest extremely strong gusts blew through.
A drive-through of the town and Long Term Visitor areas to the south of town seems to indicate the worst damages were sustained by vendors. Plenty of bent metal and blown away tarps met the eye this morning as folks worked to mop up damage. One winter vendor, a book sales operation near the main Post Office, lost their entire canopy, and the wind-blasted rain simply finished up her complete stock of books. She and friends were working to figure out how to carry off the damaged goods to the area landfill.
Some RVers who failed to furl their awnings prior to the storm found they had to work to cut themselves out of their rigs, when awnings crashed, blocking doors, and making for insurance claims. At the LaPosa South Long Term Visitor Area, where the popular Tuesday “Jam Sessions” are held, one of the regulars will have plenty to dig out from under. Regulars who found shade under his large “porch” area will find it no more–the winds bending its metal pole legs like clay.
Quartzsite may count itself fortunate: At one point television viewers in nearby Blythe, California were startled when their programing was interrupted by an Emergency Broadcast System message, posting a “tornado watch” for an area 10 miles west of Quartzsite. No word yet on weather a twister actually materialized.
Tuesday morning found Quartzsite cellular phone service spotty or down; this writing team couldn’t raise the Internet. It cause was soon found: The Internet satellite dish, which had survived many other wind blasts, was found “sleeping” on the job, it’s ground anchor system broken like a matchstick.