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. Vendors followed, holding the first Quartzsite Pow Wow in 1967. 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, 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.
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.