The normal population of Quartzsite? About 3,354.
The current population? Well over 50,000.
Turn off at any one of those exits and you are instantly in a monster traffic jam. Think Wilshire Boulevard at 5PM.
This is what happens, every year, when thousands of snow birds descend on Quartzsite to "boondock"--- park in the desert, free, without benefit of water, power, or sewer connections. Some are here for the desert air. Some are here for the annual rock and mineral show. Some are here for the annual RV show. Some are here to live cheap.
And there are moments when it seems everyone is here simply to wait in line at McDonald's. It, Circle K, and Exxon have the largest buildings in this town. Surrounded by tents and temporary structures with signs and flags snapping in the desert wind, they acquire an institutional quality, as though they were the Versailles, Smithsonian, and Metropolitan Museum of Quartzsite.
Which they are.
This--- barreling toward us faster than you can say "Boomer"--- is the future. Think "Mad Max: The Later Years." Think about life in a community where there are two primary hair colors: gray and white.
This is leisure time as an extreme sport, thousands of early and late retirees milling around. Some of them are, literally, buying rocks.
Few notice an innocent sign on the wall at the Pow-Wow Gem and Mineral Show building. It says: "Dance at your own risk."
On the south side of town an enormous tent houses the RV show. The tent itself is surrounded by concentric rings of equipment, food, and clothing vendors, then hundreds of RVs. I spend a day walking this show, looking at hitches, transmission gear, multiple brands of holding tank cleaner that assure permanent elimination of holding tank odor, the current generation of the venerable Veg-O-Matic, magnetic bracelets to vanquish pain, foot massage equipment, portable generators, power inverters, solar panels, and accessories of all kinds.
I defer my opportunity to join the American Association for Nude Recreation but collect brochures on RV parks in Canada, on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, and RV resorts in California and Arizona.
All kinds of music are represented here: I mean, Country AND Western. One trailer offers visits from "Almost Willie," otherwise known as Tom Lawford, America's No. 1 Willie Nelson impersonator.
A day later I weave through the boondockers. I stop where an older couple is tinkering with the battery and windmill on their Coachman fifth wheel. His name is Harold E. Williams and he is from Gladstone, Illinois. He is asking his wife, Evelyn, to hold a rope that will allow him to put the windmill back in place.
"Usually it will deliver enough to keep the battery charged--- about 25 amps in a 25 mile per hour wind," he tells me.
"But I think our battery isn't taking the charge."
I ask how long they can stay out in the desert.
"We've been here about two weeks," she tells me. "We can stay about that long, sometimes a little longer."
I ask where they usually live.
"I've been retired for 10 years," Evelyn tells me, "But I'm an RN, so I still go in and do some work when I'm needed. We have to get back to the farm by spring, but we spend about three months a year between California and Arizona." They've stayed in nearby Blythe and Casa Grande but they've also been as far afield as Baja.
Harold, who was born in 1929, still works the farm, which is about 200 acres.
I ask how they chose their RV.
"Well, we have to have a truck for the farm, so the fifth wheel choice was the logical thing," Harold explained.
Will they ever spend more time on the road?
"Probably not. We like the farm and don't want to leave it. But we've met a lot of people who are going full time because the taxes (on their homes) are so high," he said.
Does this mean the RV lifestyle is a way to reduce expenses?
It's certainly possible. Not far from Harold and Evelyn I come across an Airstream flying an American and a Texas flag. The owners aren't there, so I can't ask if they homestead in Texas, with no state income tax, and wander at will from their post office box. Add a cell phone, a Yahoo e-mail address, and you can be at large in America with an investment of $40,000, possibly less, for a used tow vehicle and trailer.
Then again, this is America, Land of the Infinite Upgrade. We now produce RV buses so luxurious I can only think of the famous J.P.Morgan quote about the cost of yachts: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."
On the web: Scott Burns: Living Lite column series
Scott Burns: Investing in an RV lifestyle
The Quartzsite RV Show
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